04. 11. 2017

Small Modular Reactors: The Nuclear Industry's Latest Pipe Dream

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You’ve got to hand it to the nuclear industry: they’re one resilient bunch of never-say-die hard-arses! By any standards, 2017 has been an annus horribilis for the industry, with one body blow after another, all around the world. And 2016 wasn’t that much better either.

This is spelled out in almost excruciating detail in this year’s ‘World Nuclear Industry Status Report’ (WNISR), an annual stocktake that dispassionately lays out what’s been happening in the preceding year from technological, engineering, political and financial points of view.

Here’s one dataset to give you a sense of the speed of decline in the industry: in 2013, construction started on ten new reactors; in 2015, it was eight; in 2016, three; and so far, in 2017, just one.

As in previous years, I can strongly recommend this report to you. It’s just the most extraordinarily useful resource for anyone trying to get their head around why this industry is in such trouble, but, somehow, isn’t yet in completely terminal decline!

I think there are probably four reasons for that. The first is China, now the only country with a large new-build programme. But even in China, things aren’t as rosy as they once were: in 2010, according to WNISR, construction started on ten new reactors; in 2015, on six; in 2016, on two. The Chinese State Council has clearly decided that the nuclear bubble may have already burst – as revealed by the fact that in the first half of 2017, renewables accounted for more than 70% of all new capacity added to the Chinese grid!

The second is politics. Wherever there’s nuclear, there’s deep politics! For instance, EdF/Areva is basically bankrupt, but as a state-owned company, it’s propped up by one mega-handout after another. And Hinkley Point staggers on with it. Mind you, elsewhere in the world, most governments have now got beyond that stage where having a few reactors was the energy equivalent of having your own airline. Unfortunately, not France, and certainly not the UK.

Third, this is an industry that does ‘technohype’ more extravagantly than any other industry in the world. Even Elon Musk must be in awe of the staggeringly inflated projections of future growth that the industry’s PR-plonkers regularly churn out, despite the evidence that all past projections have been essentially worthless.

And lastly, there’s nuclear weapons. All nuclear weapon states are still intent on maintaining some kind of civil nuclear programme. After all, nuclear weapons and nuclear power have always gone hand-in-hand, and in the eyes of both the nuclear industry and the defence establishment, it’s right and proper that they should continue to go hand-in-hand, indefinitely into a bold, nuclearized future.

And those last two reasons also go hand in hand when it comes to the current surge of excitement about Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). The Government is about to announce a multi-million-pound support package to ensure a vibrant SMR industry here in the UK. The Small Modular Reactor Consortium is very excited at this latest PR drive, and has published a new report promising 40,000 jobs, a £100bn infusion into the UK economy, and a £400bn export market. You can see what I mean about the quality of the hype!

For many in the nuclear industry, having watched all their much-touted GW-scale reactors go down the pan, and having had to accept that their long-cherished dream of a new generation of fast-breeder reactors will never materialise, SMRs are almost the last resort.

Any impertinent nay-saying is peremptorily dismissed, even though no-one, it seems, can answer one simple question: given that SMRs have been around for 60 years (the first one being used to power USS Nautilus in 1955, since when hundreds have been deployed for naval use), why has it proved impossible to get a single one built to produce electricity for commercial use?

The answer, of course, lies in that word ‘commercial’. There are literally dozens of different SMR designs out there, with the USA, Russia, South Korea, China and now the UK bigging up the superiority of their particular whizz-bang design – but there are NO CLIENTS anywhere in the world.

The WNISR report has a particularly interesting section on the status of the SMR in all these different countries, with billions of dollars ploughed into one prototype or another, but very little to show for it at the end of the day. By all accounts, the first and only SMR for commercial electricity generation may be commissioned in China next year – but China is hardly a free market, it has to be said.

It’s always been about cost. And it’s still about cost. The SMR Consortium’s new report breathily promises us that the first SMR in the UK could be delivered for £75 per MWh – but there’s absolutely nothing to back up that figure, by the way. That figure would then reduce to £60 per MWh once they’d built a few of them. That’s certainly much cheaper than Hinkley Point (at £92.50 per MWh), but then everything under the sun is cheaper than Hinkley.

But it’s massively more expensive than offshore wind (already down to £57.50 per MWh, and still falling), let alone onshore wind (now down to €42.80 in Germany), let along solar, which realistic projections show will be down to around £10-£15 per MWh by 2030.

So who exactly is going to be in the market for SMRs in 2025 (and you can guarantee that this delivery date will be delayed many times over, as all the usual hassles of doing a FOAK (First Of A Kind) kick in), when the best offer price for an SMR will be FIVE TIMES as expensive as offshore wind?

All of which makes it perfectly clear that none of this is about cost-effectively producing low-carbon electricity for the UK – there are so many better ways of doing that. It’s really all about keeping the nuclear industry alive, as all our current reactors come offstream over the next 20 years. And that’s where the military connection comes into it.

After all the ground-breaking work by Andy Stirling and Philip Johnstone, at Sussex University, highlighting the opaque interdependencies between the civil and military use of nuclear technology, things are starting to be looked at in a very different way in terms of this policy nexus. And politicians are starting to realise that decisions taken ostensibly to provide nuclear electricity might in fact be at least as much if not more about subsidising aspects of our nuclear weapons programme, particularly when it comes to the Trident renewal project.

In that context, here’s a direct quote from no less an authority than Lord Hutton, Chair of the Nuclear Industries Association:

“A UK SMR programme would support all ten ‘pillars’ of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and assist in sustaining the skills required for the Royal Navy’s submarine programme.”

Bold as brass, as you can see! And we can expect to hear a lot more from Lord Hutton in future, as he’s just been appointed as Chair of Energy UK, a body that is notionally supposed to represent all energy interests, not just nuclear. Hutton has always been the go-to advocate for all things nuclear, and is a particularly keen evangelist for the SMR.

And so it goes on, with billions of pounds at stake and critical decisions about the future of energy supply in the UK still being stitched up behind closed doors. All the current excitement about the SMR is just the latest desperate attempt to keep the idea of nuclear power alive here in the UK – but, to be honest, I’m not too worried. Just as I don’t believe we’ll ever see Hinkley Point finished and generating electricity, nor do I believe that a new generation of SMRs will ever materialise, ensuring that the insane dream of the UK as ‘a vibrant nuclear nation’ will remain just that – an insane dream.

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08. 11. 2017
Noel Wauchope

A very timely article. Right now the nuclear lobby is busting its guts to get itself classified as "clean" - at the Bonn Climate Conference.
The nuclear industry REALLY NEEDS this. Have pity on them.
And also the nuclear weapons industry REALLY NEEDS the "peaceful" nuclearindustry to prosper - small - big nuuclear reactors - who cares ? as long as they can provide expertise and resources for the main game - nuclear weapons.

Very tactful of the SMR proponents to leave out that unpopular word "nuclear" - in their fanciful drive to get public approval.

07. 11. 2017
Andrew WarrenName

Not sure I accept the insouciance of your final paragraph: even if eventually nothing does actually happen on the ground, consider all the wasted years of effort that will be required in order to ensure that your forecast is correct

07. 11. 2017
Jan Thompson

Yes well said. How to convince the numpties that pushing this though...or do they realise and continue anyway because of trident connection? The maths dont add up for keeping nuclear alive. Its a dead duck.

06. 11. 2017

Excellent analysis. I would say though that we should all be worried and should be giving at LEAST the same attention and energy to stopping new nuclear as to stopping fracking. The nuclear stakes are as high as they can get. The rare bats at Hinkley are already among the first nuclear refugees...they wont be the last, unless...

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