As the UK begins to emerge from lockdown, there have been calls from business leaders and senior figures in government for ‘Building Back Better’ – an initiative aimed at ensuring the Coronavirus recovery plan prioritises climate change.
With the International Energy Agency Chief warning that the world has just six months to prevent a post-lockdown rebound in emissions and avert a future climate crisis, it’s essential, now more than ever, that the UK honours its commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
There’s no doubt that the advancements made in the renewable energy sector in recent years have boosted confidence and provided greater assurance that future energy demands can be met without the need for coal. But renewables can’t provide all the answers alone. Nor are they the only low-carbon solution available.
Currently, 50% of the low-carbon energy produced across Europe (EU & UK) is produced by the nuclear sector. If we are serious about moving away from fossil fuels, including natural gas, nuclear will need to remain part of that clean energy mix. With the output from solar and wind heavily dependent on weather conditions, we need a reliable source of near-constant, low-carbon energy – something that nuclear sector currently supplies. Throughout lockdown, nuclear reactors also continued to fare well in terms of reliability, safely providing power to the UK and keeping the lights on, despite vastly reduced numbers of staff on-site.
There’s no argument, the renewables sector will make up a large proportion of our future energy, especially when you look at the headway that has been made in reducing electricity costs. This compares favourably with the only nuclear project currently under construction in the UK, Hinkley Point C – which has seen considerable cost and schedule challenges as with any first of a kind large infrastructure project.
Of course, we need to acknowledge that Hinkley Point is an enormous undertaking. Once complete, it will be among the most advanced power production plants on earth, generating 7% of the UK’s electricity needs and providing us with 60 years of low-carbon energy. As with all large-scale civil engineering projects, the uncertainties around these projects makes financing extremely challenging – we’ve seen similar issues with Crossrail and HS2. But, in the case of nuclear, this ultimately impacts the cost of electricity for the customer.
So while Hinkley Point is a pioneering project, and we should expect subsequent builds of this nature to enjoy significant economies of scale as a result, these exceptional circumstances haven’t prevented plans for other UK projects from being suspended in recent years.
Affordable clean energy
This is worrying for the UK, and its efforts to become carbon neutral. The nuclear industry in the UK is facing an uncertain future – with all but one of its current fleet of 15 reactors scheduled to be retired by 2030. This would leave the UK with just the currently operating Sizewell B and the two new reactors at Hinkley Point C.
If things were not to change, this would see nuclear’s contribution to the UK electricity mix (currently about 21% and 40% of clean electricity) shrink significantly. This would be bad news, not least because we’ve seen developed nations that have failed to renew their nuclear fleet struggle to move away from fossil fuels.
However, the UK is now actively pursuing an addition to large scale nuclear, in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs). These relatively compact power stations will occupy roughly the size of one and half football pitches (3 acres) – 133 times smaller than the sprawling Hinkley Point site, which is closer to 400 acres.
Their modular nature will also allow the majority of construction work to be carried out in factories, with components being transported to the site where they can be assembled. This doesn’t just make it easier to achieve economies of scale, it strips out a massive amount of civil engineering and the many potential delays and quality issues typically caused by the elements.
When compared to large-scale nuclear projects, SMRs are expected to take around a quarter of the time to build, for around one tenth of the cost. The fact that financing costs play such a big role in the costs of nuclear means that future electricity costs from these smaller nuclear units may well be competitive with renewables.
The National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) is part of a cross-sector consortium which is now working, with the government’s help, to make this a reality. There has already been £36M of funding committed to designing the SMRs – part of an expected £500M in total support for clean energy innovation. It’s hoped that this will result in the first SMRs going live in the UK by 2029.
Meeting future energy demands
This is great news for the UK, as it will ensure we have a stable baseload of affordable, low-carbon, electricity moving into the next generation – and we’ll need it!
When you consider the number of connected electronic devices we all now possess, our individual power demands are rising dramatically. And that’s before you consider transportation and the millions of additional electrified vehicles that will need to draw power from somewhere. This all adds up, with demands on our national grid estimated to double by 2050.
Thanks to SMRs, however, we’ll be in a position to quickly meet this energy need. Each of these reactors will be able to power over 60,000 electric cars, while five could power 2.5M homes. Given their compact nature, we’ll even be able stack new builds beside existing ones and bring them online as required.
The potential for SMRs to provide a clean growth catalyst is hard to ignore. It’s estimated that SMRs will not just preserve jobs in communities which rely on the nuclear sector for jobs, but they could create up to 40,000 new jobs.
Given rising energy demands around the world, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates the potential market value for SMRs is £3 trillion globally – which represents an enormous export opportunity for the UK. This would provide a much welcome stimulus to the UK economy following the pandemic.
Sourcing energy more sustainably
If we are to stay away from carbon emitting fuel sources, we need diversity in our energy production – and SMRs could be instrumental in preventing us from becoming overly reliant on any one source of energy.
They could also be instrumental in the production of carbon free fuels such as hydrogen. Despite having huge potential (given its only waste product is water), hydrogen still has the problem that production is currently dependent on steam methane reforming – which is the method used to extract the fuel from fossil fuels. Fortunately, there are cleaner alternatives in the shape of electrolysis, which use large amounts of electricity split hydrogen from water, and thermochemical water splitting, which can produce the same results using chemicals and high-temperature heat.
The nuclear sector can help on both fronts here, as nuclear reactors produce huge amounts of each. This is why the nuclear sector is actively considering the potential to situate hydrogen production facilities close to future SMRs and next generation advanced modular reactors (AMRs).
The high-temperature heat could also be made available to heavy industries, such as metallurgy or glass production, or redistributed to heat homes across the country – further reducing our reliance on other energy sources.
One of the cornerstones of the post-Coronavirus ‘Building Back Better initiative is driving investment in low carbon innovation. Investing in clean energy technology such as SMRs and AMRs is the perfect opportunity for the government to ensure we’re rebuilding the economy in a way that will support log-term climate goals. Not only that, but the sector supports the development of thousands of highly skilled workers at all levels across the sector and its vibrant supply chain – with a particular focus in some of the areas of the UK which are in the most need of an economic boost.
It will still be several years before we see the first SMR on the ground, but once the first power station goes live, there’s no reason why we won’t see a second and third soon after. We could be at the dawn of a clean energy revolution here in the UK, and it’s likely SMRs and AMRs will play a major part in moving us forward into a net-zero future.