Bad timing

6 July 2022

How the UK government turned plans for a fleet of eight new nuclear reactors into a bad news day.

Above: The Rolls-Royce small modular reactor has officially started the UK generic design assessment process (Photo credit: Rolls-Royce)

A new British Energy Security Strategy published by the UK government in April had a revived nuclear programme at its centre. It included plans for “up to eight” new reactors by 2030, trumpeted by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as a programme that would see new reactors gaining approval at a rate of one per year, rather than — as now — one per decade.

The strategy was welcomed by Sama Bilbao y Leo´n, director general at the World Nuclear Association, who said, “Governments across the world should be following the UK’s example and setting out policies that put nuclear as an essential and substantial component of their long-term energy strategies.”

The strategy aims for nuclear energy to be supplying 25% of the UK’s electricity needs in 2050, in a fully decarbonised generation mix. It includes plans to develop small modular reactors and advanced reactors that will have applications beyond electricity production. The strategy was welcome in some quarters, not least from those who pointed out that the UK’s current fleet of advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) were set to close down over the next decade and their low-carbon supply would have to be replaced.

But largely the new strategy landed to huge disappointment across the UK. The focus on nuclear was so far from what were thought to be the strategy’s aims that it might even be thought to be a ‘shot in the foot’ for future nuclear development.

Even those who welcomed the nuclear investment were equivocal. Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of Prospect, a union that is a general supporter of nuclear, said: “This energy strategy is big on ambition and if matched with a concrete plan of action and funding from government will go a long way to providing the long-term energy security the UK needs. We are yet to see that concrete plan, however, and it must not be allowed to slip.”

At the heart of the unenthusiastic response was a mismatch between the statement as produced and the issues it was expected to address. Domestic UK energy consumers are already facing a doubling of their energy bills over the next year, while businesses have seen costs increase, in some cases, several times over. Meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has seen growing public support for the idea that the UK should reduce its reliance on Russian gas (albeit it is a relatively small customer compared to some European neighbours). Public and industry expected the government to react to these pressing issues with action that would start to take effect — even if in a small way — by the coming winter. Highest on many peoples’ agenda was addressing the demand side — perhaps in the form of new insulation and energy efficiency measures that would help improve the UK’s building stock, which currently leaks far too much energy. But the Energy Security Strategy had nothing to say about that or, indeed, about the demand side at all, which led many to complain that it was an energy ‘supply’ strategy instead of a ‘security’ strategy. The complaint had particular force because the government is working on transforming the energy sector to become ‘flexible and responsive’ and one in which flexible assets on the demand side can help maintain security (and lower costs) by responding to short term variable generation and flattening out peaks in demand.

The strategy had little support from newspapers – even those sympathetic to the government and the nuclear industry. Financial Times columnist Helen Thomas described the strategy as an “insipid effort” and called the nuclear target “grandiose”. She said, “Clear commitment to new nuclear is welcome but it remains too expensive and too uncertain to underpin the net zero transition.”

Asking “Is that really the best that the government can do?” The Times was still more critical. In a leader, it said of the nuclear part of the strategy that “There was no explanation of why this target had been chosen, when independent analysis by the National Infrastructure Commission, National Grid and the Climate Change Committee have concluded that only three plants are needed to provide Britain’s future baseload electricity. The number eight appears to have been plucked out of the air.”

It agreed that some nuclear expansion was required, but complained that the government offered no analysis of why Britain had succeeded in starting construction on just one new reactor in 16 years, nor any detail on how the government would to unblock these unidentified obstacles.

The leader went on to say, “What is certain is that the new nuclear programme will not bring energy bills down soon, if ever, Instead it will push up bills as the costs of construction are passed on to consumers.”

That was a criticism repeated by consumer organisations, who noted that the government’s Regulated Asset Base (RAB) funding model, if it were used for the new nuclear projects envisaged in the strategy, would start adding to consumers’ bills as soon as construction began — a bad look for the nuclear industry in a strategy that, it had been hoped, would provide relief in the short term to hard- pressed customers.

The message from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) secretary of state Kwasi Kwarteng MP was that the strategy had not been intended to address the current crisis or the aim of cutting Russian imports. Of nuclear, he tweeted, “The UK is making a big call to reverse 30 years of drift and delay on nuclear. To meet our new 24GW target, we’re going to progress up to eight more reactors this decade. Large-scale nuclear is not a quick fix, but a vital investment in our country’s energy independence.”

Many questions remain over delivery of the government’s ambitions and it was not only Prospect who asked for a “concrete plan” for delivery — not just for nuclear, but also for other targets in the strategy, which include 50GW of offshore wind by 2050, and 70GW of PV.

The government suggested it could take a stake in forthcoming reactors, but that raised questions over who would put up the majority of the investment – and commentators noted that there was still no information about who would invest in Sizewell C — now being assessed for development consent — alongside government and EDF.

Meanwhile, as highlighted by The Times, the problems that have dogged delivery of previous nuclear fleets remain. Decades-old plans for a deep high-level waste repository have made little progress.

Delivering the capacity

The strategy does accept the slow progress of current nuclear development and tries to address it. It reiterated plans for a £210 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund.

A new initiative is the so-called British Nuclear Vehicle, to be launched this year. This body will be tasked with helping projects through each stage of the development process and developing a resilient pipeline of new builds. BEIS promised to start work with industry immediately to scope the functions of this entity and give it funding to support projects to get investment ready and through the construction phase. It also said that without affecting existing safety, security and environmental protections “government will work with the regulators to understand the potential for any streamlining or removing of duplication from the consenting and licensing of new nuclear power stations, including possibly new harmonisation on international regulation”.

There will be a ‘selection process’ in 2023 for the next UK projects, with the intention that government will enter negotiations with the most credible projects to enable a potential government award of support as soon as possible. That is likely to have a spot for Wylfa, where plans for an ABWR ground to a halt. As part of the section process, the government “will consider the role UK government financing can play in supporting new projects”. But such decisions are not imminent.

One commentator noted that even as a government initiative, the nuclear part of the security strategy was less than firmly fixed. There is no commitment to signing off additional new reactors in this parliamentary term, which finishes in May 2024 – the target of one ‘final investment decision’ is now long-standing. However, the strategy suggests two more final investment decisions in the next parliament, but that will rely on equal commitment from a succeeding parliament. What is more, the document says, the succeeding final investment decisions depend on the outcome of future spending reviews, and any investment is subject to passing HM Treasury’s ‘value for money’ test.

Taking a bet on advanced reactors

In launching the new strategy Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “We’re embracing the safe, clean, affordable new generation of nuclear reactors”. But if the UK is to have eight new nuclear plants in operation and they are to meet 25% of electricity demand by 2050, as planned, most commentators assumed that they would have to rely on existing reactor designs and sites. BEIS appeared to concur with this, publishing a map of eight current or past sites it described as “designated nuclear sites”, although there are 35 nuclear licensed sites on the list of those overseen by the ONR.

The document does not make mention of these other nuclear sites or others, although one of the arguments in favour of using smaller modular reactors (SMRs) is that they may be appropriate for new sites, but BEIS promised to “develop an overall siting strategy for the long term”.

As regards the likelihood that the new series of reactors could kick off a market for SMRs, that seems unlikely. The FT’s Helen Thomas also noted that “small modular reactors are unlikely to play a big role in that timeframe [ie to 2050]” and the timing seems wrong if the government is to move as fast as it suggests. The only SMR to have entered the UK’s licensing regime is that being developed by Rolls- Royce and that is likely to take two more years to achieve a generic design acceptance. Finding a site, carrying out the necessary extensive local consultation and submitting a licence application is typically a multi-year activity. As well as the EPR used at Hinkley Point C and planned for Sizewell C, three other reactor designs do have design acceptance in the UK – the AP1000, UK ABWR and UK HPR1000 – but fast acceptance and build would tend to push any new plant in the direction of a plant that had already been built in the UK – ie the EPR.

Advancing the design

Although the opportunity for SMRs in the government’s new strategy appears to be limited, the UK continues to invest in new reactor designs.

The Energy Security Strategy announcement was followed by a competition for a share of £2.5 million for bidders seeking to develop an Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR).

BEIS defined AMRs as reactors using novel and innovative fuels, coolants and technologies and said they are the technology focus for this innovation programme as they optimise opportunities for decarbonising industrial heat by 2050, as well as for electricity to power people’s homes. The support was previously announced in 2021 by Energy Minister Greg Hands, and there has already been a ‘market engagement’ phase during February and March 2022.

Now the funding stream has opened for applications and BEIS says the High Temperature Gas Reactor (HTGR) demonstration, which will be sited in the UK, should be “shaped by end-user requirements, and should incentivise private investment in HTGRs by removing technical risk”. BEIS is looking for innovation “at the centre of its design, build, and application”.

The competition will fund up to six Pre-FEED (Front End Engineering Design) studies across two key technology lots:

  • Lot 1: Reactor Demonstration (up to four Pre-FEED studies will be awarded) for projects developing Advanced Modular HTGR technologies, with up to £500,000 available for each project
  • Lot 2: Fuel Demonstration (up to two Pre-FEED studies will be awarded) for projects developing Coated Particle Fuel for HTGR technologies, with up to £250,000 available for each project

The AMR programme is part of the UK’s £385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund. BEIS also promised that two nuclear regulators (the ONR and the Environment Agency) would share £830,000 of funding to help bring the development of UK AMRs to fruition.

By 2028 Sizewell B will be the only operating nuclear power station from the existing fleet. EDF is looking to extend its operating life by at least 20 years from 2035 to 2055 (Photo credit: EDF)
A final investment decision on Sizewell C is expected by the end of 2024 at the latest (Photo credit: EDF)

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