Richard North, 06/08/2021  

It's a while since I've written about energy policy on this blog and, in particular, about nuclear power and the provision of small modular reactors (SMRs), more commonly known as "mini-nukes".

I note, however, that I was writing about the issue as earlier as 2004, not very long after the EUReferendum blog was established. At that time, I was especially interested in pebble bed technology which I followed for some time. The idea of mass-produced nuclear reactors was by then beginning to be established.

The term "small modular reactor" I came across in 2010, when I wrote - amongst other things – about the "Next Generation Nuclear Plant program" in the United States, and developments in Russia. In the latter example, we saw the KLT-40S reactor designed for their fleet of icebreakers being adapted as a 150 MW unit producing 35 MW of electricity (gross) and up to 35 MW of heat for desalination or district heating. mounted on a 20,000 ton barge for use at suitable locations.

I also introduced a US project under development known as the "Hyperion Power Module", a 25 MW unit measuring five feet by seven, easily portable with no moving parts. It was intended to supply electricity for 7-10 years without refuelling, before being replaced. At the time, the intended manufacturers claimed they would be able to deliver units from 2013 onwards at a price of $50 million.

In the list of countries with projects in hand, however, one notable omission was the UK. But I wrote on the theme in October 2012, advocating a network of "mini-nukes" with one for every [major] industrial estate in the country.

Booker picked up the theme in his column in 2013 and the idea of factory-built nuclear reactors was then rehearsed in 2014, in The Times. On offer was the prospect of small reactors built 20 miles from cities as an alternative to erecting thousands more wind turbines.

By 2019, I was writing in the Mail on Sunday, noting that Rolls-Royce – builder of power plants for Britain's nuclear submarines – was developing "mini-nukes", factory-built plants based on their nuclear submarine experience, which could be installed close to the areas of demand.

In fact, the initiative had been launched in November 2015, with the investment of £250 million, and plans were well advanced by July 2017, when Rolls-Royce published this pamphlet. Later that year, a consortium of companies led by Rolls-Royce was talking to government about public finding of an SMR programme.

Things did not progress well, though. By July 2018, Rolls-Royce was threatening to close the programme down unless government made a long-term commitment to the technology, including financial support.

David Orr, executive vice-president of the Rolls-Royce programme, said that without comfort from the government on two fronts the project "will not fly". He added: "We are coming to crunch time".

Such was the tardy response, though, that it was not until September 2019 that the consortium at last secured £18 million for "Phase 1" development, to be matched by industry funding. This was to be followed by "Phase 2" with the government injecting £500 million, again matched by industry.

With that, the project started to pick up speed – if "speed" was the right word. By January 2020, Roll-Royce was predicting that its reactors could be producing power by the end of the decade, with costs comparable with renewables such as offshore wind.

Plans had firmed up by the end of the year, with Rolls-Royce announcing a programme of 16 plants. Each would produce 440 MW - roughly enough to power Sheffield – at a unit cost of about £2 billion.

Now entering the fray is the Telegraph which, a few days ago, told us that the Rolls-Royce-led consortium had secured at least £210 million in private investment, which would enable it to unlock a matching amount of taxpayer funding.

Getting the first five operating was expected to cost £2.2 billion apiece when prices were expected to fall to about £1.8 billion per plant. Although each unit will produce only one seventh of the output of mega-sites such as Hinkley Point, construction costs there have spiralled from £16 billion to £23 billion, with no end in sight. Seven SMRs will cost substantially less than Hinkley.

The bad news is that the first plant is not expected to be up and running until early 2030. Yet, six of the UK's seven nuclear reactor sites are due to go offline by 2030 and the remaining one, Sizewell B, is due for decommissioning in 2035. Currently, they account for around 20 percent of the nation's electricity generation.

This has not stopped the Telegraph rehashing its earlier story with a new report stating that nuclear reactor production could become Rolls-Royce's biggest business, dwarfing the value of its aero-engine division which has suffered badly from the Covid-19 epidemic.

Yet such optimism is of little use to the nation, when the idiot Johnson has committed the UK to banning the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, in a move that could add as much as half again to an already over-taxed electricity generation system. With gas boilers also being phased out from as early as 2025 – adding to electricity demand - he is setting us up for a series of prolonged blackouts.

Despite that, the man was in Scotland yesterday, prattling about Thatcher giving us a "big early start" when she closed down the coal mines – while pledging a "smooth and sensible transition" to green fuel during visit to offshore wind farm.

With barely any nuclear energy to provide a stable base load, and fossil fuel plants unable to take the load during those periods when renewables will provide little power, the transition is likely to be anything else than "smooth and sensible".

This man really is an idiot. If he had any sense (a huge "if"), he would be putting the SMR programme on the equivalent of a war footing, in the hope of shaving a few years off the production schedule, while abandoning his plans for the early replacement of petrol and diesel cars, and domestic boilers.

Without that, the SMR programme – encouraging as it is in the longer term – is set to be too little and too late to avoid the inevitable blackouts.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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