UK funding spurs advanced reactor R&D but application outlook needed

New funding measures for advanced reactor research and manufacturing will help the UK retain and grow its nuclear expertise and signals support for a widening range of SMR applications, industry experts told Nuclear Energy Insider.

The UK nuclear industry has broadly welcomed the UK government's new 200 million-pound ($263.8-million) Nuclear Sector Deal which aims to cut the cost of nuclear power and bolster the UK skills base.

The deal, announced June 27, includes 56 million pounds towards the development and licensing of advanced modular reactor designs—already set by the government last December-- and 32 million pounds towards advanced manufacturing research. In addition, the UK and Welsh governments will jointly invest $40 million in new thermal hydraulics testing.

The development funding will initially allocate a total 4 million pounds to eight non-light water reactor (non-LWR) vendors, to perform detailed technical and commercial feasibility studies. The eight vendors are:

• Advanced Reactor Concepts
• LeadCold
• Moltex Energy
• Tokamak Energy
• U-Battery Developments
• Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation
• Westinghouse Electric Company UK

In April 2019, three or four of these companies will be selected to receive a total of 40 million to accelerate the development of the design over two years. UK nuclear regulators will receive 5 million pounds to support this process and a further 7 million pounds to build regulatory resources to assess and license new designs.

The latest funding announcements could, for now, prevent an exodus of UK expertise to other countries supporting SMR development. Several advanced reactor developers are simultaneously pursuing SMR programs in North America, where government support programs are larger.

UK company Moltex Energy, developer of the SSR-Wasteburner (SSR-W) molten salt reactor, recently joined New Brunswick's advanced reactor research cluster, pledging $5 million towards operations and research in the Canadian province.

The UK funding package is sufficient for Moltex to maintain laboratory facilities in the UK, as well as some development teams working on alternative fuel configurations, Rory O’Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer of Moltex Energy, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“The Canadian team will be left to focus solely on the task of deploying the first SSR-W. The R&D for the SSR-W will be split across both countries,” O’Sullivan said.

LWR SMR developer Rolls-Royce also welcomed the UK Nuclear Sector Deal, and said that it would work with government to turn the new measures into tangible benefits.

The new development funding schedule indicates the government has slowed down and broadened its approach to SMR deployment since it launched a competition for the best value SMR in March 2016.

The final selection of SMR designs will come later than originally expected and signals a change in scope and a recognition of multiple potential applications, Mike Middleton, Strategy Manager-Nuclear at the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), said.

The funding scope recognises the application of SMR technologies could be "broader than the traditional role as a baseload electricity provider," Middleton said.

In addition to baseload supply, SMR developers are targeting applications such as renewable energy load following, industrial power and heat, district heating, and hydrogen production.

Shorter build times

The UK’s 32 million-pound investment in advanced manufacturing research will apply to all reactor types and will help accelerate the development and certification of new components.

The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC), is already working with four of the eight advanced reactor developers to reduce manufacturing risks and costs, Andrew Storer, CEO of NAMRC, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

In one example, research in electron beam welding aims to reduce the cycle time for joining pressure vessel sections from days to hours, Storer said.

“By working with reactor developers at an early stage, we can help embed these technologies in the design and get them accepted in the relevant nuclear [plant design] code case,” he said.

The advanced manufacturing funding is yet to be allocated to specific projects, BEIS told Nuclear Energy Insider. NAMRC expects to see collaborative projects between academic facilities and industry.

O’Sullivan warned that advanced reactor developers will also need government support beyond design development, including a designated facility for demonstrator reactor construction and support for site licensing, environmental permitting and regulatory resources.

SMR development is advancing faster in Canada, where Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) aims to build a demonstration SMR plant at its facilities by 2026.

In 2017, CNL received 19 expressions of interest for a prototype or demonstration reactor at a CNL site and a further three developers propose to move straight to commercial deployment in Canada.

                        Proposed SMR power capacities in Canada

                                                         (Click image to enlarge)

Source: CNL's Request for Expressions of Interest, summary report (October 2017).

State support for a demonstration reactor helps to plug an important investment gap in the design and testing program, Janne Wallenius, CEO and founder of LeadCold, a lead-cooled reactor developer, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“Private investors are unlikely to provide this funding until the time is ripe,” Wallenius noted, suggesting investors might wait until within five years of the first signing of commercial purchase contracts.

Hydraulic lift

In another encouraging sign, the UK and Welsh governments will jointly invest 40 million pounds in a new thermal hydraulics facility in North Wales to support the design and development of advanced nuclear technologies.

“Targeted research will allow UK companies to develop the next generation of thermal hydraulic codes, expanding our offering and maintaining a marketable resource base,” BEIS told Nuclear Energy Insider.

Industry welcomed the facility announcement because it boosts the UK’s nuclear skills base while also supporting reactor development.

For example, O'Sullivan said the facility may allow Moltex to continue to perform all of its thermal hydraulic research in the UK, rather than in Canada.

While the site for the hydraulics facility is yet to be announced, the UK and Welsh governments have recognized the potential of the Trawsfynydd nuclear site in North Wales where Magnox is decommissioning two 235 MW Magnox reactors.

Trawsfynydd is located on a 15.4-hectare site, on an inland lake in Snowdonia National Park, North Wales. The location of the Trawsfynydd site would allow advanced developers to show a plant can operate away from the sea or major river resources and would also benefit from local community support.

Deployment pipeline

Investors and developers will need more clarity on the potential market size and timelines for SMR deployment in order to move towards commercial design licensing, Storer noted.

“We can then get into questions of development locations and Generic Design Assessment (GDA)," he said.

Developers may soon be further boosted by a new study of innovative SMR financing by the government-appointed Expert Finance Working Group (EFWG).

Emerging findings from the study show the UK is "well placed" to develop first of a kind small reactor projects, the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said.

The findings suggest the “characteristics” of SMRs could attract private investment, BEIS said. The full study is due to be published this summer.

By Neil Ford