Above: Hinkley Point C is one of only two UK new build reactors to be consented

The UK government has restated nuclear as “a central pillar of our future energy mix, with ambitions to deliver up to 24 GW of capacity by 2050” – enough to meet around a quarter of the country’s projected demand. It has published a Roadmap to expanding the industry and it said: “The purpose of this Roadmap is to send an unambiguous signal to the nuclear sector and investors, setting out how we expect UK nuclear deployment to happen, a timeline for the key decisions and actions, and clarity over the role government and industry should play in supporting and enabling this delivery.”

It said it wanted to reach final investment decision on the UK’s next plant, Sizewell C, “by the end of this parliament”, which would mean by the end of this year. In an interview with the Financial Times newspaper energy minister Andrew Bowie said the government was “on track” to raise around £20 billion from debt and equity investors alongside £1.2 billion already committed by the government. Asked if the full amount would be raised, Bowie told the FT: “It’s a phenomenal sum of money but we are genuinely very pleased and very positive about the reaction we have had through the capital-raising process so far.” Potential investors are thought to include a UAE sovereign wealth fund alongside some large institutions.

The UK also promised a list of actions “over the next twelve months” and published a number of documents that “will lay the foundation of long-term strategy in the nuclear sector” based around the new delivery body Great British Nuclear, but aiming to remove some key blockers to new nuclear build. Among these will be timelines and processes for a further GW-scale reactor, as it aims to secure investment decisions to deliver 3-7 GW every five years from 2030 to 2044.

Two key consultations (see below) sought feedback on a new approach to allocating sites for new build and on new ‘routes to market for advanced reactors that are smaller and offer products (such as heat) instead of, or alongside, providing grid electricity.

Alongside these ambitions it highlighted:

  • A nuclear skills taskforce report and a ‘Defence Nuclear Enterprise Command Paper’.
  • Plans to complete technology selection on which small modular reactor (SMR) technology will be supported to achieve final investment decision (FID) by 2029.
  • A response to a recent consultation on nuclear decommissioning and managing radioactive substances, including radioactive waste.

Development consent

The UK planning system is built around ‘national planning statements’ (NPSs) for various types of infrastructure that set out the national needs case and are endorsed by Parliament.

The current nuclear NPS was designated in 2011 and focused on GW-scale nuclear developments, eventually listing eight existing nuclear sites as potentially hosting new-build. “At that time, directing developers’ focus towards a fixed list of sites was considered the best way of delivering the urgent need for new nuclear power,” said the government. But only Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C have been consented.

A new consultation in 2017 focused on GW technology at these eight existing sites, with a new deployment time limit of 2035 and plans for a new site nominations process in the mid 2020s. But the 2020 Energy White Paper set new ‘net zero’ targets. A single reactor at each of the eight sites would result in up to 14GW of nuclear capacity, and now there is “a credible prospect that advanced nuclear technologies will be deployed within the next decade” and any process should include SMRs and AMRs. So the government believes additional sites are likely to be needed and “a greater diversity of sites”. (It has committed to producing a separate NPS for fusion due to the fundamental differences in technology.)

A new planning policy will:

  • Apply to GW reactors and to SMRs (below 500MW) and AMRs that generate both heat and power.
  • Empower developers to select sites for nuclear development, to open up more siting opportunities whilst constraining development in unsuitable areas. The government says that “In line with the other energy NPSs, this will put the developer at the forefront of site selection”.
  • Remove deployment time limits to better support long-term planning and facilitate development of a longer-term pipeline of nuclear developments.

All existing sites (whether with operating or closed facilities) will be open for new build and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) “will periodically publish a prospectus stating which of its land holdings will soon become available for reuse. Where there is commercial interest in available land, the NDA and the government will run fair and transparent processes to lease or option land, with the assumption being that sites go first to new nuclear projects, where that is feasible and represents value for money”.

However, the government says sites best suited for advanced nuclear technologies may differ from those that are suitable for GW plants. They may have other outputs alongside electricity, such as high-temperature heat or synthetic fuels, including hydrogen, and these alternative end-uses could drive consideration of new sites such as those close to industrial heat users. The government intends to define heat-only and synthetic fuel-only reactors, as stations sized at 50 MW or below, as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’ whose development consent is awarded by national rather than local government, as applies to GW-scale reactors. This would require legislation to amend the Planning Act 2008.

Assessment criteria will continue to include consideration against the current ‘semi-urban’ demographic criterion (see box), which decrees that there should be no single 30° sector around the site in which the population density exceeds 5000 persons per square kilometre.

But the government says there may be benefits for certain advanced nuclear technologies to be deployed closer to denser populations, such as to provide high-temperature heat. It also says ANRs will have smaller amounts of nuclear material and there may be novel ways of protecting that material from accidental release. At present, such technologies are at the demonstrator stage so the consultation says it is “considered prudent to retain the semi-urban demographic criterion without amendment at present”. But it adds that “Once there is operational experience and further underpinning evidence around these advanced nuclear technologies, there may be a case for modifying the criterion”.

New business models

A second major consultation covers new business models for future advanced reactors, where the government said it “recognises the strategic importance of embracing modular manufacturing” and hopes that, “The economic ripple effects could be substantial”. As a result, the government is considering “going beyond the support of Great British Nuclear and enabling different routes to market”.

Although advanced nuclear technologies (ANTs) will generate baseload power, the consultation envisages a range of decarbonisation opportunities, from grid electricity through to industrial heat, as well as in new industries such as the production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. For example many ANT designs propose coupling with thermal energy storage, releasing the heat to steam turbines to generate electricity. Alternatively ANTs may be a direct source of heat for application in industrial processes – particularly as AMTs can supply waste heat at 700°C, compared with 300°C waste heat from LWRs. That would enable it to decarbonise specific industries, it says.

On hydrogen, the consultation says it “is a critical part of the UK’s strategy”. It adds, “There are multiple low-carbon hydrogen production methods which could utilise heat and/or electricity from nuclear. The higher temperature outputs of some AMRs relative to traditional nuclear could unlock more efficient production routes for hydrogen, with the potential for associated cost savings from these efficiency gains.” It notes hydrogen’s importance as a feedstock for chemicals, including synthetic transport fuels, and for fertilisers, which require both hydrogen and high temperature heat input (350 – 500°C for ammonia production via the Haber-Bosch process). It says, “ANTs could therefore be an energy source for large-scale production of these chemicals”.

The consultation also notes the possibility of very small-scale reactors that aim to replicate containerised diesel generators and can be transported by lorries to where they are needed and views on the uses of nuclear energy for merchant maritime propulsion.

However, at this point government “is not minded to support ANT technologies as a means of treating radioactive waste, spent fuel and nuclear materials”.

The consultation is looking for new build financial structures that can alleviate nuclear’s high capital cost and high construction risk, reducing the cost of private finance by sharing risk between investors and consumers. It retains its existing nuclear contract for difference (CFD) model and nuclear regulated asset base (RAB) model as the most likely options.

It says, “The lower absolute cost of SMRs and AMRs means it may be possible for a developer to raise the necessary capital to finance a private nuclear project. This may take the form of a major user of heat and/or power building and operating a nuclear plant, but we think it is more likely that there will be a separation between the owner/operator of the plant and the consumer of the heat or power it generates. In either case, risk will largely sit with the investors.” The government encourages investors with the appetite to take on investment risk, but says “there are certain financial risks that the private sector cannot fully mitigate,” such as nuclear insolvency.

The government also thinks it unlikely that private contracts between potential customers and nuclear developers would be a low-cost model, because they cannot provide the same level of financial security as a revenue support mechanism backed by government. It says a private offtake agreement could not protect the nuclear plant from the consumer becoming insolvent and in any case, many industrial operations or factories have shorter lifespans than nuclear plants.

What are the options that are attractive to investors? The consultation directly addresses the industry, saying “We want to hear from you about what we can do to help the advanced nuclear sector work with regulators, access land and develop a business model that drives investment.”

Demographics around a nuclear site

The government consultation on a new National Planning Statement on nuclear opens the possibility that current restrictions on siting based on local demographics may be relaxed in future. What are those restrictions?

The current approach is set out by the Health and Safety Executive. It considers the population in the vicinity of an installation which is compared with standard reference population distributions.

A Generic Site Population Factor (SPF)11 is calculated based on the maximum of the actual weighted population density around the site divided by the reference weighted population density. The absolute value of the Generic SPF provides a simple indication of the relative risks associated with different sites, based on an assessment of 30 degree sectors, and also the total population all around the site. In both cases, the cumulative weighted populations are considered for each radial distance band out to 30 km. Sector rotations of 5 degree intervals ie 72 distinct sectors, is used to identify the most densely populated 30 degree sector.

On the basis of HSE’s advice the Government has decided that if a SPF for any location proposed new site exceeds the semi-urban demographic siting criteria previously used for advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs), then the local population density is too high to permit the siting of a nuclear power station at that location. The generic SPF does not take into account any features of the design of any particular type of station, but simply gives a measure of the population density in the vicinity.

The measures also limit population growth around nuclear stations in operation.

The Health and safety Executive, through the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, administers the Government’s policy on the control of population around existing licensed nuclear sites. Planning Authorities take this advice into account in considering whether or not to approve planning applications. Once a new power station receives planning consent, and a nuclear site licence, arrangements will be put in place with local planning authorities and nuclear site licensees that place constraints on development around nuclear sites to control residential, industrial and commercial developments. The aim is to preserve the general characteristics of the area around the nuclear site throughout its lifecycle, and to ensure that the basis on which the site is licensed is not undermined.