SMR reactors tend towards ‘business as usual’ for UK nuclear

As Rolls Royce’s so-called ‘small modular reactor’ (SMR) technology takes steps towards being qualified and deployed in the UK it is beginning to look more like traditional nuclear generation.
The company’s SMR reactor is among the leading UK SMR technologies, with recent funding from government. Rolls Royce SMR highlights its potential for “multiple applications from grid and industrial electricity production to hydrogen and synthetic fuel manufacturing” and says the “compact footprint increases site flexibility and maximises potential plant locations, including replacement for existing coal or gas-fired plants”.
But it seems that SMR units are likely to tend towards sites that are already used by the nuclear industry. What is more, at 470MW the Rolls Royce SMR is larger than most commonly used SMR definitions – which tend to include reactors that generate at a level of 300MW or below – and will be higher capacity than many of the reactors previously generating at its potential sites. The area required by the SMR, however, wil be smaller than its predecessors.
The UK’s national planning statement for new nuclear (EN6) predates the legal Net Zero target and is largely aimed at achieving new nuclear plant that can be deployed by 2025 on sites identified in a separate site selection process. It named Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Oldbury, Sizewell, Sellafield and Wylfa – all existing nuclear power plant sites – as site options.
EDF’s nuclear decommissioning director Jerry Haller agreed that there was an option to build new reactors where the existing reactors were reaching the end of their lives and said discussions were under way, telling MPs in a recent Public Accounts Committee evidence session: “We are very keen to discuss the existing AGR sites, for the land around there that we own, that is not needed for decommissioning”.
He said his company was “in active conversations,” naming Hartlepool, which he said, “could be a good site for both SMRs but also advanced modular reactors, which use the same sort of technology as we do for the AGRs. That discussion is happening.” Haller said it was “The same across in Lancashire, where the Heysham site could be good for SMRs. We are keen to engage in those conversations.”
EN6 also allowed for other sites to be sought, with the permission of the secretary of state. However, there are financial advantages in using sites that already have a ‘nuclear site licence’ and localities that are accustomed to a nuclear site – although even for these sites a change of nuclear licensee is not an insignificant process – so the obvious option is the nuclear sites now under the control of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
That would open 17 more sites to reactor developers – some, such as Sizewell A, Dungeness A or Hinkley Point A, adjacent to those currently in use by EDF. Others in England and Wales include some reactor sites – in most cases, previously housing reactors much smaller than their potential SMR neighbours, such as Wylfa (2x490MW), Trawsfynydd (2x235MW), Berkeley (4x83MW), Bradwell (242MW) or Oldbury (2x217MW). Other sites are fuel cycle or research sites – Sellafield, Springfields, Capenhurst, Harwell and Winfrith.
David Peattie, chief executive of NDA, told MPs at the Public Accounts Commitee session, “We have been and are obliged to make all these sites available for SMR development. These are sites that are now licensed for nuclear activities.” He said, “The Department is also in touch with potential suppliers, who may wish to come and build their plants,” and described it as “active discussions, day in and day out”. But he said the NDA was “in the last few days of seeking permission to engage more directly” and asked by MPs whether the NDA had a mandate for general discussions about new plant he admitted that the NDA had still to get formal permission under its governing charter. He said, “All options are available and we are in discussions with the department about the way forward.”
Rolls Royce SMR announced a ‘milestone’ in November when it began to seek clearance from the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to enter its reactor into the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process run by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency’s. This initial screening process at BEIS will confirm the Rolls-Royce SMR business is suitability qualified to submit its design, and it is expected to take around four months.