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Nuclear Reactors

Volume 773: debated on Monday 23 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in the assessment of the alternative design proposals for small modular nuclear reactors, and when those alternatives are likely to undergo their generic design assessments.

My Lords, in March the Government launched phase 1 of a competition to identify the best-value small modular reactor design for the United Kingdom. DECC has received 38 expressions of interest, which it is now assessing for eligibility. No assessment has yet been made of the designs.

I thank the Minister for that enlightening Answer. I should like to draw attention to a passage in the December 2014 feasibility study of the National Nuclear Laboratory on small modular reactors. The report declares that there is,

“a narrow window of opportunity in which the UK can join the respective programmes … there are other interested parties and also a cut-off point by which time there will no longer be an opportunity for the UK to contribute to design in a way that will provide substantial Intellectual Property Rights”.

Therefore, do the Government intend to involve Britain’s nuclear industry in an SMR programme in a manner that would assist its revival? Can the Minister assure us that the Government will not regard this project simply as a commercial affair? That is how he described the Government’s involvement in the project to build a reactor at Hinkley Point.

As I indicated, there has been strong interest, with 38 expressions of interest. It is indeed the Government’s intention to take this forward, which we are doing.

My Lords, the creation of a series of small nuclear reactors across Britain would give rise to a multiplicity of potential new terrorist targets. What plans do the Government have to limit this threat, including scaling up the civil nuclear police force?

My Lords, nuclear security is central to the Government’s concerns. Obviously, that informs all the policy that we are putting forward in relation to small modular reactors, their siting and taking forward the dialogues that we will have with those eligible out of the 38 expressions of interest.

Will my noble friend tell us a little more about reported plans for an experimental park for the development of small modular reactors in Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia? Are those to be very small plants? Are they to be based on the marine models of Rolls-Royce or will they be larger? How will this experimental system take off the ground?

My Lords, I suspect my noble friend of an alliance with Plaid Cymru on this issue; I had thought that that question would be asked by the noble Lord opposite. It is an interest that has been raised with us by the former economy Minister in the National Assembly for Wales and we are looking at it very closely. Obviously, siting would have to be considered because it is not among those eight sites that have been identified for the orthodox siting of nuclear. However, it is certainly something that the Government take very seriously.

Will the Minister confirm that, with regard to Trawsfynydd, there is considerable interest in that possibility and that some discussions have taken place? Can he indicate what the likely timescale would be if that was to be pursued and at what stage there would be a public consultation?

My Lords, I have mentioned that the matter has been raised with me by the former economy Minister in the National Assembly for Wales and can confirm that there is interest there. I cannot comment on the expressions of interest we have had so far, but we are taking it forward on the basis of involving all those expressions of interest and trying to find something that is viable across the country. As the noble Lord has noted, there has been interest.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to select one single technology to proceed to the GDA process and that they will ensure there is UK intellectual property in the industrial legacy resulting from the SMR programme?

My Lords, it is premature to go into the detail of the precise technologies. All technologies are eligible in the competition, for which we have opened part 1 and which is now being scrutinised. The national interest in this competition is something that the Government take very seriously.

My Lords, are Her Majesty’s Government planning to support research into modular fusion reactors, where the UK has a considerable lead, which are currently provided by private investors in the UK and the USA? This approach is now expected to achieve clean power before 2030.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the question. I reiterate that I think it would be premature to talk about specific technologies because that is part of the process under scrutiny now. Those projects that are eligible will enter into a dialogue with officials in the department. There are many technologies that qualify but, as I said, we are keen to do what we can in the national interest. I remind noble Lords that there is £250 million in the innovation budget for the nuclear programme at large, of which small modular reactors are an important part.

My Lords, EDF has already started training its engineers, with a nuclear engineering academy and some 300 apprentices at Babcock and other engineering firms. If Hinkley Point C does not happen, will the Government continue with this training?

My Lords, Hinkley C will happen. We have heard in the past week an expression of intention once again from the President of France that the project will go ahead. I think that we will reach a final investment decision later in the year, but there is every confidence that the project will go ahead.

Will the Minister confirm that in the Government’s judgment and that of many in the industry the jury is still very much out on large reactors versus small reactors? If comparisons are made between small reactors and Hinkley C, is there not probably scope in the long term for both types? Small is beautiful—maybe fashionable—at the moment, but it is not necessarily the basket in which to put all our eggs for the long term.

My Lords, I find myself in total agreement with the noble Lord opposite; I think that it is both, and that is the Government’s intention.

My Lords, what impact will the development of this technology and its use have on the disposal of nuclear waste? Can the Minister say where we are with the selection of a site for deep geological storage?

My Lords, once again, the supposition behind the question is that it will be plutonium-based; it may well not be or it may be part of the mix, but I say again to the noble Lord that we are running ahead of ourselves. We will scrutinise all these issues, but, of course, decommissioning will be discussed at length in the dialogue that follows those expressions of interest.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that any reactor sites will be protected by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, who are fully firearm-trained officers? This is the case at the moment, so we do not need fear that. On the lower-grade storage of nuclear material, I had real concerns at one stage that some sites were not protected. We really need to think about that when one sees the risk of dirty bombs from terrorists. Can the Minister reassure the House that such sites are now properly protected?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that nuclear security is paramount—that has been the position on this of successive Governments. We have a very good record on nuclear security, and it is the present Government’s policy to pursue that and to make sure that it remains central.

My Lords, I commend the Minister on the way in which he has had positive discussions with representatives of the Welsh Government. Can he confirm that he is having similar discussions with the Scottish Government?

My Lords, I suspect a slight note of mischief in the question from the noble Lord opposite—he is shaking his head—but I can confirm that I have had no such discussions. However, I am very open, as is the department, to any such discussions if anybody from the Scottish Government wishes to pursue them.

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up on my noble friend Lord Hunt’s question about nuclear fusion. Is the Minister aware that nuclear fusion does not generate any fissile material, whereas nuclear fission does?

My Lords, my knowledge on this subject is not extensive, but I certainly did understand that. Once again, this will be taken forward in looking at the various technologies within the expressions of interest in the dialogues with the department.