In his Autumn Statement of 2015, the then Chancellor, George Osborne made an announcement that surprised and enthused many; he announced that the UK was to spend up to £250 million on support to nuclear innovation, including a competition to spur the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), a novel approach to delivering nuclear generating capacity. This post describes how the UK Civil Service has killed this worthy initiative.
The announcement was greeted with an almost universally positive reaction – even the reliably anti-nuclear “Guardian” ran the story under the headline “George Osborne puts UK at the heart of global race for mini-nuclear reactors” . Initially, progress appeared good – in particular, the response from the global nuclear industry was strong, with 38 organisations submitting responses to the call for competition.
However, since then, it has become apparent that the early momentum has dissipated, little substantive progress has been made in nearly three years. It has now become clear that that there is no real possibility of a technology being taken into the nuclear certification process within timescales compatible meeting Osborne’s ambition.
What are small modular reactors, and what benefits might they bring?
Throughout the history of nuclear development, there has been an underlying assumption: that increases in unit size would bring economies of scale. This logic has developed to the point that units of up to 1750MWe are now in operation, almost three times the size of the UK’s 1970s AGR units. Increased size, however, brings challenges: larger units become harder to integrate operationally into anything but the largest grids, and if accompanied with increased complexity can make for extended and risky builds.
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