Likely options for the UK Small Modular Reactor market

Attention SMR designers: the UK could be a significant market. We look at plausible timeframes for the UK to regain its nuclear power heritage with the deployment of SMRs.

A source close to DECC told Nuclear Energy Insider that a second phase of government research was going ahead with “no delays” and “there should be some dates soon” regarding further developments. Image for Illustrative Purposes Only; Source:UK Parliament

By Jason Deign

The leafy grounds of Silwood Park manor, near Ascot in the UK, hide a secret for those who know where to look. Housed in a nondescript building is a tiny nuclear reactor belonging to Silwood Park’s owner, Imperial College.

The research and training reactor was shut down in 2008, but serves as a reminder that the UK has a long history in the development and operation of small nuclear plants. And there are signs the country could move to reclaim its heritage.

As previously reported in Nuclear Energy Insider, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is currently eying the potential for SMR deployment in Britain, following a National Nuclear Laboratory study last year that was positive regarding the technology.

“There is a very significant market for SMRs where they fulfil a market need that cannot, in all circumstances, be met by large nuclear plants,” the study said.

It estimated up to 85GW of capacity could be added by 2035, creating a market worth GBP£400bn, that is “if the economics are competitive.”

DECC has confirmed it agrees with the main thrust of the report and has carried out its own feasibility study, concluding that “more detailed investigation should be done to define the economic, technical and commercial opportunities SMRs provide.”

A source close to DECC told Nuclear Energy Insider that a second phase of government research was going ahead with “no delays” and “there should be some dates soon” regarding further developments.

Models reviewed

But assuming SMRs finally get the green light in Great Britain, what vendors might be in line to supply the technology? The list of models reviewed within the National Nuclear Laboratory study is instructive, if not necessarily exhaustive.

Top of the list are the two models closest to commercialisation in the US: NuScale Power and Generation mPower.

NuScale, which is majority-owned by Fluor Corporation, currently appears to be winning the race for commercial rollout in the United States, after signing an agreement with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems that puts it on track for operation by 2023.

In November last year, NuScale also signed a development agreement with the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield, UK.

It also announced this month a full-scale, first-of-a-kind helical coil steam generator (HCSG) for use in its SMR design is set to undergo performance tests in Italy.

Generation mPower, a joint venture between The Babcock & Wilcox Company and Bechtel, was a previous frontrunner in the American market when it won support for development and licensing from the US Department of Energy.

That lead appeared to slip last April when the business announced it was restructuring its SMR programme owing to a lack of investors and orders.

Even so, UK Nuclear Institute trustee Mark Lyons says either provider’s design could be considered as representing the current state of the SMR market.

Government funding

“Those are the ones that have received US government funding and it would be fair to say that the designs are the most advanced,” says Lyons.

The National Nuclear Laboratory study also covered a third US design, from Westinghouse, which a year ago was reported to be on hold.

Beyond the US, the research surveyed the ACP100 SMR model from China National Nuclear Corporation, which is a partner in the UK Hinkley Point C reactor project, and a “parametric outline concept” from Areva.

But perhaps the most eye-catching addition to the list was U-battery, a micro-reactor design developed by Dutch and British universities for Urenco, a UK nuclear fuel supplier.

The inclusion of such a relatively unknown design likely responds to a policy requirement for SMR implementation to serve as a way of maintaining British leadership in the nuclear industry.

“The interest, I would suggest, is less about indigenous use and more about exports,” says Lyons.

Best option

Even so, at this stage of the game there is no obvious steer on which design might be optimal for the British market, or, indeed, whether the best option is even one considered in the National Nuclear Laboratory report. After all, there are a number of other possibilities.

In the US, Holtec and GE-Hitachi both have designs categorised by the World Nuclear Association as “for near-term deployment.” South Korea has approved a 100MW model called the System-Intergrated Modular Advanced ReacTor.

In addition, Russia is moving forward with barge-based floating SMR designs. Even Argentina has an SMR, the CAREM-25.

And while some of these options might seem a little too politically charged for the UK, it is worth bearing in mind that until a year ago Her Majesty’s government was fostering Russia’s entry into the British market through a cooperation agreement with Rosatom.

More than the colour of the flag, what is likely to swing a future SMR deal in the UK is the price of the product. “I wouldn’t rule out any nationality,” says David Hess, an analyst at the World Nuclear Association.

He explains his reasoning: “It’s great to see so many countries and vendors actively pursuing SMR concepts. SMRs are a promising nuclear technology offering a greater degree of flexibility than larger designs. They are well suited to a range of applications and can easily be slotted into smaller networks. We hope to see the first designs licensed and available within 10 years.”