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Nuclear power: Tim Fox urges government to act on SMRs

Tim Fox

We need a prompt government response to Select Committee recommendations on SMRs and for this to be backed up by action, writes Tim Fox.

“SMRs – particularly those based on known nuclear technologies – are a viable proposition for future deployment in the UK in the next decade” – Energy and Climate Change (ECCC) Select Committee

Just before Christmas the Energy and Climate Change (ECCC) Select Committee published the findings of their inquiry into Small Nuclear Power. With the holiday season looming, it ended up rather under the radar; but I would like to draw your attention to its message.

You may remember that back in September we published our own policy statement Small Modular Reactors: a UK Opportunity where we laid out the Institution’s recommendations for involvement in Small Modular Reactor (SMR) development and highlighted why we thought engagement in such activity would offer an attractive proposition for the nation. We urged government to include a pathway for developing SMRs for domestic and emerging markets in the UK’s nuclear sector strategy.

The policy statement was distributed that month at the major seminar UK in SMR; SMR in UK where it was well received by the industry and seen as a positive step forward. Ron Loveland, giving the Welsh government perspective at the seminar, welcomed our recommendations as a strong contribution to the debate, particularly the emphasis on Trawsfynydd which we had highlighted as a potential site.

The Select Committee stated that: “We recommend the government takes a proactive role in driving forward the development and deployment of these reactors in the UK. In the first instance, government should help to establish the right conditions for investment in SMRs, for example through supporting the regulator to bring forward approvals in the UK, and by setting out a clear view of siting options. We would also like to see the government steering industry towards deploying a demonstrator SMR in the UK.”

This was very much in line with our view that strong government support, in the form of funding or provision of sites, is going to be essential. It goes on: “In the short term, deployment of SMRs is likely to be achieved through sharing the costs between the public and private sector.” And closely mirroring our views on Trawsfynydd, it said: “Existing nuclear sites could potentially host a demonstrator module with minimal additional infrastructure requirements and with the support of a skilled local workforce.”

It was also encouraging to see the reference to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and its investigation of PRISM fast reactors for disposition of the nation’s plutonium stockpile, a course of action we had called for in two previous policy statements.

In short, I was really pleased to see the Select Committee Report echoing so much of the content of our recent Policy Statements. In addition to submitting our formal Written Evidence to the inquiry in the Spring, we had ensured that all Committee members received a copy of our SMR Policy Statement when it was published in the autumn; which makes it a text book example of the role the Institution plays in representing the views of the membership in national debates on energy policy.

The UK currently has a very real, and in many ways unique, window of opportunity to engage with SMR technology and utilise existing nuclear licensed sites too small for large-scale power stations. This would not only help to meet future energy demand, but also to develop skills, local employment and build future export business. Looking forward to 2015, I would like to see a prompt government response that not only endorses the Select Committee recommendations but backs them up with action on SMRs.

Dr Tim Fox, CEng CEnv FIMechE FRSA, is the Institution's Head of Energy and Environment. His primary focus is providing thought leadership on how to sustainably meet the major challenges facing human populations in 21st Century, namely food, water, energy and shelter provision in the context of increasing environmental risk and depleting natural resources.

Contact Tim via Twitter @TimFox_IMechE.

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