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Small Modular Reactors: Government Funding

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Adam Holloway.)

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for chairing this timely debate on modular nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom. Until recently, we took our dependence on electricity generation for granted. Policy has rightly been influenced by our ambitions to reduce our carbon footprint, arguably faster than many other developing and developed nations, but we may have been a little complacent over the past few years in regard to the security of energy supply.

Our world is getting more dangerous, not less. The war in Ukraine has been a massive reality check, exposing how reliant we are on—and therefore how vulnerable we are to—access to international energy markets to keep our lights on. We require imports of gas, oil and coal to fuel our power stations. All too regularly, we have to import electricity from the continent through the interconnectors when we cannot generate enough power ourselves.

The security situation in eastern Europe is clearly complicating matters. Putin is weaponising Russia’s distribution of oil and gas, causing large-scale economic harm across Europe. The cost of living crisis here has many components, but arguably a major contributor is the spike in global energy prices and the volatility in the energy markets. All this requires a sense of urgency in finding short and long-term solutions. We expect that tomorrow the Government will spell out their support to get us through the crisis. There is much speculation that energy bills may be frozen, helping us to get through a very difficult winter, but we also require a longer-term strategy to become far more energy self-sufficient as we enter a decade in which global security is on the decline.

I congratulate the right hon. Member on securing the debate. Does he agree that the use of small modular reactors, in conjunction with nuclear energy, gives more solid certainty about sustained energy, particularly in relation to my constituency of Strangford in Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland has no nuclear production, so it is essential for the type of energy to which he refers to be UK-wide. It is needed across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I agree. I welcome the Government’s action to bolster our energy resilience: finally increasing UK gas storage capacity, investing in better insulation for our homes, growing the contribution of wind and solar to our energy mix, and of course investing in new nuclear. As the Government’s energy and security strategy sets out, Britain will accelerate new nuclear, including modular reactors, which will form a key part of the energy mix.

I will make some progress, if I may.

We have Hinkley Point and Sizewell C coming online, adding 3,000 MW to the grid, but it will be a full decade before they start to add their power. We do not have the luxury of waiting that long. Energy consumption here and across the world will only increase as we move towards a cleaner fossil-free environment, especially across Africa, as economies and industries grow, placing ever greater demands on the ability to generate power.

I will make a little more progress and then give way. I know that this is an important debate.

That last point brings me to the subject that we are discussing today: Britain’s development of modular nuclear reactors. The concept is not new; Rolls-Royce has been building small reactors to power our Royal Navy submarines for decades, so one would think the UK well placed to be the first nation to have one up and running.

The benefits are very clear, and I am sure that the list will be added to in this debate. Each single reactor from Rolls-Royce generates approximately 470 MW of energy, enough to power 1 million homes. They cost only £2.2 billion each, versus the £20 billion that their bigger brothers cost. Once the first five reactors are built, the concept can be proven and we can start looking at exports. The export market for Rolls-Royce is worth £54 billion to the UK. This will not only help the UK, but help other nations to address their crippling energy prices and meet their COP26 targets.

Trawsfynydd, in Meirionnydd, is entirely publicly owned, and is a nuclear-licensed site. As such, it offers an unparalleled opportunity for the fastest deployment of SMR technology at any UK site. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Welsh development company Cwmni Egino are working together on proposals for siting, and hopes are high that construction will begin in 2027. That is where the timing is so critical. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that Cwmni Egino’s development model provides a blueprint, which could be used not just in Wales but beyond, for the alacrity of development that we are all seeking.

I am grateful for that intervention, which confirms that there is a desire to see these reactors built here in the UK. Initially they will all be built in a single factory, which, once it is up and running, will be able to build the components in months rather than decades. Just about all the moving parts are in place to make this happen: the design, the support from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—represented by the Minister who will respond to this debate—the initial development costs, the private sector investment and interest, and the factory in Derby that has been earmarked, along with potential sites across the country. We would be creating 40,000 jobs and £50 billion of investment, and offering a revolution in clean energy supply.

So what is the problem? If we have a workable design, a genuine solution to help resolve this energy challenge, a Government Department saying all the right things and offering support, and backing from the private sector, why did I need to bring this issue to the Floor of the House? The answer is very simple. The Rolls-Royce design is now stuck between the development and delivery phases, and that delay means that the built-in advantage that Rolls-Royce has—its experience of procuring nuclear reactors for the Royal Navy—is being lost because of unnecessary delays and bureaucracy. Obviously all nuclear reactors are complex and there should be no short cuts to their procurement, but this is not about design approval; it is about the political will. The Government need to formally agree to commission those first five reactors here in the UK. That would allow Rolls-Royce to secure the funds to build the factory, and thus allow more reactor orders to be honoured.

Dounreay, in my constituency, was the site of the very first nuclear reactor built in the United Kingdom. The site is licensed, it has a very skilled workforce today, and it has huge local support. Does the right hon. Member agree that it should be considered as a site for one of these new reactors?

I would love to be the one who gifts these locations, and I would be grateful—I am sure the Minister is hearing this—if those five locations then received potential building permissions, but we need first to cut through the red tape that is stuck in the Government. I stress that the problem is not the Department represented here today; it is, I am afraid, the Treasury.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on small modular reactors, I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in this important debate.

Rolls-Royce SMR has secured funding of £210 million from UK Research and Innovation, and a further £280 million from private investors. We now need to move to the next stage, which is all about deployment. We need to agree with the UK Government on plans for siting and funding. Manufacturing plants have been earmarked for Rolls-Royce SMR across the UK, including Deeside, which will benefit north Wales and my constituents in particular. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the next stage is important because it will unlock more private sector investment and result in new factories and more high-skill jobs in the UK during this Parliament?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I commend her work in chairing the all-party parliamentary group. I hope that her comments will fall on the welcome ears of the Minister, who is soon to get to his feet.

My plea to the Minister is simple. I ask him please to recognise that the scale of the energy crisis we face necessitates a leaning into this project to secure the greater political alignment that would allow funding models to be completed during this Parliament. That is entirely possible.

Europe is once again at war, and it is time for us to move to a warlike footing if we are to reduce our dependence on overseas power sources which are exposed to volatile international prices and, indeed, adversarial interference which we cannot control. We can enjoy greater energy self-sufficiency with cheaper bills by generating cheap, clean, reliable power within our borders. We have the know-how, we have the desire, we have the industrial advantage; I simply ask the Minister for the political will to make it happen.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I want to begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this important debate and speaking so passionately about the benefits that can come from this fascinating development of a UK capability in nuclear power. Tonight’s debate gives us the opportunity to build on the discussion on small modular reactors and energy security in the UK convened by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) in January this year.

As Climate Minister I am proud to support not only the Government funding but the private investment that we are sometimes seeing facilitated by that Government funding in the nuclear sector. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East has said, the global energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlines our resolve to develop new nuclear capacity in order to boost our energy security. I am sure that all of us who take an interest in this will have been gladdened by the fact that there is such strong support for that across the House this evening.

As we make strides towards delivering net zero, the demands on our electricity system will increase. Electricity will be increasingly important, potentially providing around half of final energy demand as its use for heat and transport increases. That would require a fourfold increase in clean electricity generation, with the decarbonisation of electricity underpinning the delivery of that overall net zero target. Our analysis shows that all low-cost, low-emission solutions that will take us to this net zero-compliant electricity system are likely to require a combination of new nuclear, combined cycle gas turbines and carbon capture, utilisation and storage, in addition to growing levels of renewables. It is a complex piece, but we need all the bits to come together to meet the challenges that my right hon. Friend has set out.

Nuclear power is important for the UK’s energy security. As the world has emerged from covid-19, global demand for energy has risen significantly, and this has been exacerbated by Putin’s malign invasion of Ukraine. But secure, clean and affordable energy for the long term depends on the transformation of our energy system, and that means more home-grown energy from increasingly diverse sources in order to reduce our dependency on imported fossil fuels and our exposure to the high and volatile prices in international markets that we can see today.

Hon. Members will be aware that in April 2022 we announced the British energy security strategy. This set out our ambition to deploy up to 24 GW of civil nuclear power by 2050, which will meet around 25% of our projected 2050 electricity demand. New nuclear generating capacity is an important part of our plans to ensure greater energy resilience as well as having a crucial role to play in net zero. I am delighted that the British energy security strategy set out the Government’s intention to take a large-scale new project to final investment decision during this Parliament, and that two projects will reach that point in the next Parliament, subject to the necessary approvals.

I remind Members that SMRs will play an important part, as well as those larger nuclear installations, and will be a critical part of delivering new nuclear for the UK. They offer the opportunity for flexible deployment options—we have already heard various bids to host them—and could bring regional and socioeconomic benefits, including the creation of high-value manufacturing and engineering jobs on site and on the site of manufacture.

In November last year, as my right hon. Friend has said, we announced £210 million in match funding for Rolls-Royce SMR Ltd to develop the design for one of the world’s first small modular reactors. Funding for this project was predicated on Rolls-Royce matching the Government’s contribution with private investment, which has been found, giving the design the capability of being deployed in the UK by the early 2030s, if not before. The Government funding for Rolls-Royce is part of the advanced nuclear fund, which is a significant Government commitment of up to £385 million, both to develop domestic SMR design and to demonstrate the viability of innovative advanced modular reactors by the early 2030s.

In addition to investment in SMRs, the Government plan to invest in the AMR research, development and demonstration programme, which, as I say, should get something going by the early ’30s. It is focused on high-temperature gas reactors for low-carbon electricity generation and would allow the production of very high-temperature heat that could be used, for instance, for the increasingly efficient production of low-carbon hydrogen, to help to decarbonise industrial process heat, or even for synthetic fuel production.

I am pleased to remind Members that we launched the future nuclear enabling fund, or FNEF—I have realised, on my first day, that BEIS is full of acronyms galore—on 2 September 2022. The FNEF—they are never terribly well crafted—is a £120 million fund announced in the Government’s “Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener” in 2021. It aims to help mature potential nuclear projects ahead of any Government process to select future projects. We expect to make awards from the fund at the end of this year or at the start of 2023.

Alongside the launch of the FNEF, we are setting up Great British Nuclear, a body to enable nuclear projects and get us on a pathway to meeting our ambitions for new nuclear, with the aim of ensuring the kind of rapidity that my right hon. Friend is right to press for from Ministers such as me. We intend to initiate a selection process in 2023, with the intention that we will enter into negotiations with the most credible projects to enable a potential Government award of support as soon as possible.

I was pleased that Parliament backed the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Act 2022, which was granted Royal Assent in March and established a new regulated asset base—or RAB—funding model for all new nuclear projects.

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for not having congratulated him on securing his new position. He is a round peg in a round hole; I know how passionate he is about the environment. Will he join me in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), who was previously in charge at BEIS? He is now in the Treasury and therefore perfectly placed to advance this idea. During the war there was an effort to create munitions, and we leant into that project because there was a necessity, and during covid there was a necessity to create personal protective equipment. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is now a necessity for us to lean into this idea and expedite it—within the safety parameters—to make sure that we can become more energy resilient?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I am happy to do that. He will forgive me, perhaps on this one day only, for not leaning in to chastise any other Department or the Government in general on day one, self-confident though I always try to be. If we look at what we have done, we see that we have reduced our emissions by more than any other major industrialised nation, and offshore wind has been a triumph.

I am looking forward to learning more about the detail of these programmes, but I have no doubt that with the right will and the proper prompting by colleagues from across the House we can ensure that we move with the speed necessary. We need to, because as he rightly says, we are not alone in pursuing and seeing this opportunity, and there have been instances in the past when this country has been in a position to lead and has not moved quickly enough, and multibillion-dollar opportunities—let us call them that—have ended up going elsewhere.

I am determined that we shall not only deliver on our green obligations in this country, but build our industrial capability so that even the most sceptical person comes on board as we say, “Look, we are not just dealing with climate and not just cleaning up our domestic situation. We are developing major industrial capability so that we can sell that to the rest of the world, help it with the net zero challenge, and also produce jobs and prosperity here.” It is not a hairshirt that we want; we want to get the policy right so that we are part of a global solution, and to do so in a way that boosts jobs and prosperity and carries the support of everyone, regardless of their views on climate-related matters.

We believe that the RAB could cut the costs of financing these projects, enabling companies to finance new ones and ending our reliance on overseas developers for finance, resulting in savings for consumers. On day one, I can reassure my right hon. Friend that a lot of work is going into making sure not only that we can move at pace, but that we do so with the most solid base possible.

We fully support the development of small modular reactors and the exciting opportunities that they can offer the UK in energy security and reaching net zero. We have demonstrated our intent to build new nuclear capacity in the UK over the past year, and we have made the decisions that we believe will provide the confidence needed for investors and businesses to get behind it. From the energy White Paper to our landmark British energy security strategy to funding for small modular reactors and the future nuclear enabling fund, I hope we have shown our dedication to energy security, net zero and nuclear. I thank my right hon. Friend and other colleagues once again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.