Traditional nuclear projects delivering baseload electricity must adapt if nuclear is to have a significant role in a future UK low carbon energy system, according to a series of new reports by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

Analysis carried out by the UK-based ETI indicates that new nuclear projects can form a “major part” of an affordable low carbon transition in the UK and that there are roles for both large and small reactors. But it warns that an inability to demonstrate cost reductions will lead to other power sources – such as renewables – becoming more prevalent in a future UK energy system.

“The UK benefits from an established knowledge base and supply chain in nuclear power plant operations, but there is competition for nuclear to prove itself economically against other low carbon options,” said Mike Middleton, Strategy Manager for the ETI’s nuclear programme.

The ETI suggests the best way forward is for the UK to deliver a programme of large (1GW-size) light water reactors. But the industry needs to demonstrate realistic cost reductions. There is a challenge to overcome on how new nuclear projects are financed, so they move away from overseas and government equity funding schemes such as for Hinkley Point C, according to Middleton.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could fulfil an additional role in a UK low carbon energy system by delivering combined heat and power helping to decarbonise energy use in buildings. Evidence suggests that SMRs could be cost-effective but further work is needed to improve the economics, ETI said.

“The requirement to innovate to improve the predictability and affordability of new nuclear power plants has never been stronger,” said Middleton.

“Future nuclear technologies will only be deployed if there is a market need and such technologies provide the most cost effective solution. The nuclear industry has the challenge to demonstrate how it can reduce costs as more UK new nuclear projects come forward, and also demonstrate competitiveness alongside other low carbon options within the energy mix such as renewables.”

This year the ETI will be releasing technical data and nuclear reports from projects delivered across its technology programmes over the last decade. The group is also seeking partners to work on a project to provide a greater understanding of the cost drivers in the construction of new nuclear plants.

Photo: Sizewell B the last UK reactor to start operations (Credit: EDF Energy)