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New nuclear: one size fits all?

Nuclear power seems to be on the brink of an existential crisis, at least in Europe. Construction of the much-trumpeted new Aveva EPR reactor at Olkiluoto (Finland) began in mid-2005. Originally scheduled to be connected to the grid in 2010, it is now at least eight years late, and the estimated cost has escalated from €3 billion (the fixed construction price due to Areva, the main contractor) to €8.5 billion currently.

Meanwhile, the same company embarked on building France’s first EPR on the existing Flamanville site at the end of 2007, for a projected cost of €3.3 billion. By April last year, the estimated total cost had risen to €10.5 billion and the start of operations had moved from 2012 to the end of 2018. With these disastrous projects compounded by loss in confidence in new nuclear following the Fukushima meltdown, the majority state-owned Areva was driven deep into the red. A government-led rescue package is imminent and the company has sold a majority stake in its reactor business to EDF, also state-owned.

The Flamanville and Olkiluoto reactors are first-of-kind and, as such, are inevitably more expensive than later versions, as teething problems are ironed out. However, in this case these are not just teething problems; there is real concern that the design is overly complex and in effect unbuildable. To make matters worse, following Germany’s knee-jerk abandonment of support for its nuclear fleet following the tsunami that overwhelmed Fukushima, even France – the European standard-bearer of nuclear energy and a country that has benefitted greatly from it – is now committed to a smaller nuclear fleet in future.

In this context, it seems almost inconceivable that EDF is on the brink of starting construction of a third power station based on the same EPR design at Hinckley Point in Somerset. The history, however, makes it more explicable. In somewhat happier days, EDF bought British Energy, the company that then owned the country’s nuclear fleet (with the exception of elderly Magnox reactors). In these circumstances, it became more understandable that the dominant nuclear energy operator in the country should also become the first to add to the fleet when the British government finally committed itself to nuclear new build.

However, the problems do not end with the UK government apparently still committed to an expensive and, frankly, unproven design built by a struggling foreign-owned company, partly financed by the Chinese. The EDF board is itself divided on whether or not it should go ahead with the project (after all, the company is also a major supplier of energy from other sources and some directors clearly do not want to compromise the future of the entire operation on the basis of a single nuclear plant). But both the British and French governments appear to view this as a project which they cannot drop.

Abandonment of the project would be a major embarrassment for both countries. For EDF, it is possible to argue either way as to the best course; either way, this is a company in serious difficulties. Fortunately for the nuclear industry more generally, there are other players with plans to build reactors to designs that may be less plagued with difficulties: the Westinghouse AP1000 and the Hitachi-GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactor. Dropping the Hinkley C project would not necessarily be a bad thing for the UK’s nuclear programme in the longer term.

But there is another longer term option that could be better still: the prospect of small modular reactors, built in a factory and delivered to site. Small is, of course, a relative term. The envisaged modules would be about 23 metres long and require specialised road trailers for transport. But they would be transportable and, to put the size in perspective, that’s only about half the length of a blade for the current generation of large wind turbines.

Each reactor might generate just 50MW of power, but the generally accepted definition of the category allows for a maximum rating of 300MW. The key requirement is that they should be capable of being fully assembled at a remote location and transported to their point of operation. They could be installed in groups to give an output comparable to a large conventional power station.

Conceptually, large current reactors are attractive, but their very size means they have to be fabricated on site and the demands made on containment vessels are extremely high. Certainly the current debacle over the 1600MW Areva design illustrates the pitfalls very clearly.

It is a basic fact of engineering that standardisation and mass production increases efficiency and reduces costs. In the case of SMRs, smaller components mean that more companies have the capability to make them and meeting the required standards may prove less demanding. With the reactors built on a production line basis, as is already successfully done for other highly complex items such as aircraft, standardised modules can be shipped to prepared sites and plumbed in with a minimal need for bespoke solutions.

Individual reactors would be more containable and manageable and servicing and spare parts would be standardised. Admittedly, no-one is actually producing SMRs yet, but there is plenty of experience of building and operating small reactors for naval vessels and the technical issues are much less daunting than for the much larger reactors currently being built.

There are plenty of companies working in the area, with the US government-backed NuScale Power intending to have its first module operational by 2025 and to be able to supply the UK shortly afterwards. How many new large reactors we may have by then is anyone’s guess.  

Critics of nuclear of course point to the present problems in the industry and the continued development of renewable energy that will supposedly eliminate the need for conventional base load generation. In reality, we will continue to need reliable, secure base load for the foreseeable future, until some major breakthrough is made in energy storage. Until then, SMRs may be just what we need.

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