Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Small reactors bring big planning problems

Letter submitted to The Financial Times newspaper, on 7 October 2020: I read with increasing incredulity the article “Downing St considers £2bn support for mini nuclear reactors,” Financial Times 7 October 2020), written, I note with some interest, by your chief political reporter and international business editor, not your energy editor. Your reporters appear to have been briefed only about the ‘sunny side’ of the proposed new small modular rectors (SMRs). Let me set out some of the problems, most of which are unsurmountable. First of all, your reporters assert without any supporting evidence that “The first SMR is expected to cost £2.2bn.” Where did they get this figure from? I would wager, based on over forty years analysing and writing about nuclear energy policy, that were any SMR ever built, its cost would be significantly higher, having seen every single reactor option ever developed under-priced when being sold to governments in order to secure political sign-off. Secondly, even SMR advocates know such so-called mini-plants ( they are actually planned to be pretty similar in electrical capacity to the first generation UK Magnox plants) in order to have any chance of coming close to producing competitively-priced power, ie that which would interest private sector investors, then the owner must be able to sell the surplus heat. Indeed, a new study, Nuclear cogeneration: civil nuclear energy in a low-carbon future issued on October 8th, by the British Royal Society, (https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/nuclear-cogeneration/2020-10-7-nuclear-cogeneration-policy-briefing.pdf), written by Professor Robin Grimes of London’s Imperial College – who is also chief scientific adviser in the UK Ministry of Defence for nuclear science and technology- argues very strongly that “SMRs present a particularly interesting proposition for cogeneration.” But what Professor Grimes omits to address is the acute licensing problems any such near-city deployment would face, as, in order to maximise gain from re-use of the surplus heat generated, SMRs would necessarily need to be build adjunct to urban areas, or at the very least in industrial parks close to densely populated areas. In my experience of being involved in British nuclear planning inquiries since the one held for Sizewell B in 1983-85, no licensing regime would give the green light to any reactor proposed to be cited so close to where people live. The problems it would create for emergency planers, for the state civil contingencies and resilience apparatus to protect against terrorism, and the sheer public opposition to new nuclear, when the comparative merits of of the SMR competitor, wind energy, are seen alongside the transparent de-merits on mini-reactors, would ensure any such project dead in the water. A prudent government would jettison SMRs now, declaring them dead at birth However, we know that Rolls Royce, the biggest industrial advocates for UK –manufactured SMRs has an additional covert agenda, which it let slip in a publicity brochure in 2017, when it described the merits of SMRs thus: “..the expansion of a nuclear capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the [UK Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability.” Could that be Whitehall’s alternative agenda?

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