Mini-Nuclear Reactors & The New Power Game

Mini-Nuclear Reactors & The New Power Game

So the deed is finally done. After two years of wrangling over the size of the subsidies and a guaranteed production price the UK Government has sealed a £16 billion ($26bn) deal that will see two European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs) constructed at Hinckley Point C in Somerset. As potentially the first of a new generation of nuclear plants in the UK, Hinckley Point is due to be up and running by 2023. It will generate around 3,200MW of largely CO2-free electricity, supplying around 7 percent of Britain’s total power needs.

But the contract to build incurs painfully high costs which, ultimately, will be borne through more subsidies and higher energy bills. While construction is expected to create 25,000 jobs, its Chinese backers will hold a stake of between a 30 and 40 percent, while the French firm Areva, which will provide the reactors, will hold a further 10 percent stake. To sweeten the deal the UK government was forced to guarantee a price for the electricity being produced at almost double the current rate of £50 per megawatt hour, and for over a 35 year period.

Meanwhile, just off England’s southern coast plans are now well advanced to build two new mega-wind parks.  One of these, the German company RWE’s “Atlantic Array” scheme proposes 240 giant 5MW turbines covering 126 square miles of sea between the Devon coastline and South Wales. Yet it will only generate, on average, around 400 MW of electricity. The second, the Navitus Bay Wind Park, is a proposal by France’s state-owned EDF to build 218 5MW turbines covering 76 square miles of sea and generating an average of 350MW.

Collectively, the two wind parks have a capital outlay of £7.6 billion with the owners racking up £620 million in subsidies every year and, on average, generating between them, on average, just 750 MW. That’s less power than that being generated by an unsubsidised gas-fired plant in nearby Plymouth costing a mere £1 billion of capital investment. A number of other offshore wind parks are currently under consideration around the UK coastline.

So then, you may well think that Britain is finally on track to avoid its looming power crisis, albeit at epic cost? Think again.

The threat of UK power shortages over the next few years remains all too real. And, for that, Brits can thank the combined effect of EU regulations and the UK’s decarbonisation policies which have forced the early closure of coal-fired power plant, excessive faith and over-investment in a renewable sector noted for its feeble generation contribution and government foot-dragging in the development of shale gas. The green-lighting of major nuclear investment was already ten years overdue. The nuclear deal may have been signed but two major hurdles remain. First, Brussels is set to examine the nuclear deal to see if the UK has fallen foul of EU state-aid rules. Second, the EPRs destined for Hinckley Point have been plagued with delays and budget overruns in projects in Finland and France itself. The ten years lead-in time is an aspiration not a fixed timescale.

What’s clear is that Big Nuclear and Big Wind projects are eye-wateringly expensive. In the case of the former, they are high risk investments that take an age to come online. In the case of the latter, wind parks, they will continue to be ever-reliant on the oxygen of public subsidy. If you’d ever wished for a serious alternative, clean energy proposition, you need to know there is a very real alternative in the offing: small, portable, “plug and play” nuclear or small modular reactors (SMRs) units.

Amongst all the energy gloom angst, however, SMRs – mini-nuclear reactors – offer a very real economically viable alternative. Among its litany of failed solar and wind investments, the US Government has also quietly been funding development of a “new way of thinking” in nuclear power. Where traditional nuclear power stations produce between 1,000 and 1,400 MW of electricity, the SMRs could produce between one-sixth and one-tenth of that power. Though a single SMR would generate around 180 MW the plan is to produce them in a twin-pack form able to generate 360 MW of electricity; i.e. equivalent to that generated by an old coal-fired station. But while traditional nuclear plants cost around $10 to $15 billion in capital cost, SMR ‘packs’ would cost between $1-2 billion.

The frontrunner in the development of SMRs is Charlotte-based Babcock and Wilcox’s mPower Division. Speaking to Fox News, B & Ws president Christopher Mowry explained, “Small modular reactors are all about taking the risk out of the equation for nuclear. And that’s what the industry wants – they want to de-risk nuclear”. The final unit would be eighty-five feet tall and just thirteen feet wide and incorporate a number of smaller systems.

Mini-Nuclear Reactors

A cutaway rendering of an SMR. The vertical tubes are the nuclear reactor chambers.

Instead of constructing power stations on site, the unit would instead be built in a factory and shipped whole on a truck. And the practical advantages don’t end there. Where Big Nuclear plants require 300 acres of land, SMRs need just 40 acres and most of the facility would be constructed beneath ground. They can also be accommodated on former power plant sites and alongside existing power grids. So no cooling towers, no clouds of steam and no extra infrastructure. In fact, the surface profile of SMRs would amount to little more than that of a major supermarket.

In addition, while the prospect of terrorists compromising power stations has become a major security headache, it would prove far more difficult to compromise an entire power grid by crippling a single SMR facility. And let’s be clear, these self-contained, “plug and play” smaller reactors not only mean less water use and zero CO2 emissions, they will produce far more power than any giant wind-farm project could hope to achieve while taking up a fraction of the area.

While some worry about the public funding of SMR as potentially just another victim of the current White House administration’s propensity to invest in crack-brained poor business model energy schemes – i.e. the Solyndra Syndrome – they fail to grasp the very real potential and cost-effective and practical flexibility of the SMR project. But the major potential is well understood in the United States where SMR unit production is seen as a way of non-nuclear America re-inventing as a prime player in the future global nuclear market.

It looks as if SMRs will become commercially available within 9 or 10 years. That is well within the very earliest timescale of 10+ years that will see Britain’s Hinckley Point C come online. With the British Government’s tardiness in making realistic energy decisions to confront its looming power crisis, ‘plug and play’ mini-nuclear reactors are about to offer a tantalisingly clear and present clean energy alternative. An alternative well able to cause meltdown for excruciatingly painful Big Nuclear deals – and blow the idiotic economics of ‘monster’ wind parks clean out of the water.

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