Could micro nuclear reactors revive the UK’s nuclear industry?

Posted on 27 Mar 2019 by Maddy White

Micro nuclear reactors can produce around 30 megawatts of energy, and they could now form part of the UK’s energy strategy in the future, according to the government. But what are the benefits of them, and how could they boost an arguably trailing nuclear industry?

A report from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) found that micro nuclear reactors (MNRs) could have the potential to provide significant benefits to the UK, in energy supply and cost, speed of deployment as well as potential economic and commercial opportunity.

Nuclear does provide a steady and reliable energy source - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Nuclear does provide a steady and reliable energy source – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

MNRs could be deployed across Britain to keep up with energy demands. Perhaps the biggest benefit of nuclear energy is its reliability in providing low carbon energy around the clock.

However, nuclear reactors are incredibly complex, require extremely high safety precautions and any technical problems can cause long plant shutdowns.

In recent years the high costs of nuclear energy have been criticised particularly as renewable sources, like offshore wind power, become cheaper and more readily available.

Micro Vs small modular reactors

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could offer a lower initial capital investment, greater scalability, and be used in locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors.

The technology is being developed at the Derby NAMRC and will be vital to developing SMRs in the UK. The centre will develop new controls, sensors and instrumentation for SMRs, according to the NAMRC.

One of the key differences between small modular reactors and micro nuclear reactors is that an MNR can produce around 30MW in electrical output, whereas SMRs have a capacity in the range 30-300MW, planned new build large reactors (LR) have a capacity in the range of 1100- 1700MW.

Micro nuclear reactors are smaller than SMRs, more flexible and require less maintenance, the government’s report explains that an advantage of MNRs is their simplicity that allows them to be constructed relatively easily.

However, one of the key uncertainties surrounding MNRs is the timescale and costs associated with the regulatory process as the technology is still in its infancy. But the reactors are simpler, smaller scale and are more safe than larger reactors. The issue of scaled deployment of approved pilots could also be an obstacle to overcome if MNRs and/or SMRs are to be rolled out across Britain.

Britain’s nuclear industry faces heightened pressure

The Wylfa Newydd power plant in Wales was scrapped.

With the increasing shift to renewable energy sources, the pressure on nuclear to deliver is high, particularly as Japanese-firms Hitachi and Toshiba recently scrapped major nuclear plant projects; Wylfa Newydd in Wales and Moorside in Cumbria.

Hitachi followed Toshiba’s move and halted work on the Welsh site earlier this year due to rising costs. The move came as a blow to the UK’s future energy supply plans, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) previously said.

Additionally, Hinkley C the power plant in Somerset is years behind schedule, and billions over budget.

Last year nuclear energy supplied 19% of UK electricity, with gas accounting for 39.4% and renewable energy supplying a record 33%, according to Carbon Brief.

Renewable energy sources continue to advance and costs are also lowering. Last month, the world’s largest offshore windfarm Hornsea One, located 120km off of the Yorkshire coast, supplied its first batch of power to the UK electricity grid.

When fully operational next year, it will be the largest windfarm in the world. Its 174 Siemens 7MW turbines will generate enough electricity (1.2GW) to reportedly power more than one million homes.

Nuclear power plant projects face challenges; high costs, extensive regulatory processes and the inflexibility that comes with nuclear reactors. This at a time when renewable energy sources are hitting record highs in energy delivery and are comparatively ‘cheap’ alternatives. Micro nuclear reactors offer the flexibility the energy industry and nuclear needs, but is it too late? By the time MNRs or even SMRs are tested rigorously and approved, will nuclear be a lost cause?