Tuesday 11 October 2016

I saw from the news a few weeks back that Rolls Royce is growing its team working on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in response to the government’s competition for SMRs. The government has committed to invest £250 million into SMRs.


The basic idea is to be able to put reactors with output of about 250MW “on the back of a truck” and distribute them widely across the grid. The government’s aspiration is to have SMRs available in the 2020s. I won’t go into the many competing designs (for that see an excellent piece by Andy Dawson on Euan Mearn’s website). I am not inherently against nuclear, just against using a form of the technology that was essentially optimized for military applications, is not inherently safe and rely on extremely long-term safeguards. It would appear that many of the 33 (!!) candidates for the SMR funding are proposing Light Water Reactors although there are some pebble bed and molten salt designs. There is clearly scope (and the need) to develop new types of inherently safe reactors as well as using the thorium cycle which has advantages over the uranium cycle – but these are R&D projects, not things that will deliver reliable power in the 2020s or even the 2030s. Adopting existing LWR designs used in submarines does not really seem much of a development. Even if a) SMRs work and b) they are remotely economic, think of the NIMBY protests – the anti-SMR brigade would make anti-frackers look like beginners.


Andy Dawson includes a great quote from Admiral Rickover, the father of U.S. Navy nuclear propulsion – a quote that should be hung on the wall of every energy Minister:


“An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.


On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.”


This quote could also be applied to all new energy technology concepts.


The SMR competition seems to be another symptom of the “magpie syndrome” that seems to affect politicians looking at energy – settle on a bright shiny thing and assume that it will solve all our problems. We have seen this with offshore wind power (and renewables in general), biomass, heat pumps, new nuclear, fracking and now SMRs. This particular bright shiny object was one of George Osborne’s ideas – he does seem to have had a particularly bad case of magpie syndrome.


Don’t get me wrong – I am not against R&D and developing new technology – far from it – we need to increase spending on R&D in lots of areas – but we have a whole set of technologies that we know work, which are economic and can deliver results in short order. These include: LED lighting, building insulation, Building Management Systems, integrated design tools, Combined Heat and Power, trigeneration, combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs), CCGTs combined with Rankine cycle turbines. Let’s focus on maximizing the application of the technologies that a) we know will work b) are economic c) improve energy efficiency and productivity d) reduce energy and technology imports and e) create jobs – rather than the latest shiny bright thing.


There is 1 comment on “Small Modular Reactors & the Magpie Syndrome”:

  • Charles Yates on October 11th, 2016 at 5:55 pm said:

    Well said. I agree entirely that we should focus on the bird in the hand, not the bird in the bush.

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