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Caution urged over modular nuclear reactors

modular nuclear reactor

Energy heavyweights have expressed concerns about rolling out small modular reactor (SMR) technology to replace cancelled and decommissioned nuclear power projects.  

The warnings came during a discussion about the potential “clean energy gap” left by cancelled nuclear projects like Wylfa and older plants being decommissioned early.  

One potential solution to the gap would be to accelerate the progress of SMR developments, which are marketed by their supporters as a more affordable nuclear power option, and safer than larger projects, such as Hinkley Point C.   

But National Infrastructure Commission chief economist James Richardson warned that the industry has failed to deliver on technological promises in the past.  

“You have to have a degree of caution with new nuclear technology,” he said. “We have been promised things time and time again and typically the industry tends to be more expensive and take longer than planned. I would be cautious against SMRs, they are a question for the 2030s.” 

“SMRs are not going to help in the next decade because they are just not available. By the time they turn up we can see if they are still cost effective or if renewable’s have gone beyond.” 

UK Energy Research Centre director Jim Watson agreed, and added the power sector should be decarbonised before SMRs can be deployed.  

“I would also be cautious; we need to remember that 2030 is when we need to have decarbonised our power system by and I think there is a limit to which nuclear can help deliver that. We don’t know what the real cost of these SMRs are. History does make us cautious.” 

Energy for Humanity co-founder and executive director Kirsty Gogan supported SMRs but said the UK was a “basket case” in terms of policy on the new technology.  

“At a billion pounds a pop, they are a lot easier to finance than a traditional nuclear reactor,” Gogan said. “In terms of where they are, we are looking at very realistic timescales of the early 2030s. However, frankly the UK is a basket case right now in terms of taking this agenda seriously, Canada, China, and the US are all likely to overtake us on this.” 

In 2018 the government was slammed for “crushing” the technology’s progress. 

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