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Nuclear Energy: Small Modular Reactor

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 12 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they intend to report on the progress of the competition to design a Small Modular Reactor for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in March 2016 the Government launched a competition to identify the best-value small modular reactor for the UK. The competition has attracted considerable interest from industry, and 33 eligible expressions of interest have been received. We expect to provide an update on the competition’s progress shortly. The focus of the competition is engagement with industry to help inform government policy. It does not involve the down-selection of a reactor design.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The Government announced the competition for a small modular reactor in March 2016, as we have heard, but it was expected that phase 1 of the competition would be completed by autumn 2016, with the publication of a road map. We are still waiting for that. Meanwhile, some UK companies have invested heavily in developing their solutions. I am told that, without a clear government road map, those companies will have to decide by the end of year whether to continue to invest in SMRs or walk away. Should they walk away, Britain will lose much of our nuclear competence. I must ask the Minister: in that case, would the Government be content to rely on foreign suppliers for our nuclear equipment?

The Government acknowledge that industry is eager for greater clarity on the approach we will adopt on small modular reactors. Nuclear power is an important part of our diverse energy mix, and it currently supplies around 20% of our electricity demand. Today, I can announce that the Government are providing up to £7 million over the next two years to increase the capacity of the UK nuclear regulators to support and assess new and advanced nuclear technologies, such as SMRs. Investment from international partnerships is forthcoming, and we expect there to be more of interest in the future.

Is my noble friend the Minister aware that British firms are making considerable progress in this technology, particular Rolls-Royce? Is he also aware—I am sure he is—that China, Korea, the United States and other countries are all pushing forward with this new technology very rapidly? Would he consider, for the medium term down at Hinkley Point, that installing a series of these much more reliable and possibly cheaper nuclear installations—there is a learning curve, as each new product cuts the costs—may be a much better way forward than continuing with the present plan of the giant, out-of-date design, and staggering cost, of the present project down there, which will impose a vast cost on the British people for years ahead?

The main focus of my noble friend’s question was the siting of SMRs, which is certainly being looked at with great care. The picture is complex, and the House will have to be patient in understanding that there is an awful lot to consider in where the SMRs might be sited and the funding for them. To take up his point about Hinkley Point, and perhaps other nuclear facilities, it could well be sensible initially to site the SMRs in or around the larger nuclear capabilities, for all kinds of good reasons.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that the ongoing delays with the SMR decision are not only critical to the companies involved but to possible locations for the SMRs. For example, the Trawsfynydd location, which has been decommissioned for 20 years, has been identified as a possible location for SMRs, but that brings in a planning blight for other developments while this is still in mid-air. Please can the Government make progress?

We are aware of the interest in Wales as regards that particular siting. However, as I said earlier, a decision has not been made on where the sites might be. Perhaps I can reassure the noble Lord that as much as possible is being done to look at the early rolling-out of the SMRs, but it is a complex matter.

My Lords, I welcome Rolls-Royce’s great expertise in this area, but as the term “modular” suggests, the only way in which these reactors can become commercially economic is if they roll off a production line, which it is estimated requires some 50 to 60 reactors to be produced over a lifetime. Is that not wildly optimistic? Surely it will never happen, certainly given changes and developments in other technologies in the energy field.

The noble Lord alludes to the different types of reactor. We are not necessarily looking at one small modular reactor; it is much more complicated than that. Some micro-reactors might be helpful, for example, in introducing the SMRs into districts to help with heating for multiple schools and so on. The claimed advantages for SMRs include easier-to-finance projects with lower up-front capital costs. They are smaller projects which are quicker to build. There is a lower construction risk and a greater deal of efficiency in their manufacture. So there are advantages, but there is more work to be done.

My Lords, will HMG also consider, as I understand they are doing, fusion modular reactors? They represent a considerable area of research in the UK, and I declare an interest as having quite a leading role in it.

I note the point that the noble Lord has made. There are a number of different types of reactor which are slightly beyond my ken—fast reactors and so on—but, yes, that is definitely being taken into account.

My Lords, this is really not good enough. All political parties bear a responsibility for the abandonment for a number of years of a proper civil nuclear programme, whereas at one stage we led the world. In terms of energy security, wealth creation and jobs, it is crucial that we move forward on this. Does the Minister not agree that we really need to move now in a number of these areas? It is all very well saying how complicated it is, but this is a chance for us to grab the initiative and get going. Does the Minister not believe that we must move faster?

We are moving as fast as we can. We will soon be closing the current phase of the SMR competition and making further announcements on the next steps for SMRs in the coming months, potentially as part of the nuclear sector deal.