Nuclear’s role in low carbon energy and clean growth

We caught up with Richard Deakin, Director of the Low Cost Nuclear Challenge about his work building industry-leading capability in low carbon energy and clean growth by integrating industry, investors and societal benefit.


Can you tell me about the UKRI Low Cost Nuclear Challenge?

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which brings together  nine organisations under a single umbrella. This includes seven disciplinary research councils, such as Engineering and Physical Sciences through to industrial co-investment, bringing products and programmes forward through Innovate UK.   I joined UKRI in April 2020 as Low Cost Nuclear Challenge Director.  That sits within the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) portfolio, one of UKRI’s flagship funds, which is tackling the big societal challenges of the government’s industrial strategy. 

My role is to act as a pivot point between government policy and industry. The government allocates money in its budget to UKRI to follow a policy narrative and to support policy direction to be delivered, for example, Clean Growth.  One of the grand societal challenges that the government has identified is clean economic growth only. How do we grow the economy whilst decarbonising at the same time?

I lead government spending in an effort to enable the development  of a UK designed nuclear power solution that can come forward at a cost that will support commercial investment and a role in the UK energy mix . There is wide agreement now that nuclear is an essential part of  energy mix going forward and wider pathways to Net Zero.  On a global basis, there's lots of published data out there , e.g. International Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change 2014 makes a really strong case for nuclear, as does the World Nuclear Society, United Nations and others.

The recently published analysis in support of the government's Energy white paper said that we would need between 5 and 15 gigawatts of new build of nuclear into the UK to meet net zero targets by 2050. My role is to spend money in a collaborative, project-managed way with the UK industry to enable development of the UK SMR as a product but also to generate economic benefits and enable the programme to  grow the economy.  Going forward means putting jobs into regions, working with the supply chain, working with regulators and working with financiers and regional stakeholders in ways that can benefit them all.

The Low Cost Nuclear Challenge is enabling the bringing forward a product in a repeatable way utilising the UK’s engineering and manufacturing capability to deliver cost and schedule benefit, it’s not necessarily a technology focussed programme because nuclear technology is a well proven method of supplying low carbon power. The numbers are very impressive.

The life cycle emissions that are published for nuclear power are 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of generation. By comparison Gas Is estimated through life-cycle emissions as something like 490 grams of CO2 per kWh.  Interestingly, Offshore wind is about the same about 12 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh and solar PV is actually in the mid-40s.

Power solutions in a balanced energy system have to be considered in across their lifecycle by considering how much processing is needed to generate the components, extract the raw materials, build a supply chain and build the product to deliver the power and of course emissions during operations and by these measures nuclear is a strong candidate to contribute to decarbonisation.

We are doing this to aid decarbonization and clean growth. In early 2018, UKRI called for ideas or projects that should be considered for  funding in support of clean growth. A group of UK companies led by Rolls –Royce was amongst the respondents. The  UK SMR consortium  came forward and made an outline case  for £235m of government funding which they would more than match.  After much consideration and analysis, the programme was launched   The total joint industry and government investment  equates to approximately a  £500 million programme to develop a UK sovereign reactor technology and power station and supply chain to the point of maturity that can would attract commercial investment as a route to deployment in the UK and beyond.

The consortium is an all-star team including construction companies, reactor plant developers and researchers: Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O’Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Rolls-Royce and TWI.  They're all actively supporting with investment, labour and expertise to the evolving success  of  the programme. 

We're currently in phase one of the programme, which on a 50/50 match basis is a £36m programme lasting 18 months.  We exit that in April of this year; subject to final approvals we're going to move continuously into phase two. That takes the technology development programme and the power station development programme to the point where progresses into the UK generic design assessment (GDA)  process so it is assessed by the UK regulators. It is planned to enter GDA in late 2021 and concurrently be moving towards First of a Kind build on a timeline to enable power to grid in the late 2020’s.

Indicative price ranges for this UK small modular reactor (UK SMR) suggest the cost of power is attractive The Levelised Cost of Electricity is currently projected to be of the order of £40-70 per MWh, which on a like-for-like basis, makes it competitive at today's rates in an open energy market

This project could not go ahead without the support of government policy.  The Prime Minister recently underlined the support for bringing forward small and advanced nuclear . The ten point plan for a green industrial revolution specifically talks about nuclear new build and developing a UK SMR and investing up to £235m in support of “developing a domestic” power plant.

One of the ‘secret sauces’ for this project is a dispersed supply chain. Unlike a big nuclear power station, such as Hinkley Point C, the UK SMR proposition is that you predominantly construct components for the power station in  factories so they are built in factories, assembled in factories and constructed and assembled on site in a ‘site factory’ under a canopy.

What are you most looking forward to hearing about at the IET’s conference in March, Nuclear engineering for safety, control and security?

One of the things I think is fascinating and that I am looking forward to at the conference is the role of digital engineering, digital knowledge capture and digital twinning that can be played in reducing through life costs of such a big programme.

I believe the UK SMR will be the first nuclear power station that's fully digitally engineered from day one. There's already been a huge amount of attention  going into engineering systems that can speak across organisations and that can capture in real time engineering change, engineering requirements definition and allow cost effective design. Eventually that will flow through into manufacturing build, which will capture design intent and design specification and translate this into manufacturing delivery, control and assurance. Ultimately, it will then move into the stage of how you then monitor fit, form and function through life and how you regulate. 

The way the reactor plant is brought together is very innovative; I think it's a huge product differentiator.  It's a project that is attracting huge international interest.  


Where is it going to be located?

One of the ‘killer business ideas’ in this proposition is the concept of ‘design once, build anywhere’. The platform will sit on a seismic raft. Therefore, whatever the ground conditions, everything above ground level is plugged into a raft so modules that can be built in a factory will always be the same - and then just plug into it.

I think where the UK will look to go first is its nuclear licenced sites that are no longer required or are changing state. The investment is being made in the factory infrastructure to help reduce the cost to bring forward the first build but there will be more to follow. We are building a product not a single project. 

What are the main challenges faced by the nuclear industry today?

Well, one of the main challenges in nuclear industry is everybody thinks it's really expensive, difficult and delayed.  What makes nuclear power so expensive is the perception that it will be late and therefore return on investment is at risk. Investors will ask for a premium on that money before they lend because it's at risk.

The challenge for small nuclear is by building in a factory and controlled environments, do you increase the delivery certainty to a point whereby investors will just treat it as any other product as a commodity product to buy and therefore offer you finance at a different rate? The cost of the finance to build dominates  the cost of the power as once built a station will deliver low carbon power continuously for 60 years and ongoing fuel and operational costs are relatively low . Far and away the most punitive feature of any nuclear programme in terms of power generation is the cost of borrowing the money to build.  This  programme is right at the nub of demonstrating through factory build and design, delivery certainty and therefore being able to attract financing and commercial investment at a lower rate.

Because it's a dispersed supply chain, you open up  the supply chain to lots of players and this in itself can create an environment for innovation. I stress the challenge here is not so much the nuclear tech, it's more about the supply chain integration and engineering challenge of putting all the parts together; it's attacking the delivery model. So, we’re not just building something that delivers electricity; it has to do it in a repeatable, reliable way and has to do it on time. Otherwise, the cost of nuclear projects will always be seen to be prohibitively high, so to some extent we’re myth busting, and that's the biggest challenge. How do you slay the dragon of nuclear being expensive without building it? There will be lots of people out there who will be sceptical of this until we demonstrate the first one but the prize for the UK is huge.

The challenge is obviously not to over commit, but always to over deliver and make sure we're on schedule,  project management and open and honest and collaborative reporting is incredibly important.

The policy narrative says the UK government wants to support nuclear new build, but not at any cost. So we still fight in the background to convince, educate and engage stakeholders . We must always be mindful demonstrate value for money and keep the commercial drivers of the programme in sharp focus.  

It's not about technology for technology’s sake. The mission here is decarbonisation. How do you get nuclear to play a role in decarbonisation.  You have to do something that can do it at cost and repeatedly and is scalable.

These things have to come together. There's the engineering and the supply chain effort.  I have no doubt UK industry can deliver this. We've probably got 80,000 people working in nuclear in the UK. We've got sites, we’ve got regulators, we’ve got manufacturing companies. We’ve got innovators, we’ve got high value engineering companies and we've got the innovation network.  We Just need to be smart enough to put it together and humble enough to collaborate The delivery challenge is about the way you integrate it, not necessarily the technology; you've got to get the doing the right things at the right time in an integrated way to make it all fit and bring the costs down. There’s a significant reality check here for the UK nuclear sector. We are building a product to be made across a sector for a commercial market not simply servicing a funded programme. 

There's a potential for huge innovation.  Commercial investors will be convinced when they see industry capability and policy narrative to support, which is why the Energy white paper is so important as essentially it scales the potential market and is a first signal of demand.

The government opening a Generic Design Assessment (GDA) and allowing the UK SMR to request entry to it, will also be a key signal and step forward.  The case for the UK SMR and the  programme has milestones and targets in it, where I can drive and challenge government to deliver their policy objectives and outputs at the same time as the project has to work and deliver. At a basic level the programme operates in it in a three-dimensional way – investment, policy and industry are all integrated.

What would you say to anyone thinking about a career in the nuclear industry? 

Currently in the UK nuclear industry and to some extent globally in the West, there's two predominant sectors: the defence sector and the decommissioning sector. And in the middle of that, there's this third sector - the ageing fleet of generation - the nuclear stations are coming towards the end of their natural design life.

SMRs, having a much smaller magnitude of capital, open a different market for investment and being built in factories, offer a route to generating a fourth sector and revitalisation in nuclear new build on a global scale. And the market is huge. In my opinion,  it's not necessarily a question of when small reactors come to market; it's a question of how many, how fast and where they go afterwards in support of wider pathways to net Zero is an exciting and open question.

What will the UK Nuclear industry look like in 10 years’ time?

Within the next 10 years, it’s possible and my mission to ensure, we’ll see UK SMR reactors being built with a first on grid around 2030  in the UK. A vibrant supply chain will be  working on delivering a pipeline behind that initial build. This wide industrial capacity and capability  can then transition or adjust to future technologies that will come down the line, so other reactor systems or things like molten salt reactors or lead cooled reactors and fusion will be progressing.

Arguably we’re  putting in place industrial capability, policy, finance routes and access to sites in the first instance and de-risking an important route to decarbonisation while delivering growth and jobs in high value manufacturing and engineering. 

There's something like 70 tech developers around the world developing different  propositions in a small nuclear space not all will progress but some will.

I think nuclear will play a fundamental route in pathways to net zero in support of the hydrogen economy, synthetic fuels and industrial decarbonisation for example. As we move through the next decade or two decades, what you'll see I think, is progressively different technologies coming forward that address different areas of the market.

There are developers looking at small micro reactors that are off-grid for industrial applications in remote locations. There are developers looking at more advanced concepts that will support higher temperature applications and might support decarbonisation of industrial processing and there are increasingly developed thoughts as to how nuclear can support decarbonisation of aviation at scale through synthetic fuels.

The UK proposition in the first instance is around low cost power onto the grid. The analysis in the UK Climate Change Committee Report last year suggests we're going to need to double the UK use of electricity in the next 30 years, to service transport, heating and industry but we’ve got to do that without increasing the carbon output and in reality actually decreasing it at pace.

To meet net zero carbon emissions targets, analysis from Energy Systems Catapult suggests we need to get down to the region of less than 20 grams of CO2 per kWh or lower in our generating mix  That's a heck of a challenge; to double the power output and reduce by 90% of carbon emissions. Net zero will happen. The real challenge is how do we make it happen in a way that's cost effective, quick enough and actually delivers innovation, economic benefit and high value careers for our population.  Our target is to revitalise the third part of the nuclear sector in the UK and wider, and demonstrate cost effective new build.

This is a generational decision by the government to invest in small nuclear . This is the first time since the AGR fleet back in the 70’s and 80’s that the UK has  invested in developing its own sovereign UK Power station tech.

What’s not to be excited about?

Richard is the keynote speaker at the IET’s conference, Nuclear engineering for safety, control and security, taking place online on 24-25 March 2021.

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