Nuclear Developers Have Big Plans For Small-Scale Power Plants In Britain

  • Date: 21/08/16
  • Susanna Twidale, Reuters

A range of mini-nuclear power plants could help solve Britain’s looming power crunch, rather than the $24 billion Hinkley project snarled up in delays, companies developing the technology say.

A concept design image for a Westinghouse small modular reactor (SMR) site is seen in an undated handout image provided to Reuters July 21, 2016.    Westinghouse/Handout via REUTERS

A concept design image for a Westinghouse small modular reactor (SMR) site is seen in an undated handout image provided to Reuters July 21, 2016. Westinghouse/Handout via REUTERS

A range of mini-nuclear power plants could help solve Britain’s looming power crunch, rather than the $24 billion Hinkley project snarled up in delays, companies developing the technology say.

So-called small modular reactors (SMRs) use existing or new nuclear technology scaled down to a fraction of the size of larger plants and would be able to produce around a tenth of the electricity created by large-scale projects, such as Hinkley.

The mini plants, still under development, would be made in factories, with parts small enough to be transported on trucks and barges to sites where they could be assembled in around six to 12 months, up to a tenth of the time it takes to build some larger plants.

“The real promise of SMRs is their modularization. You can assemble them in a factory with an explicable design meaning consistent standards and predicable costs and delivery timescale,” said Anurag Gupta, director and global lead for power infrastructure at consultancy KPMG.

In a nuclear power plant, heat is created when uranium atoms split. Different reactor designs use this heat in different ways to raise the temperature of water and create steam, which then powers turbines to produce electricity.

Manufacturing advancements mean SMR developers are only a few years from being able to replicate this technology on a smaller scale, and plants could be ready for deployment by the mid-2020s.

“From a technical perspective there is no reason why you wouldn’t be able to make a smaller version of an already commercially viable nuclear technology such as PWR (pressurized water reactor),” Mike Tynan, director of Britain’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (NAMRC), said.

There are already more than 100 nuclear plants using PWR technology in operation across the globe.

NuScale, majority owned by U.S. Fluor Corp, is developing 50 megawatt (MW) SMRs using PWRs which could be deployed at a site hosting up to 12 units generating a total of 600 MW. The 50 MW units would be 65 feet (20 meters) tall, roughly the length of two busses, and nine feet in diameter.

Rolls-Royce, which already makes components for PWR nuclear submarines, is part of a consortium developing a 220 MW SMR unit which could be doubled for a larger-scale project.

Rolls-Royce Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stein said the first 440 MW power plant would cost around 1.75 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) but costs would likely fall once production is ramped up.

“One of the advantages of the SMRs is that they cost a lot less (than large nuclear plants), and it is an easier case to present to private investors,” Stein said.

COSTS, VIABILITY QUESTIONED

Critics, however, say there is no guarantee that SMR developers will be able to cut costs enough to make the plants viable.

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