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Nuclear Energy: Small Modular Reactors

Volume 782: debated on Monday 24 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in assessing the submissions to the Small Modular Reactors Competition, and what steps are being taken to dispose of the nation’s stocks of high-grade plutonium.

My Lords, last summer officials met with all eligible small modular reactor competition participants to discuss their proposals. We will communicate next steps for the SMR programme in due course. Significant work is already under way to assess the options for the long-term disposition of the UK’s civil plutonium inventory. The different technologies have varying degrees of maturity, and more work is required to enable the UK to assess, select and subsequently implement the preferred option.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am glad to hear that the second stage of the competition is forthcoming. The competition has been a confusing affair. It has been inhibited by the rules that prevent the Government engaging directly with competitors. The decision on how to handle our stocks of plutonium has been held in abeyance for many years. Is it true that the Government are now disregarding the possibility of using plutonium to fuel a fast reactor such as the PRISM or the CANDU reactors, and that they are favouring subterranean disposal? My essential question is this: when will the Government recognise the need to adopt a strategic plan for our nuclear industry that is supported by the necessary government funds?

My Lords, the Government’s position is clear on how to deal with the plutonium inventory that we have accumulated over many years: the NDA has been set up with the funds to assess the two broad options, which are either to reuse plutonium or to store it safely.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Windsor Energy Group. Does my noble friend agree that the SMRs hold out one of the best paths for the development of cheaper but also safe nuclear power, and probably perform better than the existing vast creations and structures that have been built today? Does the competition cover not only the conventional SMRs but the other technologies, including stable salt reactors which offer an even cheaper and safer form of nuclear power? They are now being developed and taken up by the Canadians and may be the way forward for us as well.

My Lords, the honest answer is that we simply do not yet know whether small modular reactors will represent a cheap source of low-carbon energy for the future. We just do not know what the economics are, which is why in due course we will be publishing a technical and economic evaluation, based on assessing the 32 proposals that have been put to us for SMRs. The only truthful answer at the moment is that the jury is still out.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that different designs of SMR require different levels of fuel enrichment, and that that brings into play proliferation issues. Can he explain what thoughts and conversations are going on about proliferation and how the UK will continue to pursue non-proliferation issues when we summarily remove ourselves from Euratom?

My Lords, clearly, in any assessment of new SMR technology, safety and non-proliferation will be crucial. The regulatory and policy aspects of developing SMRs are very much at the front of the Government’s mind.

My Lords, I speak as a proud former Rolls-Royce engineer and, as a result of my employment, a Rolls-Royce shareholder. Given the news that the EU is now excluding the UK from new collaboration, the growing evidence of the challenge of financing major nuclear power station development and the importance of low-carbon energy technologies to global decarbonisation, does the Minister agree that our exit from the EU provides an excellent opportunity to support UK technology and jobs—including in the steel industry, which we will be talking about tomorrow—and to address a major global export market through government support for the Rolls-Royce-led small modular reactor programme? I suggest that that would be a great feelgood message for after the election.

As the noble Baroness knows, Rolls-Royce is one of the 32 companies which have submitted a proposal. There is no doubt that if we could build SMRs on a modular basis, much of the work could be done in the UK. We may have lost out in the race to build big nuclear plants, but companies such as Rolls-Royce and others in the UK could compete effectively on SMRs and we could then export them around the world. But there is no point embarking on that new technology until we are sure that it can deliver low-carbon energy at an economic cost.

My Lords, there seem to be huge benefits in moving down the route of small modular reactors. The Minister will be aware that, notwithstanding the efforts of my leader, the Navy runs a huge number of nuclear reactors. When those nuclear submarines are plugged into the national grid, does the MoD get money back for the electricity being put into the national grid?

I am not quite clear whether the noble Lord is announcing yet another Labour Party policy: that in future, Polaris submarines will, instead of firing Trident missiles, be plugged into the national grid, but it is something to conjure with. In principle, the way that the grid will be supplied in future will enable those supplying it, whether through SMRs or other ways, to be properly remunerated.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that this is a very competitive industrial situation? We cannot go on procrastinating. In engineering matters, there is never 100% certainty. We must step forward and take a risk on this, to my mind.

The noble Lord makes the good and strong point that you can never be 100% sure, but you have to assure yourself that there is a route to market before you embark on a major new capital investment.