UK eyes ‘mini nuclear plants’ to help sector survive

The UK is to commit up to £56m to kick-start research and development into small-scale atomic power plants as part of a £200m funding boost for the nuclear industry focused on driving down costs.

The announcement is contained in a “sector deal” to be unveiled on Thursday between the government and the nuclear industry — an initiative that forms part of ministers’ broader efforts to reduce barriers to economic growth and boost innovation and skills.

The development of a new generation of “mini nuclear plants” is seen as crucial to the future of the industry as it struggles to remain competitive against the rapidly falling costs of renewable power.

Supporters argue the small scale and modular design of these plants should make them less expensive than traditional, large reactors, such as those being built by French energy group EDF at Hinkley Point power station in south-west England.

Under the terms of the sector deal, the government promises £56m towards R&D for small atomic plants known as advanced modular reactors (AMRs), which use new cooling systems or fuels.

The sector deal does not set out any funding plans for alternative plants called small modular reactors (SMRs). These typically use water-cooled reactors similar to existing nuclear power stations but on a smaller scale.

Rolls-Royce, the UK engineering group, is seeking to develop SMRs — and has argued its work should be seen as part of a “national endeavour”.

Some elements of the sector deal could be used to advance the company’s plans, and it welcomed the agreement as “positive” and said it would work with government on “the next steps”.

“We continue to believe that a UK SMR can be a significant contributor to providing low cost, low carbon electricity in the future,” said Rolls-Royce.

Business secretary Greg Clark said the sector deal marks “an important moment for the government and industry to work collectively to deliver the modern industrial strategy, drive clean growth and ensure civil nuclear remains an important part of the UK’s energy future”.

The agreement includes a commitment from industry to reduce the cost of construction of new reactors by 30 per cent by 2030.

The sector has also made a commitment to cut the cost of decommissioning of old sites by 20 per cent by 2030.

The government will provide up to £20m towards an advanced manufacturing and construction programme under the sector deal. Industry will initially commit £12m.


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