Posted by Stephen Tindale

Next Steps for Nuclear in the UK

A new report from pro-nuclear think tank Weinberg Next Nuclear, outlines what the Government should do to make the UK a world leader in advanced nuclear technology. The report argues that the British government should support small nuclear reactors as well as large new reactors, and that by the early 2020s at least three advanced reactor designs should have been assessed by the regulator.

Existing civil nuclear reactor designs provide large amounts of clean, low carbon energy, so improving energy security and air quality and mitigating climate change. But they have high upfront capital costs, and are not sufficiently flexible to back up wind and solar power. Advanced nuclear designs could address these drawbacks.

In November 2015 Weinberg Next Nuclear published a report on ‘The Need for Nuclear Innovation’. Chancellor George Osborne subsequently promised, in his 2015 Autumn Statement, £250 million over five years for nuclear R&D. In the March 2016 Budget, he announced a £30 million competition for advanced manufacturing in nuclear, and a competition to support innovation in Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

This report:

– outlines criteria which government should use in selecting reactor designs to support (but does not say which designs should be chosen);

– recommends that at least one of the reactors supported should be a Generation IV design, because this could re-use spent nuclear fuel, and also use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the largest plutonium stockpile in the world;

– suggests that SMRs and micro-reactors (less than 20 megawatts) will be cheaper to construct than large reactors because they can be made on production lines then transported to site. Generation IV reactors may also be considerably cheaper than existing nuclear designs due to less complex designs – though this will not be known until one has been constructed;

– supports the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s proposal to increase its capacity by expanding staff numbers. Lack of regulatory capacity is currently the major barrier to nuclear innovation in the UK;

– proposes that UK nuclear regulators should work closely with their Canadian and US counterparts, with the aim of developing a regulatory approval mechanism that would cover all three countries.

 

Download the report.

Stephen Tindale, director of Weinberg Next Nuclear, said:

“The UK’s energy mix must be based on diversity. So the policy argument should not be whether to support solar, wind, CCS or nuclear. ‘All of the above’ will be needed.

Existing nuclear technology is very good, but future nuclear technology can be even better. If the £250 million is sensibly spent, it could contribute to the UK becoming a world leader in both small and Generation IV reactors.”

 

Contact

Stephen.tindale@the-weinberg-foundation.org

07941 433780

 

Notes for editors

1) Weinberg Next Nuclear is part of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation charity. The Foundation plans to continue work on advanced nuclear energy, and to expand its work into other clean energy sources – wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, CCS.

2) Three companies contributed sponsorship support to the workstream behind this report: Terrestrial Energy, URENCO and Moltex Energy. Editorial control remained with Weinberg Next Nuclear alone.

 

Comments

  1. Charles Barton says:

    Unfortunately this document is deeply flawed. Perhaps the most significant flaw is the failure of the documents authors to vet their assumptions through an Open Science process. Barry Brook’s blog, BraveNew Climate might be an appropriate place for that discussion. My arguement that neither safety nor proliferation resistance is the most important issue for judging advanced technology. Generation III + reactors are already the safest form of energy technology known to humanity, while Generation IV technology adds further safety features. Graphile Pile Reactors, a well known and widely understood form of proliferation technology is well known and well understood. other technologies may not offer proliferation advantages over the tried and true proliferation tools. Any rogue state wishing to produce nuclear weapons has a good chance of doing so, even if the UK never builds a Generation IV reactor. What matters is reactor costs, both for economic justice and for market advantages.

    • Stephen Tindale says:

      You are of course entitled to your view that cost is more important than safety or proliferation resistance. I strongly disagree though. It’s not an assumption, it’s a judgement. The report says that existing nuclear is already very safe. That doesn’t change my view that safety must be top criterion for any new nuclear – Gen III or Gen IV.

      • Bryan Chesebrough says:

        I read and interpreted Charles Barton’s comments very differently. As Charles correctly states, “Generation III+ are already the safest form of energy technology known to humanity, while Generation IV technology adds further safety features”. This can hardly be characterized as suggesting that safety isn’t paramount. I believe what Charles Is suggesting is that if the costs related to design, manufacture and regulatory compliance are not at the forefront of attempting to actualize the promise presaged by Generation IV Nuclear Reactor designs then, that promise (utilizing the most energy dance elements on the periodic table in a safe, efficient and effective manner) will not be realized. I think that is a quite reasonable assessment.

      • Chaeles Barton says:

        Stephen, first I agree that safety is very important, but if you understand the safety features of MSRs as developed by ORNL, you could begin to ask, what are the risks that we need greater protection against. I have discussed nuclear safety and MSR safty on my blog Nuclear Green. I have come to the view, that if you set as your goal, no casualties during the life of the universe, that goal can be acomplished using existing technology. I am not opposed to adding even more safety features agter you reach the absurdly safe level, but those features should be low cost, ands offer some none safety advantages. Energy poverty kills, and considering one of the important goals of advanced nuclear technology is high safety at low price. With MSRs both are possible.

      • Chaeles Barton says:

        My views on Nuclear safety are elaborated here:

        http://www.theenergycollective.com/charlesbarton/55436/avoiding-nuclear-safety

        Also here:
        http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2010/05/molten-salt-reactor-safety-related.html

        I appologize for the many typos, and other texual problems in this post. I was quite sick at the time I wrote it, and suffered from serious vision problems. My health is now somewhat better, but my vision is poor.

    • John David Simnett says:

      I agree that safety is not the main issue if we are talking about design and operation of new reactors. From past experience it seems as if increasing the safety standards rather than allaying public misconceptions and fears, actually aggravates them. “If such stringent measures are needed then they must really be dangerous”
      Safety therefore IS the issue if we are talking about public perception since, for example, Angela Merkel closed down nuclear reactors because of public fears fanned by the Greens whose support she needed.
      Recent polls have shown increasing public support for nuclear. But if it came to having a nuclear-fueled co-generation plant in their city or a nuclear-powered merchant ship in their port would they still say yes to nuclear? I am not so sure.
      The issue of safety therefore is not one of design but of public education. We need more of it so thanks to Professor Wade Allison for his books.
      John David Simnett
      Smart Thorium LLP

  2. Jeremy Owston says:

    Of real importance is the role of the regulator and in particular the costs of assessing new designs by the regulator in allowing innovation to happen with regards to advanced designs. My thoughts on this subject are as follows and would make a great starting point on a position paper for enabling nuclear innovation.

    Regulation and the costs associated in approaching a regulator, and the resource limitation of the regulator are often seen as an inhibitor to nuclear development, however this does not need to be the case. The reason for the current situation is nearly entirely linked to funding model, in that the regulator has to recover all costs associated with its activities with industry through charges for its services. The following lists the consequences that this model creates.

    1. This mechanism puts a high cost at the front end of developing technology as the charge rate for services has to be high to cover the regulators costs, this cost is not amortised over the rollout of the technology due to the point in the development lifecycle which the cost is borne thus providing a large barrier to innovation.

    2. To minimise costs associated with engaging a regulator, a business is forced to have their designs and documentation complete to a high level preventing early engagement in the design process. Early engagement is critical to success for minimising regulatory delay and enabling both the regulator to learn with the developer when the technology is new and novel. The result is that there is high risk and long rollout of unique and new technology due to the uncertainty of regulatory requirements..

    3. Companies developing innovative technologies are often start-up businesses with minimal available capital. These businesses struggle to fund engagement with a regulator as the costs for these businesses are prohibitive. This removes any possibility of early engagement and may prevent ground breaking designs seeing the light of day.

    4. It is difficult for the ONR to increase its size without government funding as it would have to increase the costs fr its services under the current model. This increase in the costs would then discourage businesses to engage with the regulator having the opposite impact on an increase in size of the regulator. This model therefore is not suited to expanding nuclear innovation which needs low or zero upfront costs with engagement with the regulator and a regulator with resources to look at a number of designs simultaneously.

    The current expenditure of the ONR is roughly £65m nearly all of it is recovered in fees for services. If instead of having a fee for its service a levy was charged onto the cost of producing either a kWh of electricity or kWh of industrial nuclear heat (assuming in the future nuclear provides industrial heat as well) the upfront cost could be completely removed and with minimal impact on the costs for electricity generators. Furthermore the ONR could be expanded greatly without any undue costs generators. The benefits are as follows:

    1. A 4% levy on current nuclear generators (0.2 pence per kWh) would allow an ONR with 3x greater budget. Unspent annual monies could be put into a fund made available to nuclear technology developers at the early stage in the product development cycle when seed funding is most useful to aid with engagement with ONR (funding for required documentation etc). This levy would remove the industries current costs in communication with the regulator.

    2. No upfront fees for contacting the ONR or for GDA process. The GDA process could start with the early reactor concept without costs to the developer. The regulator and developer could then develop the regulation and technology simultaneously ensuring the designs and regulations are optimised. Developers could better direct their R&D funding on aspects of the design which regulators see as safety critical.

    3. Start-up businesses often the foundation of innovation could practically fund their concept development through to regulatory approval due to the removal of risk and upfront regulatory cost. This is not just for the GDA process but also site licences for construction, midlife upgrades, OEM equipment developments (pumps valves etc), and life extensions.

    4. Nuclear industry would have a vested interest in maintain a high levy on their product (industrial heat or electricity) as it will help facilitate future development and innovation making the industry more competitive

    5. Political constraints on expanding the ONR due to department budgets would not exist as it was entirely industry funded.

    6. Non civil industrial nuclear ONR related services could still recovered in fees (typically, legacy decommissioning activities, military requirements, medical isotopes regulation) to further make available resources to advancing the civil nuclear innovation.

    I can’t see a downside to this change in funding arrangements, nor any reason for political objection from industry or government. I would appreciate your thoughts and if you agree would be interested to know how this change could be put to government so that innovation can truly happen in the nuclear field.

  3. john umfreville says:

    The way forward for fourth generation nuclear reactors is complicated, bedevilled by regulation, both of which give an overload of early costs, certainly costs high enough to discourage any independent organisation from even beginning the project. Initial work must surely be instigated by ‘Government’
    It has always been the case that big projects with the promise if big returns encourage the release of funds with the added incentive of ‘stimulating the economy’. So it would be more useful to define the long term benefits of cheaper nuclear power to the ‘Country’ as a preface to ant proposal for long term research into all aspects of nuclear power generation. Examples which are almost never proposed in support of UK projects are i, The use of cheap hydrogen in the automotive industry, alone or as methanol derivatives, ii, The production of fertilisers based on hydrogen/ammonia, iii, desalination projects for the third world. Big pay-back new industries that would promise start up help.

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