Archive for December, 2015

Advanced nuclear initiatives in the UK

Posted by Stephen Tindale on December 18th, 2015

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently looking at the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in the UK, and the opportunities for the country to be a leader in this field. An SMR uses a series of small reactor cores, or modules, where the total reactor power output is the sum of the outputs from all of the small reactor modules. Because these reactors are modular, they can be prefabricated and easily transported, reducing many of the costs involved in construction. This means SMRs provide scale but cost less to build and can be built more quickly and easily. They are therefore a popular development in nuclear energy because of the combination of tried and tested design aspects in innovative configurations.


The techno-economic assessment, commissioned earlier this year by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, is considering a number of SMR designs, from both the UK and around the world. It is examining the benefits of these designs and how they could contribute to the UKs energy market, as well as the new industries that the development of these new reactors would support.


This comes alongside the announcement, in the Comprehensive Spending Review, of £250 million over five years dedicated to nuclear research and development, something that Weinberg Next Nuclear has been advocating. We are extremely pleased with this outcome, as these two government initiatives signal a promising commitment to advanced nuclear technologies in the UK. Although the announcement itself highlighted SMRs as a key technology development, there is clear potential for some of the £250 million to be spent on other advanced reactor designs.


This review of SMRs follows a previous feasibility study by the National Nuclear Laboratory, sponsored by the government, which indicated a clear market potential for these reactors and deployment within a ten-year timeframe. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that many of these designs could be safer because of their innovative use of passive safety systems and rolling maintenance programmes, made viable because of the modular design. SMRs will also be a lot more flexible, allowing them to be utilised in a number of ways other than just grid electricity, including heating and hydrogen production.


The designs being assessed are extremely varied, from smaller versions of classic light water reactors to modular forms of generation IV reactors, including molten salt designs. This means that the study is able to highlight advanced reactor designs that have potential in a full-size configuration as well as in modular form. The call for evidence from designers closed at the end of November; independent assessors are expected to produce a full review by spring 2016.


Weinberg Next Nuclear’s top priority for 2016 will be to ensure that the £250 million over five years is used to greatest effect. This study of SMR technology gives us a good entry point to the decision-making process. The government has not yet clarified how the nuclear innovation money will be spent; much will go on SMRs, but not all. Therefore, it will be our role to convince policy-makers of the potential of advanced nuclear designs, large and small.


Our November report was on why nuclear innovation is needed. We are now working on a report – due to be published in March – on how innovation should be supported in the UK. The review of Small Modular Reactors and the £250 million available funding will be central to our recommendations.



The need to reduce carbon emissions whilst maintaining a supply of reliable energy to allow nations to continue to develop is undisputed. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment report’s least-emissions pathway (RCP 2.6 or lower) requires fossil fuel production to be phased out by mid century. What is disputed is whether certain technologies can be up-scaled to meet demand on this timescale. Nuclear power is one of the few technologies that can supply a base load alternative to fossil fuels whilst also being zero-carbon once constructed and producing no air pollution. However, current delays with contemporary “one of a kind” reactors have made many write nuclear off as an option to rapidly expand and provide a sustainable, fossil fuel free future.

A new article from PLoS has undermined this pessimistic view. By studying historical data of the growth of the Swedish and French nuclear programs from the 1960s to 1990s the authors modeled a range of scenarios for the deployment of new nuclear reactors. Their conclusion: if the world were to build nuclear reactors at the same rate as these historical programs, then coal and gas electricity could be replaced in less than a decade. Even the more conservative models (taking into account differing relative economic output across regions, varying construction time and costs, future electricity demand growth forecasts and the need to retire existing aging nuclear plants) predict that fossil fuel electricity could be replaced in 25-34 years.

Such a replacement would have a huge impact on global carbon emissions and averting dangerous climate change. The paper shows that the installation of nuclear power in Sweden between 1972 and 1986, reduced the country’s CO2 per capita emissions by 75%, a figure that according to the World Bank is the most rapid installation of low-CO2 electricity capacity on a per capita basis of any nation in history.

Planning for a decarbonised future, as is currently happening at the Paris COP, is a process littered with uncertainty and speculation. But this paper, with projections grounded in reality and actual historical experience, highlights that nuclear should not be disregarded and provides one of the best options for real progress in the fight to replace fossil fuels and mitigate climate change.

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