On the day before Budget 2020, on 10 March, a curious organisation called Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) published a report ‘Innovating to Net Zero’ (https://es.catapult.org.uk/reports/innovating-to-net-zero/).
Its own publicity material stated: “A new report by Energy Systems Catapult has found Net Zero by 2050 is possible if the UK supports innovation and scale-up across three essential areas – Low Carbon Technology, Land Use and Lifestyle.
The Innovating to Net Zero report modelled 100s of potential pathways to 2050 – ramping up or down different technologies and behaviour changes – to understand the combinations, interactions and trade-offs of competing decarbonisation approaches.
Meeting the UK’s Net Zero target will require unprecedented innovation across the economy. Innovation not just in new technologies, but in new ways of deploying existing technologies, new business models, new consumer offerings, and, crucially, new policy, regulation and market design”.
In coverage that was afforded high profile on BBC news platforms across the day, Roger Harrabin BBC environment analyst, (Climate change: UK 'can't go climate neutral before 2050',” BBC on line, 10 March 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51804212 observed wryly :
“Controversially, it calls for small, modular nuclear reactors to support three-quarters of heating in cities through district heating systems. Modular reactors are much smaller than conventional reactors, and brought to a site in a kit of parts to be assembled.”
ESC made substantial use of research and energy modelling done by the now defunct Energy Technologies Institute, which was a public-private partnership between global energy and engineering companies and the UK Government.
Mike Middleton, Practice Manager for Nuclear at ETI – whom he had joined in April 2013 – transferred to ESC as Practice Manager for Nuclear at ESC in summer of 2019
On arriving at ESC , Middleton wrote the following nuclear cheer-leading article, titled:
“New nuclear can earn its place within the energy mix” (Energy Strategies Catapult: 23 July 2019; https://es.catapult.org.uk/comments/new-nuclear-can-earn-its-place-within-the-energy-mix-by-mike-middleton/)
“New nuclear does not need to be expensive and can earn its place within the energy mix driving a Net Zero economy.
A combination of Government initiatives to enable access to affordable finance and learning from nuclear deployment programmes elsewhere illustrates how to further reduce nuclear project schedules, risks and costs.
For the last 50 years nuclear energy has been part of the diverse mix of power generation in the UK. However, most of the UK nuclear power reactors operating today are expected to begin decommissioning over the next decade. Construction is now well underway at EDF’s Hinkley Point C new nuclear power station; this is the first plant to be built since completion of the single unit pressurised water reactor at Sizewell B in 1995. EDF report that construction at Hinkley Point C is currently on track.
A range of scenarios and analysis reports illustrate the system value of nuclear technology alongside other low carbon technologies in decarbonising the UK’s economy. The relative contribution from each of these low carbon technologies varies between these reports which is not surprising. The extent of deployment of new nuclear is often limited by the associated uncertainties, and from analysis these uncertainties are relatively consistent:
· Can the costs for new nuclear be expected to reduce?
· Can the perceived risks associated with new nuclear build projects be addressed with confidence so that such projects are attractive to potential investors?
· How can investors be secured, to finance such projects at an affordable cost of capital?
Addressing these uncertainties is important if nuclear energy is to play a significant role in a decarbonised UK economy, which would require a pipeline of projects beyond EDF’s Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C and deliver associated benefits through infrastructure investment for the UK economy.
In the Nuclear Sector Deal announced 27th June 2018, the UK Government committed to keeping under consideration a range of financing options when deciding how to proceed with future new nuclear projects. Through negotiations with Horizon’s Wylfa Newydd project, the UK Government demonstrated the willingness to engage with project developers on this matter. The UK Government also committed to reviewing the viability of a regulated asset base as a sustainable funding model for future projects beyond Wylfa Newydd. Whilst these commitments may bring forward solutions to the uncertainty of affordable funding, the uncertainties of cost and risk reduction remain.
The Energy Technologies Institute paper titled “Update to the role for nuclear in UK’s transition to a low carbon economy” summaries the learning from its Nuclear Cost Drivers project which was commissioned to address these two other uncertainties. The insight paper concluded that contemporary giga-watt scale reactors are the only designs ready to be deployed in the UK in numbers between 2025 and 2035.
The Nuclear Cost Drivers project was based on recently completed or nearly completed reactor projects together with expert facilitated interviews with senior personnel involved in the delivery of these projects. This project demonstrated that there was strong evidence of applicable cost reduction in the UK, but collective action was required by all project stakeholders, including Government, to bring about the integrated programme of activities necessary to realise this potential.
The project revealed from an international perspective that whilst there were troubled nuclear projects in Finland, France and the United States, there were many more projects from elsewhere including Japan, Korea and China that used repeatable engineering with shorter and more predictable project schedules. Such projects typically benefitted from higher productivity levels in direct labour and indirect services, demonstrating the pathway to shorter projects with lower costs and less risk.
The ETI insight concludes that further evaluation of a potential UK integrated program could lead to better understanding the range of UK policy options which can drive the nuclear cost reduction curve.
Nuclear energy can be an important technology is the UK’s transition to a carbon neutral economy and does not have to be expensive.”
[Mike Middleton is practice manager for nuclear at the Energy Systems Catapult (Image courtesy of EDF).]
Then, last Autumn, BEIS released a study it had commissioned from contractors, on nuclear options (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/845660/energy-innovation-needs-assessment-nuclear-fission.pdf”
The nuclear sub-theme report was released in October 2019 a part of BEIS’ Energy Innovation Needs Assessment
“The nuclear energy sub-theme analysis focusses exclusively on nuclear energy, covering three categories of nuclear power: Generation III (Gen III), Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs). These technologies, with different deployment timelines and energy system benefits, present important innovation opportunities to bring system benefits. Nuclear fusion is out of scope as technology remains in early development and experimental phase.
Gen III reactors are advanced versions of Generation II designs, which were built in the UK until the 1990s and are currently in use. Gen III reactors typically have improved fuel technology, superior thermal efficiency, passive safety systems and standardised design for reduced maintenance and capital costs. Gen III+ reactors are similar in design to Gen II but have more advanced safety systems.
SMRs are reactors under 300-500 MW which have been built using modular techniques. The ideal size is a balance between manufacturing needs and economies of the reactor. SMRs typically use Gen III technology and have deployment times estimated around 2030.
AMRs are considered “revolutionary” in design, as opposed to “evolutionary”, and as such qualify as a new technology. They can be of small capacity, or full-scale nuclear plant projects, and can be modularised. Reactor types and types of fuel vary significantly depending on the design. AMRs differ from conventional reactors, which use pressurised or boiling water for primary cooling.
AMRs aim to maximise the amount of off-site factory fabrication and can also provide different benefits:
• Low-low cost electricity generation.
• Increased flexibility.
• Increased functionality (heat output for district heating or production of hydrogen).
There is a variety of technologies within AMRs and some are closer to deployment than others. Some reactors could be deployed in the 2030s while others such as sodium-cooled reactors could become operative from the 2040s onwards.
This report has four sections:
• Nuclear and the whole energy system: Describes the role of nuclear fission in the energy system, based on ESME modelling performed by the ESC.
• Innovation opportunities: Provides lists of the key innovations available within nuclear fission, and their approximate impact on costs.
• Business opportunities: Summarises the export opportunities of biomass and bioenergy, the GVA and jobs supported by these opportunities, and how innovation helps the UK capture the opportunities.
• Market barriers to innovation: Highlights areas of innovation where market barriers are high and energy system cost reductions and business opportunities significant.”
Background to the Energy Innovation Needs Assessment
“The Energy Innovation Needs Assessment (EINA) aims to identify the key innovation needs across the UK’s energy system, to inform the prioritisation of public sector investment in low-carbon innovation. Using an analytical methodology developed by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the EINA takes a system-level approach, and values innovations in a technology in terms of the system-level benefits a technology innovation provides.1 This whole system modelling in line with BEIS’s EINA methodology was delivered by the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) using the Energy System Modelling Environment (ESMETM) as the primary modelling tool.
To support the overall prioritisation of innovation activity, the EINA process analyses key technologies in more detail. These technologies are grouped together into sub-themes, according to the primary role they fulfil in the energy system. For key technologies within a sub-theme, innovations and business opportunities are identified. The main findings, at the technology level, are summarised in sub-theme reports. An overview report will combine the findings from each sub-theme to provide a broad system-level perspective and prioritisation.
This EINA analysis is based on a combination of desk research by a consortium of economic and engineering consultants, and stakeholder engagement. The prioritisation of innovation and business opportunities presented is informed by a workshop organised for each sub-theme, assembling key stakeholders from the academic community, industry and government.
This report was commissioned prior to advice being received from the CCC on meeting a net zero target and reflects priorities to meet the previous 80% target in 2050. The newly legislated net zero target is not expected to change the set of innovation priorities, rather it will make them all more valuable overall. Further work is required to assess detailed implications.”
Philip New, Chief Executive Officer, states in the foreword to the ESC report issued on 10 March 2020
“The brilliant British companies we work with every day are devising new platforms, offers, technologies and services: from new ways of generating nuclear power to storing and supplying energy; from managing our networks in a more flexible way to heating our homes and charging
our cars; integrating the digital with the physical, creating solutions for consumers that will deliver clean economic growth.”
The backers of this work at ETI, carried over to ESC, included EDF Energy & Rolls Royce along with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, all heavy nuclear backers.
Here are some key extracts from the report that highlight nuclear issues:
– a decentralised
pathway to Net Zero
In Patchwork, central Government
takes less of a leading role,
resulting in a patchwork of
regional low carbon strategies.
A programme for large nuclear
plants does not progress beyond
Hinkley Point C and two others,
although regions with a history
of nuclear power favour small
modular reactors (SMRs)
In Patchwork, there is greater
migration of the population to
major cities, which are more
suited for district heat networks.
Early heat networks are small and
most of the heat is provided by
gas and biomass CHP systems.
Heat offtake from thermal power
generators provides additional
energy as heat networks grow.
However, as carbon constraints
begin to limit operation of these
plants, heat must be provided by
other means. Solutions depend
on the region with some areas
making use of geothermal
resources, whilst others rely on
large-scale heat pumps. Some
areas adopt nuclear small
modular reactors, exploiting the
waste heat from these plants.
Innovation needs for electricity
Support a basket of options,
given ongoing uncertainty.
For wind, this includes RD&D
for floating turbines, but
also continued significant
deployment of fixed offshore
wind farms. All our scenarios
see expansion of onshore wind
farms in the near term, given
their proven cost effectiveness.
• For nuclear, our previous
analysis has shown how a
carefully designed programme
that engages all of the key
stakeholders with a shared
focus on the key characteristics
of low cost and high quality
construction can start the UK
down the path to affordable
…We also tested the possible
role of advanced nuclear
for hydrogen production,
drawing on data from one of
the engineering deep-dives in
our wider Net Zero Insights
page 38 The Japanese Atomic Energy
Agency (JAEA) has demonstrated
hydrogen production from
a sulphur-iodine cycle using
the heat supply from hightemperature
Across a range of cost
assumptions, deployment of
these HTGRs looked favourable in
ESME, with annual production of
50-100TWh of hydrogen in 2050.
The accompaniment of largescale
heat storage would
alleviate some of this pressure
by smoothing out the demand
for electricity and providing a
reliable source for provision
of heat during daily peaks. In
addition to heat storage, further
reserve capacity is likely to be
needed to cope with extreme
cold weather events. For this,
the simplest low carbon solution
would be large-scale boilers
fuelled by hydrogen.
Small modular nuclear reactors
(e.g. 300 megawatts) offer the
potential for combined heat
and power as part of a more
distributed energy system, but
will require these small reactors
to be sited closer to population
centres (e.g. within 20km).
Crucially, this will depend on
political and social acceptance.
Areas with a history of nuclear
energy facilities and the
associated job opportunities
this can bring are likely to be
the first to support early trials. In
the meantime, local area energy
planning will require careful
phasing to maintain the option of
plugging in nuclear SMRs subject
to successful demonstration.
Innovation needs for
• Robust, consistent and detailed
local area energy planning
will be essential to understand
the optimal phasing of heat
network deployment in any
given region, building out
from urban centres to more
suburban areas over time.
Options for heat supply,
storage and peak reserve can
be evaluated for each phase
of network deployment.
• UK deployment of tried and
tested solutions elsewhere
in the world, including
geothermal, heat pumps,
heat storage will deliver cost
reductions through learningby-
• Nuclear small modular reactors
require support through the
design and demonstration
stages. It is crucial that their
full potential for combined
heat and power is recognized
Over the course of this
Parliament, policy should
• Large-scale developments,
such as new nuclear, which will
require significant support
from Government. This could
come in the form of the
recently proposed Regulated
Asset Base (RAB) model12 to
secure private investment or
alternative models of risk
allocation to keep the cost of
capital as low as possible (see
Costing Net Zero). Government
should also bear down on the
costs of nuclear new build
projects, potentially taking a
fleet approach which learns
from previous reactor builds
and implementing a welldesigned
incorporates multiple project
performance and cost
• R&D funding and deployment
support for new and emerging
technologies that are key for
Net Zero, for example, floating
offshore wind and small
modular reactors (SMR).
Endnotes for the new ESC study include: :
ETI (2018). Nuclear Cost Drivers Project.
ETI (2019). Update to the Role for Nuclear in UK’s Transition to a Low Carbon Economy.