The scale of the challenge of the road to net zero in the power sector is immense. The UK’s existing coal generation is all but gone; gas generation plants are now largely mid to late life and investors fear of stranded assets in carbon emitting generation is inhibiting investment; and all but one of the UK’s nuclear stations are due to retire by 2030. The investment requirement is immense. And it’s not just replacing greenhouse gas emitting stations that’s the challenge… The existing low carbon nuclear also needs replacement.
The phenomenal growth planned for solar and wind comes with its own problems. Both sources are low carbon but both are intermittent and seasonal. This creates an issue of grid balancing and security of supply. To underpin the reliable power supplies we have come to rely on, we need secure low carbon generation and storage.
Nuclear is one of the few low carbon options that can provide secure low carbon power and get us to a net zero world in 2050. The case for nuclear as part of the mix is compelling.
Historically, we have relied on large scale power stations for grid stability. We are heading into a much more complex world of smart systems, decentralised and smaller scale generators integrated with localised demand, and reliance on digital technology.
Smaller scale low carbon nuclear power fits well in that decentralised world. SMRs offer the cost savings and quality benefits of modular, factory based manufacturing and volume production. In the UK , they could be deployed in multiple unit configurations to replace existing nuclear and provide greater flexibility or individually to meet particular niche energy requirements or more localised demand.
SMRs and AMRs , which come in many shapes and sizes, offer the prospect of a low carbon solution to a variety of niche power requirements. The mining industry often has significant power needs in remote locations with inadequate grid connections. Many island communities currently depend on diesel generation incompatible with a net zero world. Energy intensive users might prefer the cost certainty of a dedicated SMR to energy market risk.
The Canadian Government has estimated the global market for SMR/AMRs at C$150-300bn per annum by 2040…the UK SMR Consortium, led by Rolls Royce has indicated an SMR export potential for the UK of £250bn by 2050… A market clearly worth pursuing and one where UK technology has a credible chance of being leading edge.
Successful deployment of SMRs requires international cooperation between licencing authorities. Nuclear power is highly regulated to ensure the technology is safe and operating standards support safe operation. The approval process is lengthy, expensive and comprehensive – in the UK reactor approval typically takes 4 years or more. That is a significant burden for large reactor projects and proportionately greater for SMRs even if most designs incorporate passive safety systems and negate the likelihood of offsite release of radiation.
For SMRs, which require multiple customers to support their production volume economics, a common approach to licencing and approval is particularly important. If every regulator requires modifications for their jurisdiction, the safety and cost benefits of replication and volume will be lost. A common regulatory approach to technical reviews can enable SMR deployment. This is why the Cooperation announced in October 2020 between the ONR in the UK and the CNSC in Canada is timely and welcome. Both countries share the desire to develop a lead in AMR and SMR technology – signalled in the Collaboration on Advanced Nuclear Technologies Action Plan signed in March 2020. Other regulators may join this cooperation and open international markets to SMR vendors. Achieving net zero is a global problem and any steps to enabling solutions to be deployed globally are welcome.
About the author(s)
Robert Armour is senior counsel with Gowling WLG in London and chair of the firm's UK nuclear practice. He has extensive experience in the power sector, particularly nuclear, coal, renewables, and electricity distribution networks and smart grids.