Thursday, September 14, 2017

Small modular reactors

Source: Rolls-Royce

There's a push on in the UK for the government to embrace small modular reactors (SMRs).  These are much smaller than the giant at Hinkley Point in England (1/10th the size) .  They're being developed by Rolls-Royce, who have a long involvement with the nuclear-powered submarines of the Royal Navy.   Rolls-Royce, needless to say, is enthusiastic:

Traditional large nuclear plants are bespoke projects often relying upon state support, but small modular reactors could be made in centralised manufacturing facilities and then transported to anywhere in the country or overseas, producing benefits of scale which would drive down costs. Rolls-Royce is developing a patented modular concept which is designed specifically for factory manufacture and commissioning, speed of installation and reduced onsite construction work. This mitigates the programme risk associated with conventional nuclear plants. Our concept is the best of breed in terms of design, manufacture, cost and ownership.
Rolls-Royce believes its SMR design will:
• Provide 220MW to 440MW of power, depending on the configuration, that’s the equivalent of up to 150 onshore wind turbines.
• Supply power to the grid in a timely manner at lower cost to the taxpayer and consumer, generating electricity that is at least as cheap (per MW) as power generated by today’s large scale reactors – potentially even cheaper when SMRs go into volume production.
• Represent the lowest risk by using proven technology and best value by using a high degree of commercial or standardised off-the-shelf components.
• Open up opportunities for UK supply chain companies to enter into volume manufacturing as over 75% of the design (by cost) is modular.
• Appeal to a UK commercial or international utility company or power station operator.
• Be so compact (16 metres high and 4 metres in diameter) it can be transported by truck, train or even barge.
• Sit within a power station that would be roughly five and half times the size of the pitch at Wembley, which is just one-tenth the size of a typical large-scale reactor site
(40,000m2 vs 400,000m2).
• Take just 5 years from the start of construction to the generation of the first electricity.
• Be up and running by 2028, maximising the UK’s first-mover advantage in the race for exports.
• Minimise operating costs such as refuelling and the burden of decommissioning.
• Last for 60 years. 

[Read more here]

Rolls-Royce reckons that these new SMRs will produce electricity at £60/MWh (US$80/MWh), which is cheaper than  Hinkley Point, but will only be possible with economies of scale.  To be fair, that's similar to the situation with concentrated solar power (CSP) and batteries.  Unlike the giant bespoke nuclear plants being built at Hinkley Point, Flamanville and in Finland, the risk of huge cost overruns is less (or at least controllable).  We could build one SMR at a fraction of the cost, see if it works and how much it really costs, and then build others.

Rolls-Royce only expect this technology to be available in 2028.  By then, at the current growth rates for wind and solar, let alone CSP, renewables could be close to 2/3rds of total global electricity supply.  Will the world need new nuclear then?  The costs of renewables will have fallen further, but how much further will the costs of SMRs fall?  Plus, baseload is no longer very attractive (what is and will be needed is dispatchable electricity rather than baseload) and nuclear is very much baseload.  Can the activity of SMRs be dialled up or down, even on a 24 hour time frame?

I have said before that if I believed nuclear could be instrumental in our shift towards a carbon-free economy, I would grit my teeth and support it.  If  SMRs are not much more expensive than renewables, and if  they are safe, and if  they will still be useful in 10 years time when they come on stream, then they might be part of the solution.  But I hae me doots.

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