In the hopes of becoming the leader in clean energy innovation, the UK government are soon to announce plans to spend £100m on a new generation of smaller nuclear reactors. But what are these new reactors, and what role will they play in the future of the UK’s energy sector?
The new reactors in question are known as ‘Small Modular Reactors’ (SMRs). As implied by the name, this new generation are much smaller than those we have seen in the past. The economy of scale, which is usually key in energy production, hasn’t quite worked favorably for nuclear power; so far, as nuclear reactors have grown larger, their complexity has skyrocketed, and with it, costs. So sets the stage for the SMR.
The existing technology, along with the several competing designs, is based on what is known as a ‘Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)’. PWRs have been tried and tested, and are the staple of the world’s nuclear energy production. The innovation that sets apart SMRs from their predecessors is the modular arrangement, the separation of bulkheads, reactor, turbine, and cooling, allowing them to operate in their own cells. This, combined with the smaller size, allows easier and safer maintenance of the turbines, as well as reducing the risk of a failure cascading into catastrophe.
The sizes of these SMR designs range from about 100m to 200m in length, the smallest taking up about the area of a football penalty box. One of the hopes for this new design is to open up nuclear power to a different market, competing with renewables like wind and solar. Due to the smaller scale of these reactors, the smaller the plants will become; this hopefully means more potential places will available to build them.
The small size also offers other advantages, which hopefully will reduce the cost of nuclear power. The smaller, less complex designs open up increased production volume, resulting in an economy of scale. Manufacturing greater quantities of reactors reduces the machining and assembly cost of each reactor overall.
Offsite construction is another factor that can reduce the cost of SMRs. Building each reactor at the manufacturer’s facility, rather than on-site, allows any bugs to be fixed before delivery, reducing cost. Each module can then be delivered to the site on the back of a flatbed truck, and doesn’t require the need for further construction crews besides those needed to set up the reactor within the facility itself. Having smaller, more manageable plants might also have an additional cost-saving effect, as the need for transferring power across the country, via the grid, decreases, allowing for more localised power production.
With electric cars currently set to replace petrol cars in the coming decades, the UK will need to implement more clean energy solutions. Unless we make a concerted effort to build clean energy infrastructure, electric cars will continue to increase CO2 emissions, regardless of the fact that they don’t necessarily require fossil fuels to operate. Whether SMRs can compete with long-established renewables in order to meet this growing need remains to be seen, but their potential as a future means of energy production is undoubtedly interesting and important.
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