The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering issued a report on 24 April saying there is a serious risk that new nuclear reactors may not be built in time to replace the existing capacity of nuclear generation in the UK. 

It suggested that an alternative route could be offered by small modular reactors (SMRs. In its feedback on the government’s industrial strategy, which was published in January 2017, the academy said the smaller size and modular design of SMEs could offer much lower capital hurdles and shorter delivery times, noting that small reactors have operated for years in certain applications such as nuclear submarines.

However, commercial civil reactors are yet to be developed and there is “much work needed before they reach market, not least in terms of safety regulations”, it said. The commercial risks are high but the UK has expertise in this field and the potential rewards both in terms of the energy transition and financial returns are large. The UK’s nuclear energy industry struggles with an ageing workforce and relies on imported reactor designs, which is a lost opportunity for the UK’s historically strong engineering and design capacity in this field, the academy noted.

In addition, the new-build programme is also not progressing as expected, with few global vendors, most of whom are struggling to finance the extremely high capital costs of the latest generation of reactors.  The academy said there is an opportunity for the UK supply chain to play a part in the development of SMRs. However, this will probably need some form of “catalytic activity” from government and a clearer focus from the industry on commercially viable solutions. “The UK could use its history of reactor development and international reputation for safety and quality to develop and promulgate UK participation in technology for a worldwide market.”