A real possibility by Chris Davies
Even though the nuclear power stations at Berkeley and Oldbury are currently being decommissioned, a new build at one of these sites is a real possibility. The Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution includes new nuclear as part of the energy mix to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The White Paper Powering our Net Zero Future published last December confirms the continuing role of nuclear energy.
Why Nuclear Power is Needed
Our electricity system is growing – the official estimate is that it will double in size by 2050. This is mainly because demand for low-carbon electricity in sectors like heat and transport will rise. For example, all these modern technologies need electricity
- heat pumps used to heat buildings instead of gas
- electric cars for charging instead of petrol
- future transportation instead of diesel
The UK’s renewable electricity outpaced its fossil fuel generation for the first time in 2020 and could remain the largest source of electricity in the future. Renewable energy (wind, sunlight, water and wood) made up 42% of the total, compared with 41% from coal and gas plants and about 10% from nuclear. At present, we also have to import electricity from the continent via subsea connectors.
We will continue to need baseline power when renewable contribution is low e.g. in a winter cold spell when there is high energy demand, no wind and low energy from the sun. Various methods of achieving this are under consideration including fossil fuel plants with carbon capture, battery storage and nuclear power.
Nuclear Technologies for the Future
The UK strategy for nuclear energy is based on a combination of:
The White Paper promises up to £385 million for an Advanced Nuclear Fund. This will support the development of a UK SMR design and the building of an AMR demonstrator in the UK.
Large scale nuclear (2000 to 3260 MW)
The first generation of British Magnox reactors are now either being decommissioned or will shortly be decommissioned. The 2000 MW Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station (NPS) in Suffolk is the first of the new generation of pressurised water reactors. It started generation in 1995 and will continue for at least another 15 years.
The Government is “pursuing large-scale nuclear projects, subject to value-for-money”. Hinkley Point C NPS (3260 MW) in Somerset is currently being built by Electricite de France (EDF). It is is due to start generation in 2026. EDF plans to build a sister station Sizewell C, subject to finance agreement with the government. Horizon were planning to build an NPS at Wylfa in Anglesey, followed by one at Oldbury. They are believed to be weeks away from pulling out of these projects due to an inability to agree finance arrangements.
Construction of large-scale nuclear power stations typically takes10 years and the cost is in the region £20bn to £25bn.
Small Modular Reactors (200 – 500 MW)
Small modular reactors (SMRs) will be manufactured at a factory and assembled on site. They mostly use proven water-cooled reactors similar in design to current nuclear power station reactors, but on a smaller scale. Rolls Royce, for example, use technology developed from their range of nuclear submarine reactors. Innovative manufacturing techniques and modular construction should make SMRs faster to build than large-scale nuclear plants and potentially suitable for a wider range of sites.
Rolls Royce is leading the UK SMR consortium to develop a design specifically for factory manufacture of components at a centralised facility. The reactor unit is 16m high by 4m diameter, and will be transported by road, rail or barge. The estimated construction programme is 5 years.
The Government believes that SMRs “have the potential to provide cost-competitive nuclear power as early as the 2030s”. The consortium is lobbying to build 16 SMRs over the next 20 years. Although Rolls Royce’s nuclear base is at nearby Barnwood, they have not specifically mentioned Berkeley or Oldbury as possible sites.
Advanced Modular Reactors (c500 MW)
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are investigating AMR technologies. These are defined as ones that use novel cooling systems or fuels that would offer new functionalities (such as industrial process heat). These reactors could operate at over 800°C. They would provide high-grade heat to be used in the efficient production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. As with SMRs, AMR designs aim to maximise the amount of off-site factory fabrication.
Phase 1 of a BEIS competition shortlisted the technologies of three companies for further development in Phase 2:
- Tokamak Energy Ltd
- Westinghouse Electric Co UK Ltd
- U-Battery Developments Ltd
Tokamak Energy Ltd
Tokamak Energy Ltd is a private company of 100 staff based in Oxfordshire, are pursuing the goal of small modular fusion reactors. The fusion of positively charged particles at extremely high temperatures creates a soup of very fast moving electrically charged gas called plasma. A tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement device being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power.
Conventional nuclear power is based on fission. The advantages of fusion, if it can be commercialised, are greater safety, inexhaustible fuels, zero carbon dioxide and no long-lived radioactive waste. Additionally, a fusion plant would be very compact compared with renewable technologies.
Last December the Government asked communities across the country to put forward proposals to host the UK’s prototype fusion energy power plant, known as STEP. Prof Tom Scott of Bristol University gave a presentation at a recent meeting of the Berkeley Site Stakeholder Group. He is involved in a bid to bring the project to Oldbury or Berkeley.
Westinghouse Electric Co UK Ltd
Westinghouse is developing an AMR based on Lead-cooled Fast Reactor technology. They are working with leading UK organisations to accelerate development and achieve commercialisation in the UK and globally.
U-Battery Developments Ltd
U-Battery is powered by a special “accident-tolerant” uranium fuel originally developed in the 1960s. It is claimed to prevent the release of radioactive material, minimising the need for backup shutdown systems. This, combined with the reactor size and design, is supposed to make the technology inherently safer. Like the other shortlisted AMRs, U-Battery is a compact, modular system. It is aimed at energy intensive industries, including hydrogen production and at remote locations.
The Government sees nuclear power as a vital part of the UK’s low carbon energy future, providing essential baseline power. They are currently planning on one new large scale NPS and this is likely to be Sizewell C. They are investing in the development and commercialisation of modular reactors, both SMRs and AMRs. Berkeley and Oldbury are being enthusiastically promoted as possible sites for one type of AMR, a STEP fusion demonstration plant. They may face competition from other locations, but if chosen would assist the local economy and provide useful employment.
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