Financial Times, 13 October 2020
From Dr David Lowry, Senior International Research Fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, MA, US
I read with increasing incredulity the article “Number 10 supports £2bn proposals for mini reactors” (Report, October 8).
First of all, your reporters assert without any supporting evidence that “The first small modular reactor is expected to cost £2.2bn.” I would wager, based on over 40 years analysing and writing about nuclear energy policy, that were any SMR ever built, its cost would be significantly higher, having seen every single reactor option ever developed underpriced when being sold to governments in order to secure political sign-off.
Second, even SMR advocates know the owner of so-called mini-plants must be able to sell the surplus heat in order to have any chance of coming close to producing competitively priced power and thus attract private sector investors.
Indeed, a new study by Professor Robin Grimes of Imperial College London — who is also chief scientific adviser in the UK Ministry of Defence for nuclear science and technology — argues very strongly that “SMRs present a particularly interesting proposition for co-generation”.
But what Prof Grimes omits to mention is that in order to reuse the surplus heat generated, SMRs need to be built close to urban areas, or at the very least in industrial parks close to densely populated areas.
In my experience of being involved in British nuclear planning inquiries since the one held for Sizewell B in 1983-85, no licensing regime would give the green light to any reactor sited so close to where people live.
The problems it would create for emergency planners, and for the state civil contingencies and resilience apparatus that protects against terrorism, are considerable. A prudent government would jettison SMRs now, declaring them dead at birth.
However, we know that Rolls-Royce, the biggest industrial advocate for UK-manufactured SMRs, has an additional agenda to support development of this technology, which it let slip in a publicity brochure in 2017, when it described the merits of SMRs thus: “the expansion of a nuclear capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the [UK] Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability”.
Is this the true agenda of Whitehall?
David Lowry Senior International Research Fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, MA, US