The next small thing – can the UK take the lead in nuclear innovation?
Dr Peter Walkden, Programme Director, Clean Energy
Nuclear reactors have been getting bigger. This produces greater thermal efficiency but also makes them more difficult to fabricate, construct, and finance.
The concept of the small modular reactor (or SMR) is that shortfalls in thermal efficiency can be compensated for by smarter, simpler and cheaper fabrication and factory testing, easier transportation and reduced assembly and construction time.
Nobody has yet built a fully-developed SMR. Most concept designs are in the feasibility study/development stage.
However, there is a growing consensus that by 2035 there will be a global generation market for them equivalent to about 50 Hinkley Point-style reactors. SMRs are particularly suitable for smaller sites, remote locations or for new applications such as desalination or hydrogen production.
The UK Government is willing to commit significant development funding and has launched a competition to find the best design. The nuclear industry, which sees the potential to create a new product with global potential, is responding promptly and positively.
But, as with any new product, SMRs will only succeed if they meet customers’ needs and come with a compelling business case.
The UK is likely to represent less than 10 per cent of the global demand for SMRs and a sizeable production run will be required to recover start-up and set-up costs. So third-party export sales will be vital.
Amec Foster Wheeler is actively involved with several of the entrants in the Government’s SMR competition. Our teams are working to support basis of design concepts, early stages of safety cases, plant performance, fuel route, control and instrumentation, containment building concepts and reactor designs. Over the next few years, we hope to be involved in many other aspects including the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) and the detailed analysis phases of the preferred reactor design.
We have unrivalled experience of the UK’s GDA process – the essential step of proving to the regulator’s satisfaction that nuclear technology is safe. We believe that the GDA process could be used to achieve a degree of international recognition for an SMR design. International licensing and standardisation would help create economies of scale.
The UK can add real value in the industrialisation of SMRs. As a highly complex product that would be in continuous production with annual volumes in single figures, they are in a manufacturing space where the UK has world-leading relevant experience.
Nobody has yet built a fully fledged SMR, so the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Getting an SMR design through the GDA process, tested and ready for manufacture, is expected to cost around £500m, so this is a potentially significant source of revenue for UK nuclear industry suppliers.
Moreover, it is clear that Government support is necessary if SMRs are to create significant intellectual property and jobs for UK industry as up-front investment will be required in cutting-edge fabrication, assembly and test facilities if the UK is to gain a position in this market.
Meet the blogger
Dr Peter Walkden is a Chartered Engineer and has a PhD from the University of Manchester. He has worked in the nuclear industry for over 30 years, primarily in senior commercial roles with a focus on business strategy and product development.