Last reviewed 29 January 2019

Why split hairs? Why spilt atoms? On the mega-scale, the UK’s promised fleet of new conventional power plant is now down to one — Hinkley Point C. But the small-scale development of Advanced Nuclear Technologies offers the potential of new export markets and a brand-new supply chain. Jon Herbert reports.

As Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron announced the complex deal with French-based EDF that was designed to see not only the development of Hinkley Point C’s giant 3.2GW nuclear power station on the Somerset coast, but also the start of a new fleet and era of modern low-carbon UK nuclear power generation.

Nearly a decade later, Toshiba’s recent decision to close down its UK nuclear contracts pretty much ends that dream — or nightmare for some. Had things gone to plan, the 3.6GW Moorside station, which was to be built in West Cumbria by the Japanese corporation’s NuGen division, would have generated some 7% of the UK’s electricity from 2024 onwards.

With the demise of NuGen and Moorside attributed to both poor joined-up policy decision-making and an unsuccessful and complicated reliance on overseas companies, if Hinkley Point C comes on stream in 2025 as planned, it could be the last project standing.

However, that is likely to be far from the end of the UK’s nuclear power story.

Commercial chain-reaction continues

With key commercial and technological breakthroughs marked by a name upgrading from Small Modular Reactors (Generation III) to the more comprehensive title of Advanced Nuclear Technologies (Generation IV), scaled-down reactors are now pushing open the door to a potentially extremely lucrative global market. Rather than involving mammoth earthmoving and construction operations spread over several years, these much smaller reactors are “manufactured” as components or modules within protected factory environments.

Equally important to many UK companies is the potential formation of a new supply chain based on specialist skills which will parallel the one put together to support the emerging UK offshore wind industry a decade or so ago.

No takers

NuGEN was originally co-owned in 2009 by Toshiba and the French business group Engie; Moorside would have been based on three new AP1000 reactors constructed at an estimated cost of between £10 billion and £15 billion depending on procurement sources. It would have supported thousands of highly-skilled jobs that the local West Cumbria economy is well able to provide and taken over naturally after 2024 from the slowly declining Sellafield complex.

Early signs of trouble were seen in January 2018 when Toshiba began to wind up its British nuclear interests in the hope of finding a preferred bidder in the Korea Electric Corporation (Kepco). But negotiations fell through. Ironically, although Toshiba expects to make a sizeable loss on its Cumbrian venture, company share value rose by 12.7% in Tokyo on the early November withdrawal announcement.

The GMB union described the Moorside collapse as “depressingly predictable” and criticised the Government for not intervening. The union is adamant that a new Cumbrian new nuclear power station is still needed for a secure UK energy future.

David and Goliath of technology

The new generation of “mini” reactors are not exactly pocket-sized and can involve components weighing in at 1000 tonnes. November’s “Commercialisation of Small Nuclear in the UK” event held at Coventry’s Manufacturing Technology Centre further cemented their position as a new business force within the UK’s modern Industrial Strategy. The aim is to take the new generation of reactors through from first concept to final construction.

To make the point, Business and Energy Minister Richard Harrington released more details about the Government’s June 2018 Nuclear Sector Deal commitments. These include development of the Advanced Manufacturing and Construction programme and Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process for small and advanced reactors by early 2019. Early expressions of interest for both were expected to start by the end of 2018. In preparation, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the UK regulators plan to hold a GDA workshop to engage with stakeholders.

By 2030, the Nuclear Sector Deal aims to cut the cost of new build projects by circa 30% and make savings of 20% in commissioning costs compared to current estimates. A further goal is to ensure that women make up at least 40% of the specialist sector workforce in the same timeframe. As already mentioned, one other key objective is to create a competitive supply chain equipped in terms of skills, experience and infrastructure to win both domestic UK and export contracts worth up to £2 billion by 2030.

Definition of small

Advanced Nuclear Technologies cover a wide range of exciting small nuclear reactor technologies designed to be fabricated indoors before being moved on site for installation. Two key advantages are a reduction in construction risks caused by factors such as weather and outdoor dangers, and a lower level of capital intensity.

The reactors come in two general types. Generation III Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are similar to existing nuclear power station reactors which entered operation in Japan in 1996 and have evolved further since. However, Generation IV Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs) use novel cooling systems and/or fuels to provide additional benefits such as industrial process heat and, crucially, a step-change down in costs.

Older generation

Generation I reactors were developed in the 1950–60; the last in the UK were closed in 2015. Generation II reactors are used extensively in the US and France. More than 85% of the world’s nuclear electricity comes from reactors of this type originally designed for naval use which have since generally proved to be safe and reliable through a dozen different designs supplied by North America, Japan, Europe, Russia and China.

Generation III uses more standardised, simplified and rugged designs to make licencing easier while cutting costs and construction time. They are convenient to operate and less vulnerable to disruption. Plant operating life is typically 60 years.

Generation IV developments involve more sophisticated solutions to problems such as core melt down. Substantial grace periods mean that typically no active intervention is needed for 72 hours after a shutdown. With contemporary history in mind, resistance to aircraft impact damage is higher. Another long-term feature is that fuel burn-up is greater and more efficient, leading to reduced waste for further processing and long-term underground geological storage.

Traditionally, reactor safety systems are active and involve electrical or mechanical systems. Now, more passive systems are used that need no operator control, such as pressure release activation, and automatic responses to convection, gravity or high temperatures.

Further support

To add to the UK’s world lead in the smaller reactor field, the Government wants to create a new support framework that brings together a number of key elements. These will include finance; the AMR R&D programme; regulatory provision; supply chain development; plus, land access and siting.

An expert working group was set up in December 2017 to advise on raising private investments for a new industry that promises lower up-front capital costs and shorter build-times. BEIS will also invest £44 million in the Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) Feasibility and Development (F&D) project. So far eight organisations have been given contracts to provide feasibility studies in Phase 1. Up to £7 million will also go to the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency to build the regulators’ capability and capacity for future licensing.

Summary

For commercial, technical and political reasons, the UK’s commitment to a fleet of large-scale new generation nuclear power stations within its secure energy mix will most probably be reduced to just the Hinkley Point C project in Somerset following Toshiba’s recent announcement that it is pulling out of its British nuclear interests in Cumbria with no potential buyer in sight.

However, as one reactor programme closes another opens, this time involving the concept of small modular reactors and advanced nuclear technologies whereby large reactor components are manufactured or fabricated off-site and then moved into place for installation.

There may be opportunity for smaller firms in the formation of a new specialist supply chain of the type seen a decade ago that allowed the UK offshore wind industry to grow rapidly, cut costs continuously and become commercially competitive.