Trudy Harrison: There is huge potential to power the nation using small nuclear reactors

Posted On: 
18th February 2019

Interest is growing in the potential for small modular reactors to provide low-cost, low-carbon energy – and Cumbria is well-placed to lead the charge, says Trudy Harrison

We must get serious about meeting the world need for affordable and reliable electricity while slowing down global warming before it’s too late, writes Trudy Harrison
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PA Images

The global nuclear industry feels to me like it’s suffering a disease akin to gangrene, with bits dropping off.

As a young girl I grew up in Seascale, the village closest to Sellafield, and it’s fair to say the reputation of the nuclear industry which put food on so many west Cumbrian tables was not good.

Secrecy, Chernobyl, restrictions on the sale of local meat and dairy, and high-profile celebrity protests blighted my childhood. Fast-forward a few decades and times have changed – we now proudly call ourselves the Centre of Nuclear Excellence.

We have a safe track record of operating the world’s first civil nuclear power station reactor, followed by a further six reactors, three different technologies and a plethora of other state-of-the-art processes. Sellafield, LLWR, the National Nuclear Laboratory, and West Lakes Science and Technology Park boast some of the biggest names in science, innovation and engineering. And of the 87,000-strong nuclear workforce in the UK, 27,000 live in Cumbria.

But my passion for the industry isn’t just about jobs. There is a demonstrable need for clean, low-carbon electricity now and long into the future. The anticipated requirement for electric vehicles alone could reach an additional capacity of 18GW by 2040. If we are really serious about slowing down climate change, then nuclear must provide a hearty part of the energy mix.

And in my Copeland constituency we have an indisputable capability; nowhere else in Europe could you find such a concentration of knowledge and skills. Yet, we’re facing an uncertain future. First Moorside then Wylfa – the headlines have not been positive for new nuclear, despite significant government efforts and financial incentives.

Economies of scale, based on the size of a reactor have been, until very recently at least, widely regarded as the most cost-efficient method of development. But it wasn’t always like that.

Calder Hall, which began construction in 1953 in Copeland, generated electricity from 1956. It was officially opened by the Queen and consisted of four 50MW Magnox reactors which transmitted electricity into the National Grid for 47 years, until 2003.

Today we are desperately fighting to get a whopping 3.4GW power station over the line. But Moorside, the proposed new Generation III nuclear power station to be built adjacent to the Sellafield site, has been beset by a range of problems over many years.

Following on from Fukushima, the increased costs of engineering mean that nuclear is getting more expensive, the return on investment is becoming prohibitively difficult to predict and the availability of companies capable of constructing gigawatt-plus reactors is limited. There are, very sadly, no large-scale British civil nuclear companies operating today.

One answer could be to build multiple reactors, not bigger reactors. Large reactors try to lower costs by maximising economies of scale, but small nuclear reactors (SMRs) would try to do it with economies of multiples. Having many more SMRs could be the key to our nuclear future.

The government’s nuclear sector deal aims for a 30% reduction in the cost of new-build, advocating the merits of a fleet-build approach. The reduced cost, repetitive formula, modular method is yet to be trialled in the nuclear industry, but this approach has transformed the car and aerospace industries. As we look for ways to secure the necessary resurgence of nuclear power, perhaps it is time to do the same for our energy sector.

SMRs up to 440MW in size, with a diverse range of different technologies are currently being researched and developed across the UK, thanks in part to government innovation funding.

Of course, SMRs are nothing new. For 50 years our Royal Navy’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent has reliably depended upon a mini light-water reactor to keep it powered for years at a time, without the need for refuelling.

Rolls-Royce has mastered the art of small-space engineering and is now one of many companies developing its technology on a slightly larger scale.

From light-water reactors to heavy-water reactors, and molten salt to sodium-cooled, the innovation in fission technology is most certainly alive and kicking. As politicians it is surely our job to ensure policy takes possibility to probability.

There is huge potential to power the nation using around 25-30% nuclear energy, embracing the tried and tested fission method of splitting atoms to heat water, to generate steam, to turn a turbine and power a generator, using existing transmission networks.

Constructing single or incremental SMRs on existing nuclear-licensed sites where an industrial power requirement is currently dependent on fossil fuel, is surely a credible, sensible and more sustainable way to power the UK and beyond.

Grasping the opportunity to meet our domestic power requirements, capitalising on the early-adopter benefits of a multibillion global export market while tackling the energy ‘trilema’ of security, affordability and environmental sustainability will mean that Cumbria continues to be the Centre of Nuclear Excellence.

Today, there are around 50 civil SMRs at various stages of research and development across the world. Fleet-build is widely anticipated to bring a swifter return on investment, with lower barriers to entry and the benefits of standardisation. It’s a case of multiples – the more we build, the cheaper they get.

Many of the 15 UK reactors are coming to the end of their long-serving lives. We must get serious about meeting the world need for affordable and reliable electricity while slowing down global warming before it’s too late. I welcome the government’s enthusiasm for SMRs – but time really is of the essence.

Trudy Harrison is Conservative MP for Copeland and vice-chair of the Nuclear Energy APPG