Advanced nuclear technologies, modular manufacturing methods and new approaches to project finance could usher in a more cost-effective era for the UK’s nuclear industry, writes Esin Serin.

As part of its approach to dealing with energy security concerns, the UK Government has turned to nuclear power. Near-term targets look at expanding existing forms of nuclear power but the UK also has a strong commitment to developing the next generation of civil nuclear technologies. Such innovations can diversify what nuclear energy is used for and may lower deployment costs, creating potential for nuclear to play a bigger part in the transition to net zero.

Nuclear’s place in the net-zero transition

The Climate Change Committee’s ‘balanced pathway’ to net zero for the UK assumes 10 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2035, yet almost all of the UK’s existing nuclear power plants are due to retire by the end of 2030. The Government in its energy security strategy has already announced ambitions that go beyond replacing retiring plants; these include progressing up to eight new nuclear reactors by 2030 and achieving up to 24 GW by 2050.

In addition to helping to achieve net zero goals, such nuclear deployment underpinned by a competitive and innovative supply chain could offer significant growth opportunities for the UK economy. Our research has shown that the UK is in the top ten countries globally with a specialism in nuclear innovation. The strong political support for, and minimal public opposition to, civil nuclear in the UK could also provide fertile ground for developing new nuclear technologies.

The promise of nuclear innovation

Most conventional nuclear plants operate on a gigawatt scale, have a footprint of a few hundred football pitches and are designed to provide electricity to the grid. Advanced nuclear technologies include Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs), which are smaller than conventional reactors in terms of both output and physical footprint. In most cases they are designed to be constructed in a modular way, meaning many of the elements can be fabricated in a factory environment for assembly onsite.

SMRs generate up to 300 megawatts of electricity (MWe), with a footprint of just a few football pitches, and many designs to date use the same water-cooled reactor technology of most nuclear power plants operating around the world today. They are also similarly designed to provide grid electricity. AMR concepts differ more substantially from conventional reactors with their use of novel coolants and/or fuels, and they can be even smaller (one example discussed below has a 10 megawatt thermal [MWth] output, with an approximate footprint of a football pitch’s penalty box). Their small size can make them suitable for off-grid applications close to the point of demand.

With an Advanced Nuclear Fund of up to £385 million, the UK is aiming to develop a domestic SMR design and to build an AMR demonstrator by the early 2030s. The UK is home to some leading innovator companies in this area, although there are SMRs and AMRs already at later development stages elsewhere in the world.

For example, U-Battery is an AMR developer in the UK working towards delivering a first-of-a-kind reactor by 2028. At an industry showcase of its 10 MWth reactor design (with the option of co-generative configuration to produce electricity as well as heat) in June 2022, there was one key message to take away: nuclear energy is not exclusively about electricity.

U-Battery’s module is a type of high temperature gas reactor (HTGR) – the reactor technology confirmed as the preferred focus of the UK’s AMR programme – which can be designed to yield outlet temperatures in the order of 1,000°C, much higher than those of conventional reactors. This feature means that nuclear can be used not only for electricity generation but for a range of other purposes relevant to the net zero transition, too. These include the direct provision of high-grade heat for heavy industry (e.g. glass, paper, chemicals) and the efficient production of low-carbon hydrogen for various end-uses spanning industry, transport and heat. Such capabilities of HTGRs could be especially relevant for decarbonising the UK’s industrial clusters.

Can innovation answer the cost question?

A common criticism of nuclear is on cost grounds, but this might be more about the way nuclear projects are brought about than an inherent aspect of nuclear technology. Certainly, wind and solar are now cheaper forms of generating electricity than nuclear in the UK. Government support for Hinkley Point C – the UK’s only nuclear power plant currently being constructed – has been questioned for its value for money.

But cheaper nuclear is possible, as shown elsewhere in the world (for instance through standardisation; see evidence from South Korea), and nuclear remains the baseload low-carbon technology with the lowest expected global average cost in 2025. This suggests that at least some of the reasons for the high cost of nuclear in the UK are context-specific and could be avoided. One way in which the Government intends to reduce the cost of raising finance for future nuclear projects is through a Regulated Asset Base model (although this approach transfers financial risk to the taxpayer).

Process innovations not only in raising finance but also around plant construction have the potential to unlock a different future on the cost of nuclear. Manufacturing SMRs and AMRs in standardised modules in a factory environment could reduce bespoke construction requirements and substantially cut the huge upfront capital expenditure – over 80% of which is for construction and civil works – that currently dominates the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) of nuclear projects. A 2017 study has shown that some advanced nuclear reactor concepts are expected to more than halve LCOE compared with conventional nuclear plants.

And then there is fusion

Despite their novelties, almost all SMR and AMR concepts to date generate energy from the same nuclear reaction as conventional reactors: fission. Fusion, on the other hand, essentially creates a star on the face of Earth – an effectively unlimited source of low-carbon power. The different classifications may overlap, though: the fusion reactors developed by Tokamak Energy, for example, are small and modular and classified as AMRs under the Government support scheme.

The UK is shown to be a highly specialised innovator in nuclear fusion and has an ambitious research programme in this very area, which aims to build a prototype fusion power plant by 2040. This could bring significant opportunities for the UK economy, with more than 8,500 jobs estimated to be created from the manufacture and construction of the UK’s first prototype fusion plant.

Fusion research is extremely costly, with the cost of ITER (the international megaproject aiming to bring fusion to life) now estimated at €22 billion, up from an initial estimate of €6 billion. But private sector investment in fusion is growing rapidly, which suggests increasing confidence that it can eventually be commercialised. In February 2022, the world’s largest operational tokamak machine at the Joint European Torus facility in Oxford broke a historical record with five seconds of sustained fusion energy. When it happens, fusion could revolutionise the energy system entirely.

Risk in perspective

Nuclear waste and safety are two crucial considerations for the role of nuclear in a sustainable future. Apart from one long-term waste repository due to open in Finland next year, the world currently does not have a permanent solution for storing high-level nuclear waste. Due to the amount of legacy nuclear waste that already exists, this is a problem that needs to be addressed even if all the world’s nuclear plants were shut down tomorrow. Using waste as an argument to discontinue nuclear is therefore disputable.

On safety, going back to the U-Battery example, this reactor design uses a highly engineered (and therefore expensive) fuel which is inherently accident-tolerant, as any event of overheating (which is unlikely to happen to begin with, given several layers of safety systems) leads the reactor to shut itself down. This suggests that safety is an engineering challenge, and it is not unimaginable that innovative minds can achieve a lot more in this realm.

Ultimately, nuclear is a proven source of predictable power which provides almost 30% of the world’s low-carbon electricity today. Innovation offers the potential to expand the role of nuclear along the transition to a net-zero energy system in the UK and globally. While nuclear technology has its risks, perhaps the greater risk would be excluding nuclear from the global energy system, resulting in a reduced ability to produce low-carbon energy at scale and most likely undermining the urgently needed transition to net zero emissions.

This commentary is based on a shorter piece originally published by Business Green on 18 July.

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