In what must count as one of the most cynical election ploys on record the UK Government has attempted to link a faltering and unlikely 'small modular reactor' (SMR) nuclear programme with target seats which the Conservatives hope to win in the North in the forthcoming General Election. The (so-called) SMR programme seems highly unlikely on financial grounds alone as it would require a massive Government commitment, and and on top of that engineering questions undermine the credibility of the programme.
The Government has issued a press briefing mentioning 'Sheffield City, Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire' as sites for the SMRs. Like many of Boris Johnson's schemes, this particular promotion has little grounding in reality and the promotion of these sites seems to have more to do with a cynical election ploy than serious planning of a nuclear power programme.
The UK's SMR programme, such as it is, is neither modular or small or, for that matter, much in existence. The Government are backing plans by Rolls Royce, and have promised an initial £18million, but in reality even to build one prototype plant would require Governmen to commit to spending over a billion pounds. This is because even if the cost of the reactor were to turn out close to what Rolls Ryce claim (£500 million) it would require an additional several hundred £million for the rector design to go through the required 'General Design Assessment' (GDA) required of all new reactors (by the Office for Nuclear Regulation). As if this was not enough, I understand that Rolls Royce have demanded, as the price of going through a GDA, a Government commitment to effectively underwrite several reactors requiring a Government commitment to raise several £billions before there is any chance of any power ever being generated.
This financial background alone suggests that this SMR plan is a fantasy that is even less credible than Boris's plans for a Thames Estuary airport or even a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.
However, basic engineering questions also suggest that that the SMR plans will go nowhere very slowly. The idea of building what is, in historical terms, a medium sized nuclear power plant (440 MW), defies the logic of nuclear power development since WW2. This has involved building steadily bigger reactors in order to, apart from anything else 'calculate down' (in the words of Mycle Schneider) the costs of nuclear safety measures. Smaller(er) reactors may (or may not) reduce expensive delays in construction time, but they are counterbalanced by the lack of economies of scale. Indeed the size of the proposed Rolls Royce SMR is roughly the size of the UK's first grid connected 'Magnox' reactors. The number and scope of safety measures required for new reactors has increased dramatically since the 1950s (extra containment, redundancy in primary and secondary safety injection systems, back up diesel generator sets etc), so intuitively a smaller reactor does not seem the way to go.
We can expect a lot more of this bull and fantasy in September when Boris's notion of 'green energy' is launched. Like many of his other pronouncements they are oriented to to seduce people by their apparent simplicity, but in reality are fatally undermined by their impraticality. Such is the dark allure of populist politics.
Rolls Royce plans: