NuScale control room simulator

In the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, UK chancellor George Osborne announced funding of £250m over five years to put the UK at the forefront of world research and development of small nuclear reactors (SMRs). The announcement formed part of a suite of changes to the energy sector, including increased investment in the renewable heat incentive and a pledge to divert 10% of shale gas tax revenues to a Shale Wealth Fund to benefit local communities to shale projects.

The autumn statement also included details of a design competition to be launched in early 2016 to find the "best value small modular reactor design for the UK", the Treasury said in the spending review policy paper. The competition is the beginning of a government strategy to complete an SMR sometime in the 2020s.

The attraction of SMR technology lies in its flexibility and long-term cost effectiveness. Smaller reactors can fulfil a wider range of uses and be placed in a wider variety of places than fossil fuel plants and their larger nuclear counterparts. As their construction can be modularised in factories, there is a huge opportunity to make savings by honing the manufacturing process and materials used over time. The factory setting will also more easily assure quality compared to traditional construction methods.

UK SMR: the contenders

There are bound to be a number of big players clamouring for the opportunity to work with the UK government in developing the UK’s first SMRs. Last December, the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), in conjunction with a range of research organisations and companies, released a feasibility study focusing on SMRs in the UK, commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The review found four financially and techically viable options for SMR designs, by China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), B&W and Bechtel, Westinghouse and NuScale.

CNNC’s ACP100 design is a 310MWt pressurised water reactor designed to produce between 100 and 150MWe. The IAEA began a safety review of the design in July 2015, assessing the reactor’s safety, environmental impact and other elements of the design.

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The BWXT mPower™ from B&W and Bechtel is an integral 530MWt pressurised water reactor which will produce around 180MWe. The team won the first round of funding from the cost-sharing funding initiative with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Bechtel, but decided to scale back their funding in April 2014. This considerably slowed the pace and scale of development.

Westinghouse, a company well-established and employing over 1,000 people in the UK has already presented the British Government with its proposal to partner in deploying SMR technology throughout the UK. The Westinghouse SMR design is a 225MWe integral pressurized water reactor with all primary components located inside the reactor vessel.

The NuScale offering is a 160MWt reactor which operates using the principles of natural circulation rather than traditional pumps. It can produce 50MWA. The idea behind the smaller design is scalability; reactor units can be added or taken away depending on demand. NuScale Power won the second round of DOE funding in 2013, receiving $217m over five years in cost-share funds to develop, license and commercialise its SMR technology. The first is projected for 2024 in Idaho, US.

No doubt other contenders for the partnership will come to the fore once details of the January competition are released by DECC. Whichever company is chosen, NNL hopes to play a role in the development of SMRs for the UK. "We have a strong capability in reactor design, including SMRs," says NNL’s director of external relations Adrian Bull. "So we feel we would be well-placed to carry out significant scope within the overall programme."