Britain’s nuclear future has been in a state of malaise over recent years. That’s why it comes as a relief that the Government’s Ten-Point Plan promises an additional £525 million investment into the UK’s nuclear sector, including £215 million for building 16 small modular reactors (SMRs) under a Rolls Royce-led consortia.

This move signals a long-overdue commitment by the UK Government to get nuclear infrastructure on par with international peers – a victory in itself after many years of lagging behind. Yet, this investment might not go far enough in light of the energy challenges ahead.

By 2050, our world population will increase from seven billion to ten billion. Demand for electricity will have skyrocketed, compounded by greater reliance on electric vehicles and smart technology. That leaves the question: where is this sustainable, net-zero electricity going to come from? It will surely not come from oil and gas. Wind, solar, and hydrogen will form part of the mix but cannot singlehandedly solve the problem. Nuclear accounts for 19 per cent of UK electricity generation, yet half our existing nuclear power stations will soon be decommissioned. Meanwhile, new reactors at Hinkley Point C will only partially address the near-future electricity demand.

Now, more than ever, we need to push the nuclear frontier of science, engineering, and technology to achieve a net-zero footprint. In many ways, SMRs provide the perfect platform for that.

Benefits of SMRs
Not only do SMRs stand to help fill our energy gap, but their much smaller environmental footprint compared to conventional power stations could help address the negative public perception of nuclear. By nature, SMRs occupy a far smaller land mass and have less radioactive material, which presents great benefits for the environment and waste management. Their architectural design is easier on the eyes, too.

They also present a clear economic advantage over larger reactors due to their scalability and lower costs related to transport, site preparation, and construction. And if we look at decommissioned brownfield sites in Wales and the North West, there is already a footprint to build SMRs while leveraging existing nuclear skillsets and supply chains in local communities. The Government has claimed that developing SMRs could create up to 40,000 jobs by 2050.

At present, SMRs are very much a research and development project. Like any maturing technology, there’s a long journey ahead before we can get too excited about the benefits to safety, reliability, cost and electricity output of these mini reactors. That’s all the more reason why other sources like offshore wind must run parallel to building conventional nuclear plants based on Hinkley Point C.

The infancy of SMRs puts into even sharper focus the need to step up to this challenge. An average lifespan of 40+ years might sound long for a conventional nuclear power plant, but with only a handful of stations in development, it’s easy to see an electricity deficit arising. If we set out to build SMRs by 2040, it won’t be soon enough. But if we pose an industry challenge to our engineers and scientists for what needs to be done to commission an SMR by 2030, the answer might just avert a major energy crisis.

The need for greater partnership and cross sector learning
The reality, however, is that we need to look at energy like the global challenge it is, as the UK will not hit its 2050 net-zero target alone. A year ago, it would have sounded utopian, but we have now seen what the world can accomplish with reduced barriers to research and development as countries band together to combat Covid-19. Now we need that same collective breakthrough in nuclear, an industry guilty of risk averseness when the current climate demands more diversity of thought internationally to promote positive disruptive thinking. We need greater collaboration with scientists and engineers in nuclear-leading countries like Canada, the US, Russia, and China.

Given the tendency of R&D projects to overinvest time and money in gold-plated, over engineered, and usually duplicated solutions, we must look cross-industry to highly regulated sectors like oil and gas, water, offshore wind and pharmaceutical for ways to maximise return on investment.

As tough as 2020’s economic and political impact has been, it’s reassuring to see countries work towards a common goal of beating the pandemic. By all accounts, that collaboration appears to be paying off with the rapid development of an effective vaccine. Imagine what could be achieved if we applied that same collaborative team ethos of knowledge and facilities sharing to SMR technology.

It would be quite the breakthrough, wouldn’t it?

Kason Bala is Director of Nuclear Services at Tetra Tech. WYG is rebranding to Tetra Tech in early 2021. Tetra Tech is a leading provider of high-end consulting and engineering services for projects globally. With 20,000 associates, Tetra Tech provides clear solutions to complex problems in water, environment, infrastructure, resource management, energy, and international development.
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