Dungeness A nuclear power station

Decision time for UK nuclear power

Image credit: Getty Images

The UK is faced with the choice of whether to rebuild its nuclear technology infrastructure or profit from winding down reactors.

By now, the nuclear industry is used to mixed messages from government. In his speech to the Nuclear Industry Association in December last year, energy and industry minister Richard Harrington said there were opportunities for the nuclear industry “but we know the sector also faces a big challenge to remain competitive going forward. This is emphasised by the falling price of offshore wind. While this is great news for our clean growth agenda, it puts a spotlight on nuclear.”

The nuclear industry reacted quickly to the Brexit vote, seeing it as a chance to push its engineering capability as part of a manufacturing renaissance after years of neglect by the government. At The ThirdWay Advanced Nuclear Summit in Washington DC in 2017, Paul Howarth, managing director of the UK’s Nuclear National Laboratory, said: “We will soon be in a post-Brexit era and that’s a big challenge for us but it’s also an opportunity. For nuclear this is a fantastic opportunity because the government is now looking at what industries is it going to rely on in terms of manufacturing. Nuclear represents that nice warm comfort blanket that the government is going to need in the post-Brexit world of a long-term sustainable engineering science and technology-based industry sector.”

The message from government appears to be: don’t get too ambitious. Although he was soon afterwards replaced by Harrington in the post-election reshuffle, former industry and energy secretary Jesse Norman told peers on a select committee in early 2017 that the question was of the UK regaining its status as an owner of exportable nuclear technology and to look at the history of Magnox gas-cooled reactors: “I would invite any member of the committee to tell me a successful export using that technology. It does not look as though either of those technologies had any of the export potential often claimed for them.”

The one instance of Magnox technology being used abroad was in North Korea. “So we have a potential future use for our decommissioning skills in North Korea, if we choose to use them,” Norman quipped.

"If you design [safe batteries] right, the amount of radiation that anyone would receive from these would be less than from a banana.”

Professor Tom Scott, University of Bristol

Although ministers have been clear on the pitfalls of putting too much faith in the exportability of core nuclear technology, the government has failed to live up to the hope in the sub-title of the House of Lords report into the sector published last May: ‘Breaking the cycle of indecision’. Decisions have been few and far between.

Harrington admitted in his December speech: “Government recognises the value industry places on policy certainty.” His next step, however, was to launch three more consultations. One is on the siting of future large-scale nuclear plants; two follow this year on the decision-making around the placement of a permanent home for the UK’s massive pile of high-radioactivity waste.

Waste rather than generation may prove to be the heart of the post-Brexit nuclear industry. In its sector-deal proposal to the government, the Nuclear Industry Council argued the work the UK needs to do to handle its waste is likely to prove useful elsewhere, and can drive ancillary industries in areas such as robotics. Quitting Euratom, assuming that proceeds cleanly, would provide the UK with greater incentive for joining large-scale global R&D projects for fourth-generation reactors in its own right.

In practice, the industry is focusing on the shorter-term skills issues facing nuclear and focusing efforts on an area where the UK might gain a small foothold: the small modular reactor (see ‘Small is beautiful’). Yet even that area has been beset with government indecision and delay.

The UK is not alone. US industry is deeply concerned about the future direction of nuclear in the face of the falling costs of renewables. The UK now needs to decide whether nuclear is a core part of its post-Brexit future or whether the clean-up operation for shuttered reactors, such as the ageing Magnox fleet, becomes the core business.

There are potentially three options, each offering their own advantages.

1. Small is beautiful

EDF Energy expects the 3.25GW Hinkley Point C reactor to cost more than £20bn – and probably not be finished for a decade. There is no guarantee that the cost won’t increase significantly by the time the plant is ready to operate. Is there a way to make nuclear cheaper to deploy?

Technology developed for nuclear submarines provides a different direction for nuclear and, as a result, becomes a sector in which the UK could most readily build up a lead.

Rolls-Royce, which is responsible for the UK submarine fleet’s reactors, hopes – if it can secure government backing – to use its expertise within a consortium to develop a product line around the concept of the small modular reactor (SMR) with a capacity of up to 500MW.

US-based NuScale Power has promised an extension to partnerships with UK suppliers such as Areva and Ultra Electronics as well as research teams around the country if the governments pursue its design for a small cylindrical form of the traditional pressurised water reactor that is designed to be buried in the ground.

UK-based Moltex has developed plans for several variants for SMRs based on a molten-salt technology rather than more conventional pressurised-water reactors.

The notional advantage of the SMR is that it can be built out of pre-fabricated components and assembled more easily than a much larger traditional PWR power station. They could also be located close to industrial plants to supply heat directly, though this is likely to run afoul of local planning policies, such as the Scottish Parliament’s decision of 2008 to oppose the building of new nuclear power stations in the region.

Despite the existence of more than 40 designs produced by companies around the world, none have reached the commercialisation stage. NuScales hopes to start operations of its first SMR in Utah in 2026, but supplier plans are fluid. By the time the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) completed its 2014 feasibility study, manufacturers of two of the six designs regarded as being most likely to succeed had decided to drop their plans for SMRs.

Then there is the question of whether the local level of demand is viable. The NNL’s report argued some 7GW of SMR capacity would be feasible in the UK, which suppliers such as Rolls-Royce see as being sufficient to underpin local SMR development. But David Orr, senior vice president of future programmes and technologies at the engine maker, told the House of Lords science and technology committee that exports would be needed for more than one design to be commercially viable.

Within government, SMR timetables have slipped multiple times. The House of Lords science and technology committee warned in May 2017 that deferring an SMR decision “amounts to forgoing an opportunity that is unlikely to occur again”. In early 2016, the government launched the first phase of a competition to encourage UK involvement in the development of SMRs.

Last year’s general election and decision to adopt a broader re-evaluation of industrial strategy led to delays in the announcement of successful candidates. By the end of 2017, the government appeared to have suspended the contest. In its place, ministers have decided to start again with a round of small individual grants for feasibility studies that may lead to £40m in funding at some point in the future.

2. Profit from decay

If there is one nuclear technology the UK is going to be keen to develop, it’s nuclear-waste management. Thanks largely to the design of early Magnox reactors, and with a missile programme once expected to call on plentiful supplies of it, the UK has close to 100 tonnes of plutonium sitting in holding tanks while R&D work figures out what can be done long-term.

The sector-deal proposal, put together by the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC), criticised the government’s “lack of clarity in current UK waste management policy”. The industry could find it has nowhere to store either high-radioactivity waste or the bulkier lower-activity wastes. The 1.2 million cubic metres of storage capacity is dwarfed by the estimated 4.5 cubic metres in the UK’s radioactive waste inventory and the 6 million cubic metres that will result from UK plant decommissioning. The UK’s stockpile forms one of the NIC’s major aims for development. UK companies could serve a market in decommissioning and waste management worth £100bn.

There are a number of potential options, though the main thrust remains one of developing a geologically safe long-term storage facility. The NIC does not expect a site to be selected before 2030.

Short term, the NIC believes it can make savings by reducing current, expensive fragmentation in waste management procurement. Longer term, R&D within the UK is likely to favour the development of robots that can manipulate the waste safely and provide export potential.

More ambitiously, the plutonium-rich part of the waste could form part of a new fuel cycle, but this has only recently become close to being seen as a viable option. Shortly before a consultation under the previous Conservative government closed, Hitachi-GE said it would take over the Horizon Nuclear Power sites at Wylfa and Oldbury and construct advanced boiling-water reactors. These reactors would, in principle, be able to recycle significantly more plutonium waste than the current programme of production of mixed-oxide fuels. The adoption of more experimental small modular reactors such as Hitachi-GE’s PRISM or the Moltex SSR proposal would significantly speed up recycling.

Although almost all of the R&D work on fast breeders is performed overseas, one UK-based player is working on a technology that could recycle old fuel and which fits into the possible strategy of adopting small modular reactor (SMR) designs. Moltex’s plan is a molten-salt coolant in place of water. The company claims its SMR technology could be ready within 10 years with a cost of less than £30/MWh once the technology has matured. The company estimates a 300MWe demonstration reactor would cost less than £1bn to develop, less than 5 per cent of the capital cost of Hinkley Point C.

3. Battery farms

Research at University of Bristol points to unexpected uses for lower-level waste that would otherwise sit in tanks, warmed by their own decay. In 2016, Professor Tom Scott and colleagues found radiation from decay of low-level wastes such as carbon-14, which forms in graphite moderating rods of reactors, can generate electrical currents in artificial diamonds. Dissolved tritium would provide another radioisotope source.

The currents are small – 1g of carbon-14 can generate around 15 joules per day – 1,000th of the daily energy demand of a smartphone. But radioactive batteries would produce electricity for thousands of years and could serve GPS trackers, or power sensors in nuclear-waste dumps. According to Scott, a diamond coating could harvest energy from hard-gamma rays emitted by possible future fusion reactors.

Scott claims the nature of carbon-14 radioactivity makes construction of safe batteries easier. Its beta-particle emissions are absorbed by neighbouring atoms and do not travel far. “You can put in a lot of radioactive material. If you design it right, the amount of radiation that anyone would receive from these would be less than from a banana.”

Although the battery would generate tiny amounts of current compared to conventional electrochemical designs, Scott argues: “It’s a game-changer for public perception of nuclear in that we’re doing something different with waste, instead of just putting it in expensive store buildings or 500m under the ground. We’re realising there’s value in the waste and seeking a way to get best value from that.”

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