Great British Nuclear: Paving the Path to Net Zero with Small Modular Reactors

The United Kingdom took a significant step towards achieving its Net Zero 2050 goal last week with the launch of the long-awaited and much-delayed Great British Nuclear (GBN). Originally announced in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement in March 2023, the launch of GBN represents the Government’s determination to make nuclear the jewel in the crown of the UK’s future energy network. Critically, the launch of GBN also came with £157 million in grants to support the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). These grants aim to help the UK achieve domestic energy security and reduce its dependence on fossil fuel imports, while paving the way for a cleaner and more sustainable energy network.

While the launch of GBN and the competition for SMRs is hailed as a nuclear renaissance, it also faces challenges and opposition from environmental campaigners. Yet in the midst of this transformative shift in the UK’s energy system, it is clear that the real winner is Rolls-Royce, which has positioned itself perfectly to lead the charge in the adoption and construction of SMR technology.

On the 18th of July, Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps proudly unveiled Great British Nuclear alongside Nuclear Minister Andrew Bowie, a dedicated government body with the sole mission of accelerating the expansion of nuclear power in the UK.

“The UK has a rich history as a pioneer of nuclear power, and I’m proud to be turbocharging its revival,” Shapps said at the launch event held at the Science Museum in London. He emphasized the importance of nuclear energy in driving down energy costs for British homes and reducing dependence on energy imports from unstable regions.

This is no small task, as the Government has previously committed to generating 25% of its electricity from nuclear sources by 2050, equivalent to 24 gigawatts (GW). To put 24 GW into perspective, it is enough energy to power over 21 million homes, which is only slightly less than the total number of households currently in the UK. This is a significant increase from the 6.5GW the UK nuclear industry currently produces.

At the heart of GBN’s mission to reach this ambitious target is the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), a revolutionary technology that is poised to change how all countries generate nuclear power. SMRs are smaller and far more flexible than traditional large-scale nuclear plants due to their modular nature. By being constructed in factories and then transported to the installation site, SMRs offer a quicker and more cost-effective electricity generation option, allowing them to be built and deployed at scale. Something that will support the Government’s goal of delivering clear, cheaper, and more secure energy.

In a style we have come to expect from the Government, however, do not expect DESNZ to put all their eggs in the nuclear basket. Rather, SMRs are expected to form a part of the ever-changing energy mix, with Shapps specifically acknowledging the potential of SMRs to diversify the UK’s electricity generation. “When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, you’ve got to have another option. I think it’s wiser to bet on a mix,” he explained. However, in what looks to be an energy holy grail, the deployment of SMRs will be able to work with other renewable energy sources with the reliability of nuclear power, ensuring a stable and cost-effective electricity supply even during periods of low renewable output.

It isn’t all smooth sailing for SMRs, though, as the technology faces several challenges before becoming fully operational. As a new technology, critics argue that SMRs have no proven track record, making it difficult to assess their efficiency and safety. Dr Doug Parr, Chief Scientist for Greenpeace UK, expressed his concerns in a recent Guardian article that the government’s focus on nuclear power may divert resources from renewables to SMRs. He states, “SMRs have no track record, but initial indications are that the familiar problems of cost overruns and delays will be repeated.”

Its biggest challenge, however, will not lie in the technology behind them but rather in finding suitable locations for the deployment of SMRs. Nuclear has had a fraught public relations campaign, with most people thinking that it is a wonderful technology until there is a risk they get close to their home. The proposed Sizewell C nuclear power plant in Suffolk, which received £700 million of public investment, has faced consistent opposition from both locals and pension funds. Now, considering that the purpose of SMRs is to place them around the country and close to towns and cities, I expect this opposition to explode throughout the country when it comes to SMRs being deployed. Especially when the public realizes that one SMR generates the same amount of power as one of Chernobyl’s reactors. GBN will need to work quickly to navigate the hurdles of planning permission and secure widespread community support before new SMR sites can be successfully established.

One of the main contenders in the SMR competition is Rolls-Royce, a British engineering group that has already received £210 million in government grants for its SMR project. As reported in the Financial Times, Shapps said that Rolls-Royce is “obviously in a good position” to build the reactors. The company’s expertise, experience, and critically, its extensive government links have placed them ahead of the likes of GE Hitachi and X-energy. Although it is worth noting that Shapps said that up to four different technologies could be chosen.

Rolls-Royce’s competitive edge lies in both its vision for a new fleet of mini nuclear reactors, which aligns with the Government’s Net Zero target, and its strong links to the wider UK economy and society. With a potential influx of billions of pounds of public and private sector investment into SMR projects, Rolls-Royce has the perfect opportunity to secure its place at the forefront of the UK’s nuclear renaissance. To that end, I am extremely hopeful we will see a brand new fully-electric Rolls-Royce Spectre arriving at an SMR construction site soon.

The launch of the much-anticipated Great British Nuclear marks a significant milestone in the UK’s journey towards Net Zero. By launching the competition for small modular reactors, the Government can deliver on its aim to drive billions of pounds of both public and private sector investment into clean and reliable nuclear energy. While extensive challenges remain, including likely public opposition and concerns about SMRs, GBN represents a powerful avenue for the UK to harness the benefits that nuclear power can bring.

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