Modular Reactors are powering our carbon-neutral future

A new generation of small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors could be delivering electricity to UK’s power grid by the early 2030s, revolutionising the UK’s manufacturing base with new processes and designs.

Tim Chapman from the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre discusses the issues.

The recent recommendation from the government’s climate change advisors – to quadruple low-carbon electricity production by 2050 – puts nuclear power back at the heart of the UK’s energy mix.

We’ve been here before. Ten years ago, the UK planned a nuclear renaissance to replace the current fleet of power plants which are nearing the end of their operational life.

However, that proposed programme has largely failed to materialise, thanks to the enormous upfront costs of the current generation of gigawatt-scale reactors.

Power Generation Electricity Bills Energy Increase Non-Commodity Costs Charges - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Today, Hinkley Point C is the only reactor under construction, and when operational in the mid-2020s, it will be the UK’s first new nuclear plant since 1995.

Attention is now turning to a new generation of small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced modular reactors (AMRs), which could be delivering electricity to the grid by the early 2030s.

Affordable and advanced reactors

SMRs are based on similar technology to current reactor designs, but at a smaller scale, deployed in localities. Producing up to 300MW, SMRs should be much more affordable than current designs, as they avoid the huge upfront costs and decade-long development times of current reactors.

An initial SMR power station would cost a fraction of a gigawatt-scale new-build, could be built in four or five years and, once operational, will generate revenue to help finance additional units.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe 

Beyond SMRs, the government has also outlined support for the next generation of nuclear technology. The Nuclear Sector Deal, an agreement between industry and government published last year, offers up to £44m for research and development into new designs of AMR.

The designs being considered include salt and lead-cooled reactors, small high-temperature reactors for off-grid and industrial co-generation, and small tokamaks (a magnetic confinement device) for nuclear fusion.

Learning from other sectors

Nuclear does provide a steady and reliable energy source - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Beyond SMRs, the government has also outlined support for the next generation of nuclear technology.

All these new modular formations are designed to be largely made in factories, creating opportunities for manufacturers who can use lessons learned from other sectors – such as aerospace – to drive down costs, and put innovative manufacturing techniques into production.

Driving down production costs is the key to making reactors economically viable. Modular designs offer the nuclear industry the opportunity to become more like other high-value sectors (aerospace for example, or oil & gas) where the UK has proven industrial expertise.

Reactor developers are now looking to work with manufacturers, technology providers and researchers, to prove innovative processes for new nuclear applications, and use techniques – such as design for manufacturing and modularisation – to build in production efficiencies.

Many of these innovative technologies are already being developed for nuclear applications by the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), part of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult.

From advanced machining and joining, to bulk additive manufacturing and modularisation, the centre is working with manufacturers of all sizes to help them win work across the nuclear sector.

High-productivity research

Two current projects led by the Nuclear AMRC are developing new tools and techniques which could help halve the production time and cost for pressure vessels and other large components for new reactors.

The Simple project (Single Manufacturing Platform Environment) aims to integrate a range of machining, fabrication and inspection operations onto a single manufacturing platform.

Doing more on one machine will reduce the need to move large components between work areas, helping ensure accuracy and quality control throughout the manufacturing process.

Modular Reactors - Inform future factory: the design concept for a new approach to assembling pressure vessels, part of the Inform project
Inform future factory: the design concept for a new approach to assembling pressure vessels, part of the Inform project.

As part of this, Nuclear AMRC engineers are working with colleagues from two other HVM Catapult centres – the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) – plus academic and industrial partners, to develop intelligent tools for single-platform manufacturing.

In the first phase, the team have successfully demonstrated an integrated welding and monitoring tool which combines a range of sensors with a mechanised arc welding head.

The tool will allow automated in-process inspection of welds, improving quality, and reducing the risk of weld failure leading to costly rework.

Nuclear AMRC engineers are also addressing a series of challenges in forming, machining and assembling large components through the Inform project (Intelligent Fixtures for Optimised and Radical Manufacture), again working with leading industry and research partners.

Discover the latest nuclear innovation

Current work involves new techniques to scan raw components shaped by forging or near-net processes, and using the data to generate optimised toolpaths and ensure perfect alignment during machining. The team are also developing conceptual designs for future factories which could significantly reduce cost and lead times for major nuclear assemblies.

The Simple and Inform projects are funded by the Nuclear Innovation Programme (NIP), the first public investment in future nuclear fission for a generation. Closely linked to the Nuclear Sector Deal, NIP funds research into advanced manufacturing and materials and supports development of new advanced reactors.

The Nuclear AMRC helps UK manufacturers bid for and win work across the nuclear supply chain.
The Nuclear AMRC helps UK manufacturers bid for and win work across the nuclear supply chain.

The Nuclear AMRC has worked with partners on other NIP projects: the Fit For Modules project led by shipbuilders Cammell Laird; to develop fundamental systems for modular design; research into advanced joining technologies (led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy); and the Mattear project (Materials and Manufacturing Technology Evaluation for Advanced Reactors) led by Wood.

The innovative technologies being developed through NIP promise to deliver significant benefits and opportunities to manufacturers in the supply chains for nuclear and other high-value quality-critical industries.

Government, industry groups, and environmental campaigners all agree that nuclear power has a vital role to play in our energy mix if the UK is to hit its carbon emissions commitments. Innovative manufacturing technologies will be the key to quadrupling low-carbon electricity in a cost-effective way.

The necessary move to net-zero emissions will require massive investment and disruption to established ways of working, but the opportunities for manufacturers ready to step up to the challenge are real.

The good news is that organisations such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s Centres are on hand to help.