Advancing nuclear through innovation

How can nuclear move forward? With ongoing innovation, says Andrew Storer at Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Nuclear AMRC)

The biggest challenge facing the nuclear industry is making nuclear cost competitive against other low-carbon generation. To make nuclear new build affordable, the financing and development cycle needs to improve.

There are three main factors behind the cost of new nuclear: the cost of finance, inevitably high for extremely complex multi-billion pound projects; the cost of the long development cycle of 10 years or more; and the cost of the plant itself. For the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C project, that all added up to an agreed strike price of £92.50/MWh to provide a return for EDF Energy and its partners. That price does not look attractive when compared with £57.50 for the latest offshore wind projects, even if you consider the additional grid and back-up costs associated with intermittent renewables.

Nuclear sector deal

The £200m nuclear sector deal is part of the government’s industrial strategy to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills across the country.

The sector deal includes a £32m boost from government and industry to kick-start a new advanced manufacturing programme, including R&D investment to develop potential world-leading nuclear technologies such as advanced modular reactors. There is also up to £30m for a new national supply chain programme.

To support the development of advanced reactors, there is up to £44m for R&D into new designs, up to £12m to help regulators prepare for these new technologies and £40m for a new thermal hydraulic testing facility in north Wales.It also includes £86m to create the National Fusion Technology Platform in Oxfordshire.

In return, the nuclear industry is committing to achieve a 30% reduction in the cost of new build projects by 2030, and a 20% reduction in decommissioning costs. The deal also includes a commitment to gender diversity, with a target of increasing the amount of women working in the nuclear sector to 40% by 2030.

The deal was developed by the Nuclear Industry Council, an advisory group drawn from industry, government and regulators, including the Nuclear AMRC. Part of the national High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and based at the University of Sheffield, the Nuclear AMRC is dedicated to helping UK manufacturers win work in the sector. 

The nuclear sector deal aims to increase the amount of women working in the nuclear sector to 40% by 2030

Push and pull of innovation

There is a great deal of attention being given to new advanced reactor designs, which aim to reduce the costs and risks of new nuclear plant by building larger fleets with a faster return on investment from shorter build timescales. However, it is hard to push innovation without a pull from the market. There is a host of exciting technologies from reactor developers, but little sign of appetite from the utilities that invest in plant and sell electricity.

Recent years have seen a lot of talk about small modular reactors (SMRs); these are based on similar Generation III+ technology to that used in current gigawatt-scale reactors, but only produce up to 300MWe. Making individual reactors smaller reduces the upfront capital requirements and helps reduce costs by exploiting proven techniques of higher-volume production. Making them modular means you can reduce project risks by doing more in the factory, rather than on-site.

There is also an increasing push from developers of Generation IV advanced modular reactors (AMRs), a term that covers a range of technologies, including high-temperature gas-cooled, molten salt, fast-breeder and fast-neutron reactors. As well as reducing the cost of generation, AMRs promise to be more flexible in the way they deliver electricity to the grid (including load following to balance intermittent renewables generation) and could be used in combined heat and power generation for domestic and industrial users.

SMRs and AMRs offer an opportunity to reduce the cost of plant through game-changing technologies such as electron beam welding, diode laser cladding, bulk additive manufacturing and advanced machining techniques. In many cases, these technologies are used in other industries but are not yet accepted by the ASME and RCC-M nuclear codes.

Again, technology push requires an industry pull. Reactor developers will need to draw on manufacturing expertise and innovation from a range of industries to reduce manufacturing costs.

Collaboration creates opportunities

The challenge for us at the Nuclear AMRC is to ensure that innovations break through into UK industry to help improve cost and efficiency. This is difficult unless the owners of the technology want to implement improvement – and we know that once the design and delivery method is fixed, any change equals risk for the developer.

Reactor developers need to work with established nuclear suppliers and companies working in other high-value quality-driven sectors to integrate advanced manufacturing technologies into their designs. That will also mean building the code case for these processes and technologies to get them accepted by the industry regulator.

For manufacturers with the right expertise and capabilities, there will be a great opportunity to build relationships with developers at an early stage. If new reactors are developed in the UK, there will be significant potential export opportunities when the developers take their trusted suppliers with them into the global markets.

Boost for UK nuclear

The potential for new reactors to provide long-term economic value was highlighted by the nuclear sector deal launched in the summer, which offered early-stage support to bring new designs closer to reality.

The sector deal named eight companies, which have been awarded a share of an initial £4m funding for detailed feasibility studies. These studies must show that their Generation IV reactor designs can deliver genuine value in terms of providing reliable and affordable power, while creating economic value for the UK in terms of employment and exports.

The Nuclear AMRC is working with most of these developers to support their initial studies on how advanced manufacturing technologies can be used to reduce cost and risk, and how they can draw on the capabilities of the UK supply chain to put their designs into production. Following the initial studies, up to £40m follow-on funding may be made available to projects that can demonstrate clear value for money.

The sector deal also confirmed continuing government interest in the potential for SMRs. The deal does not suggest any new money for SMR development, but does outline a new framework to enhance the generic design assessment (GDA) process. Operated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and Environment Agency, the GDA is intended to support the construction of a number of new nuclear power stations by approving a standard reactor design that can be built in different locations by different developers.

The deal offers up to £12m to the regulator to help it assess new reactor designs. With a more flexible process, and lessons learnt from previous assessments, a mature SMR design could enter GDA by the end of this year. The government also promised to consider potential development sites for SMRs, which are likely to be on established nuclear sites such as Trawsfynydd in north Wales – perhaps significantly, the site chosen for the launch of the sector deal. At the Nuclear AMRC, we have already worked with SMR developers such as Rolls-Royce, Westinghouse and NuScale Power on advanced manufacturing and supply chain development, and eagerly await further developments.

Building our nuclear future Ultimately, the UK nuclear industry needs to show a joined-up approach. The sector deal gives us the framework, and it is very encouraging to see bodies such as National Nuclear Laboratory, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, ONR and the revived Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board working together to enable this. Now is the time to grasp the nettle and seize the opportunity to introduce truly world-leading innovation to put the UK back at the forefront of the nuclear sector. 

By Andrew Storer, Chief Executive Officer, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre