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Small may prove beautiful for the nuclear industry

Despite a campaign lasting two decades, the nuclear industry’s dream of building hundreds of large reactors to lead the fight to save the planet from overheating has evaporated.
While renewable energy industries, solar and wind in particular, get ever cheaper and expand faster, nuclear projects are steadily bogged down further in delays, cost overruns, and debt.
Some large nuclear power stations are still under construction in Russia and China, but in Europe and North America they are badly decayed and few in number. Many projects that have been long-planned but not yet started are being abandoned.

This is despite the fact that nuclear-friendly governments, particularly those with nuclear-powered ships, submarines, and weapons of mass destruction, have not given up on the industry. 

But now, instead of building ever-larger reactors, these governments are switching their attention and financial backing to small modular reactors (SMRs).

These off-the-shelf prototypes can be scaled up or down in size, to double as power plants for ice breakers and submarines, or for use as electricity and heat generators for remote settlements, military bases, and, theoretically, urban areas – if the local populations do not protest too loudly.

Currently, the UK, the US, Russia, and China are pouring large government subsidies into developing SMRs, which are said to be for electricity production, but equally are useful for training key personnel to use reactors for military purposes. In this regard, the support of a non-nuclear weapon state (Canada) for SMRs seems odd, but it has many remote off-grid communities that might benefit if the technology works as claimed.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, small modular reactors have a great future. Its latest report says there are 72 SMRs under development or construction in 18 countries, although large-scale deployment for the technology is still some years off.

For nuclear critics, this lengthy timescale is always the problem. Solar and wind power can be deployed in a matter of months, whereas the nuclear timetables always stretch years ahead. Even then, critics wonder, will the promises made for SMRs live up to the hype? They say past experience has shown that timetables slip and costs escalate.

 

Time is problematic

For the moment this track record does not seem to have dampened politicians’ enthusiasm for the technology. The current promise is that once the prototypes are up and working, parts for future reactors will be made in factories and put together on-site, so reducing energy costs by mass production methods – a bit like assembly lines for cars.

Meanwhile, the larger reactor-building projects are definitely in trouble. EDF, the French state-owned and debt-laden nuclear giant, the last of the big European nuclear construction companies, is currently attempting to restructure itself. The plan is to hive off its successful renewable and hydropower enterprises to separate them from its deeply troubled nuclear arm.

But, as Reuters news agency reports, these plans have run into difficulties with the European Union because of fears they may involve unfair state aid to the industry.

Even without this attempt to improve its finances by restructuring, though, EDF’s current nuclear building projects at Flamanville in France and Hinkley Point C in the west of England are behind schedule, and costs are escalating.

Mounting opposition

Flamanville is close to a decade late, and Hinkley Point’s timetable is slipping and its costs rising. Last month the Japanese giant Hitachi finally pulled the plug on its scheme to build twin reactors at Wylfa in North Wales.

Other plans by EDF and its Chinese partners to build two more French-designed giant twin reactors at Sizewell and then two Chinese reactors at Bradwell (both sites are in eastern England) are still officially going ahead. However, despite months of negotiation, neither the UK government nor the two companies have come up with a way of financing them, and opposition to both schemes is growing.

The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) group, in a statement on the rising costs of Hinkley Point, said: “Given that renewable technologies are considerably cheaper than new nuclear, and the financial challenges of the pandemic are obvious to all, NFLA believe there needs to be an urgent rethink over the proposed ‘benefits’ of building large and highly expensive new nuclear power stations.

By Sanjida Jannat

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