A different kind of reactor could drive decarbonisationby Nick Butler / November 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
The announcement last week by Rolls-Royce that it is ready to proceed with the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) is a significant step forward for the nuclear industry, and for the low-carbon agenda. For the first time in more than a decade there is serious competition in the sector, and the prospect that an industry which began in the UK seven decades ago can be revived and regain credibility.
Rolls-Royce has had its financial problems over the last few years but the company’s technical expertise is not in doubt. The firm has long experience of building reactors for nuclear submarines. Now it has developed a technology which, given the rapid go-ahead it deserves, could be producing power from small, easily built units within ten years.
For energy policy the attraction of nuclear is that it can supply significant volumes of continuous power without generating greenhouse gas emissions. There is great scope in the UK for wind power in particular to grow, but if there is to be large-scale electrification of the economy into areas such as transport, sources of power beyond wind and solar will be needed. The government’s reported plan to accelerate the transition from petrol-driven to electric cars will increase demand for batteries. Hydrogen offers a possible longer-term alternative, but green hydrogen—produced through electrolysis, without the costly complexity of extracting and storing the carbon from source materials such as natural gas—is still some way from being economically competitive.
In France, nuclear power has been an important part of the energy mix for the last half century. The same was true of Germany until recently. In Britain today, 20 per cent of the electricity we consume comes from nuclear stations. Those stations are ageing, having enjoyed life extensions far beyond their original planned closure dates. The physical risks of keeping them open are growing. The need to put in place new generating capacity is clear, even if the absolute amount needed is still an open question.
The countervailing problem with nuclear has been the hideously high cost of building that new capacity. France’s European Pressurised Reactor was designed to be large scale with low unit costs, but sheer size brought complexity and there is still no working version of the EPR in Europe. The first planned project at…