The government's announcement last week of a funding package for feasibility studies into a range of modular nuclear reactors went largely unnoticed by the media. However, as a report published this week makes clear, the news actually represents a significant reversal of policy, and one that achieves the remarkable feat of making the UK’s energy future look even bleaker than it does already.
George Osborne, for all his faults, showed commendable vision when he launched a government competition to design small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in 2015. SMRs are a new approach to nukes that would involve building large numbers of small reactors rather than a few enormous ones, like the infamous Hinkley Point C. The guts of the power plants could then be built offsite in a factory, where it would be expected that learning curves would be steep, and costs would be reduced as dozens of identical units are produced. Cost projections for SMRs suggest that they might even be able to produce power more cheaply than offshore wind, the greens’ favoured energy source, without a reliance on the wind blowing.
The reactor's parts would also be small enough to be delivered to operational sites on the back of a lorry, and could be buried underground so that their visual impact would be minimal. If built with the latest designs, they would also be extraordinarily safe, with meltdown almost a physical impossibility.
Businesses around the world have been looking to become pioneers in the new designs, and some may now only be a few years from breaking ground on pilot plants. NuScale Power, a US company with offices in Oregon and London, is now well into the process of having its designs approved by US regulators. Its bosses hope to be producing electricity from their first plant, in Idaho, by 2026.
The technology is therefore potentially revolutionary, and a win-win in the perennial climate wars: who, apart from environmentalists of course, would argue against cheap, carbon-free electricity that was available on demand? This was the vision that Osborne enunciated when he launched the competition.
Unfortunately, the Whitehall machine appears to have had other ideas. Although the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) has already identified a small group of companies who had viable SMR designs and so there was a clear path forward, civil servants decided to open up the competition to all and sundry, and by the second half of 2016 they had managed to increase the field to no fewer than 33 runners. This included a bizarre range of suppliers, many of whom were not even selling SMRs; most were based around technologies that only exist on paper. Few had much engineering credibility, and some were scarcely more than a brass plaque on a door somewhere.
Nevertheless, two other Whitehall reviews commissioned at the same time concluded that SMRs of the type identified in the NNL report could be delivered quickly and economically; there were also two vendors – NuScale and Westinghouse – who were capable of delivering them. It was therefore still possible for the government to get a grip and put the UK at the forefront of SMR developments.
Alas, it was not to be, as last week’s announcement made clear. The list of companies chosen by the government for its feasibility studies included no reactors that could produce electricity within a decade. Most were 'blue skies' projects that would only come to fruition in the distant future, if at all. It is beyond doubt, therefore, that the SMR programme has been unceremoniously booted into the long grass.
Some say that there is an urgent need to decarbonise the electricity supply before man-made climate change brings utter catastrophe. One would have thought that Secretary of State Greg Clark might have wanted to place a relatively cheap, and above all, reliable source of carbon-free electricity as a central plank of the UK's energy policy. After all, the alternatives are not looking encouraging. Big nuclear is frighteningly expensive. Few investors seem to think they can generate a return on gas-fired power stations in the UK now that the main political parties are united in the belief that the free market needs to be nobbled in favour of less reliable energy sources like wind farms and solar energy.
Mr Clark’s decision to shelve the SMR programme therefore looks foolish in the extreme, and indicates a willingness to leave the public at the mercy of the elements. This is not the action of a great reforming minister.
Andrew Montford is deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum.