What is the future of UK nuclear energy?

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could help secure the UK’s nuclear industry if the UK continues on its path to leave the EU.

SMRs are a type of nuclear fission reactor which are smaller than conventional reactors, manufactured at a plant and brought to a site to be fully constructed. SMRs are less expensive than traditional nuclear reactors, although critics have questioned the cost benefits when compared to solar energy, wind energy and natural gas.

While the small power output of an SMR means that electricity will cost more per MW than it would from a larger reactor, the initial cost of building the plant is much less.

SMRs produce anywhere from 10 to 300MW, rather than the 1000MW produced by a typical reactor. Safety features include a natural cooling feature that can continue to function in the absence of external power; which was precisely the problem that was faced in Japan when the 2011 tsunami hit. The SMR also has the advantage of having underground placement of the reactors and spent-fuel storage pools, which provides more security.

A new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers says the technology could present the UK with key export opportunities if a competition was organised to allow projects to reach demonstration and commercialisation. It recommends the UK Government commits to long term nuclear research and development programmes, including a pathway for SMRs.

It suggests the existing nuclear licensed site at Trawsfynydd in North Wales would be well suited as a potential location for an SMR facility. Indeed in 2016 it was reported that the UK Government was assessing this site for deployment, along with other sites of former nuclear or coal-fired power stations.

But there’s a snag – the Institute adds the UK needs to remain an associate member of Euratom to continue scientific progress in the sector. It recommends new frameworks are needed to replace mechanisms lost as a result of the UK’s departure from Euratom and called for a safeguarding regime to ensure the country conforms to international rules on safety and non-proliferation.

Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment, said: “In order to secure the future of the UK nuclear industry, the government must look to replace mechanisms currently provided through Euratom which allow for international trade and provide assurances on nuclear safety, nuclear proliferation and environmental issues.”

Latest posts by Andy Pye (see all)