Government Backs Small Nuclear Reactors

Government Backs Small Nuclear Reactors: The UK government has big plans for nuclear power. While renewables have played an increasingly large role in our nation’s energy fuel mix over the past few years, the government is also taking active steps to address the UK’s ailing nuclear infrastructure. All of the currently active nuclear reactors in the UK are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2030. Indeed, issues with maintaining and repairing our existing nuclear power stations played a role in the current energy crisis. What’s more, with calmer weather leading to a reduction in wind energy, a strong case could be made for nuclear power as a solution to the current energy crisis.

Nuclear power is 100% clean energy, and with research into deriving uranium from seawater it could also be made 100% sustainable. As such, it’s easy to see why the government has recently announced not only a change to the way new nuclear plants are funded, but backed the creation of 16 small nuclear reactors proposed by a consortium of interests led by Rolls-Royce.

This £450m venture by the iconic engineering firm could provide faster, cheaper access to nuclear energy. But what does this mean for your household and its energy bills?

What are the small nuclear reactors?

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are smaller, partially-prefabricated reactors that can be used to generate electricity faster and more affordably than a full-sized nuclear power plant. This is especially beneficial to the UK’s nuclear infrastructure, as the still-under-construction Hinkley Point C nuclear station was supposed to be online by December 2017 and is now projected to go online in late 2026.

Conventional power plants are subject to huge upfront costs and long delays. However, these UK-designed small modular reactors are made with mass production methodology, so they could be up and running as early as 2030. Because the production uses a 100% British supply chain, there’s no risk of import taxes or logistics adding delays or expense to the project.

Each of these 16 modular reactors is capable of generating up to 470 megawatts of electricity per hour. That’s enough energy to power a million homes.

UK backs new small nuclear technology with £210 million

The UK government has matched Rolls Royce’s £250 million investment in these small modular reactors with a £210 million investment of its own.

Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stated that “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the UK to deploy more low carbon energy than ever before and ensure greater energy independence… Small modular reactors offer exciting opportunities to cut costs and build more quickly, ensuring we can bring clean electricity to people’s homes and cut our already-dwindling use of volatile fossil fuels even further.”

This is especially pertinent after Britain has pledged to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming to 1.5C over pre-industrial temperatures as part of COP26. This new investment in nuclear power could be a key driving factor in the UK towards its goal to reduce its environmental impact and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The government’s investment will aid in the further development and regulation of SMRs, guiding them through the Office of Nuclear Regulation generic design assessment (GDA) process.

Each SMR is expected to cost around £2 billion on average. Much lower than the equivalent price per MW of larger nuclear reactors. Hinkley Point C, for instance, was expected to cost £16bn but costs have since escalated to over £23bn.

What is Rolls-Royce’s goal?

The Rolls-Royce SMR consortium’s chief executive Tom Samson was very explicit in outlining the goals of the project. Their aim, and that of the government, is to “deliver a low cost, deployable, scalable and investable programme of new nuclear power plants”. These will be instrumental in helping the UK to meet its net-zero targets.

Because the small reactors are built with “predictable factory-built components” and well-proven technologies, the hope is to make this new method of generating nuclear power a more reliable and “investable” nuclear option.

By 2050 it is hoped that the programme will return £52 billion of value to the national economy and generate a nuclear energy export market worth £250 billion, creating 40,000 high-value jobs within ailing manufacturing communities in northern England and Wales.

Government Backs Small Nuclear Reactors

How will the small nuclear reactors work?

The smaller size of these SMRs means that they are relatively quick and easy to assemble. Pre-tested modular sections are built in dedicated factories and assembled on-site. This also means increased containment efficiency and safety.

Once assembled, they work on the principle of nuclear fission just like larger nuclear power plants. And while some SMRs are essentially scaled-down versions of a conventional power plant, others use entirely new technologies. SMR designs typically incorporate either thermal-neutron reactors or fast-neutron reactors, and it is unclear which the proposed project will use.

Why is nuclear investment important to the UK’s Net-Zero goal?

Our days of relying on fossil fuels are numbered. If the UK is to meet its ambitious target of being completely carbon-neutral by 2050 we need to reduce our reliance on coal, gas and oil to generate energy and heat our homes.

Fortunately, our growing renewable energy infrastructure is helping us on our way to achieving our goals. Not only are we the world’s leading producer of wind energy, we also have a strong solar infrastructure and can rely on hydropower to generate energy at short notice when there is a great strain on the grid. We even have green biomethane gas, which is an alternative to natural gas that is sourced from plant, animal and farm waste.

However, as proud as we should be of our renewable energy infrastructure, it is still dependent on the whims of the weather. Nuclear investment can provide us with a reliable, consistent source of clean energy to supplement rather than supplant our renewables.

The pros and cons of nuclear energy

Government Backs Small Nuclear Reactors

Like any means of generating energy, nuclear power has its pros and cons.

Advantages include:

— Reliability

— High output

— Relatively small land footprint

— Carbon-neutral

— Becoming lower-waste

Disadvantages include:

— High upfront costs

— Uranium is currently not renewable

— Malfunctions can be extremely dangerous

— The growing problem of legacy waste, as radioactivity can take thousands of years to neutralise

Carbon-free energy

Nuclear fission is a 100% carbon-neutral means of generating energy, with no greenhouse gas emissions. However, the type of uranium required for nuclear fission is fairly rare. Once we have mastered the process of harvesting uranium from seawater, nuclear power will be both carbon-free and completely renewable.

Lower bills

The current energy crisis has been created by a sharp rise in demand coupled with erratic and limited supply. An abundance of clean energy, however, could help to insulate UK households from another energy crisis. As nuclear energy becomes cheaper to produce at scale, this will inevitably lead to a reduction in energy bills.

Government Backs Small Nuclear Reactors

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