Get clear on role of small nuclear in Britain’s net-zero transition, MPs tell Government

A cross-party group of MPs is urging the Energy Security and Net-Zero Secretary to be more transparent about the Government’s strategic approach to deploying small nuclear facilities as it works towards a decarbonised electricity grid by 2035.

Get clear on role of small nuclear in Britain’s net-zero transition, MPs tell Government

Image: Rolls Royce. Pictured: An artist's impression of an SMR.

In a letter sent to Claire Coutinho today (13 February), the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has requested more information on how small modular reactors (SMRs) would meaningfully complement renewables and larger nuclear projects as the Government strives to bring all unabated fossil fuel electricity generation offline by 2035.

These details, the letter states, were not announced last year alongside the launch of Great British Nuclear, a new industry body with a £150m+ SMR funding competition as its first workstream.

Nor were these details provided through the recently published Civil Nuclear Roadmap.

Building on an ambition for the UK to host up to 24GW of nuclear generation capacity by 2050 – quadruple current levels –  the Roadmap includes a commitment to secure final investment decisions on 3-7GW of nuclear every five years between 2030 and 2044.

The EAC’s letter urges Coutinho and her team to clarify the strategic technology direction the Government will take. Knowing whether it will be 3GW or 7GW, and what proportion will be accounted for by SMRs and larger plants, will be crucial.

EAC chair Philip Dunne MP said: “Despite pledging hundreds of millions of pounds in support for SMR projects and undertaking to invest in the construction of the UK’s first SMR, the Government’s overall vision for the sector at this stage lacks clarity: Ministers might commission as much as 24GW in nuclear capacity by 2050, but could commission as little as 12GW.

“This uncertainty risks knock-on effects for industry confidence: not only for investment decisions relating to the initial build and the construction of factories to build reactor modules, but also for the support and growth of supply chains and skills.”

A green, affordable choice?

The letter also raises concerns over the cost-effectiveness and potential environmental impact of SMRs.

On both counts, proponents of SMRs point to their size as an advantage in terms of shorter project delivery times, lower project costs and reduced disruption to the local environment and communities.

The EAC heard, however, that costs can only be kept low through a concerted, collaborative, strategic effort from government and industry to commission a “steady stream of projects”.

Economies of scale could be crucial for this nascent technology, the letter notes. “As no commercial orders for SMR installations have yet been placed worldwide, the case for these benefits is not yet proven,” the EAC stated. It is calling for transparency on value-for-money assessments and proper processes to ensure Parliamentary scrutiny.

On environmental impact, MPs on the EAC heard that the models contemplated for UK deployment through Great British Nuclear’s SMR competition were likely to result in a greater amount of waste for storage and reprocessing.

Concerns were also voiced about any potential weakening of environmental standards to get the first SMRs deployed more rapidly. The EAC has stated that there “should be no compromises”.

Additionally, the letter asks the Government to clarify whether SMRs would have any edge over deploying nuclear and/or renewables in terms of reducing energy sector emissions. It notes that the UK’s first SMR is unlikely to come online until the early 2030s, so these facilities are unlikely to do the heavy lifting in replacing unabated gas-fired power by 2035 as targeted.

By this time, and in the decades to follow, the EAC understands that the energy mix will be “dominated by renewables and supplemented by existing and emerging large-scale nuclear”.

The EAC heard from both proponents and opponents of nuclear on decarbonisation grounds during its inquiry on which the letter is based.

Coutinho has been asked to respond to the EAC’s letter, containing 14 questions, by 21 March.

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    One questions the wisdom of leaving such a vital area of our economy, solely in the hands of private industry.
    The original nuclear energy development was in the hands of the Ministry of Supply, “MOS Atomic Energy” emblazoned across the front of the pullover; I wore one at Harwell six or seven decades ago!!
    HMG did very good work; for the nation!

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