Don’t let the Tory Leadership Race Slow our Nuclear Progress

20th July 2022

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The recent announcement that the Rolls Royce-led consortium developing small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK had identified six possible sites for the first of three factories was good news for the nuclear industry, and for the low carbon agenda. It signalled that the consortium’s plans to build 16 SMRs over the next 25 years were gaining pace.

And then came the resignation of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the subsequent Tory leadership race. Now, there are concerns that, not only could decisions be delayed while an effectively interim government is in place, but that the next Prime Minister may have different priorities to the previous one.

Rolls Royce has already made it clear that early Government approval for its technology is vital to getting the first SMR up and running before 2030. Back in June, Tom Samson, chief executive of the Rolls-Royce SMR consortium told the Times: “If we do not have an instruction to deploy our technology in the UK by the end of this year, then our ability to meet 2029 will move back accordingly.”

SMRs would be much smaller than a conventional nuclear plant, about one-tenth of the size. Because they are smaller, and because 90% of each plant would be produced in factories, they would be less expensive to build than their larger sisters, perhaps costing £2bn to £2.5b each. The plan is that each reactor would generate 470MW of power which would provide energy to around a million homes.

The potential location for the first, and largest, of the factories that would manufacture heavy vessels for the SMRs are Richmond (North Yorkshire), Deeside (Wales), Ferrybridge (West Yorkshire), Stallingborough (Lincolnshire), Sunderland (Tyne and Wear), and Carlisle (Cumbria). The sites were selected from over 100 submissions from local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and development agencies.

One of the biggest challenges for Rolls-Royce SMR, which was launched in November last year with a £195m of investment from private firms and a £210m grant for the UK Government, is that the designs for the technology are still under development. Clearly this creates a tension for Government ministers and departments between fast-tracking their creation and ensuring that all the relevant safety checks and protocols are in place.

One of the biggest benefits of the SMR programme would be its contribution to decarbonising the UK’s energy supply. It would also create jobs and investment in the UK, and potentially create technology which was exportable to other markets around the globe.

However, we do not know yet what approach the UK’s next Prime Minister will take to the net zero carbon agenda. Everyone in the nuclear sector, and the wider construction sector, will be listening closely over the next few months.