UK rushes to increase nuclear capacity

The UK appears to be going full throttle with its nuclear energy projects. Big by bit, the UK government is encouraging the development of a variety of nuclear developments as it offers support for a wide range of clean energy projects to solidify the future of its national energy security. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the introduction of sanctions against Russian energy, several European powers are rushing to increase their production of fossil fuels and renewable energies in order to avoid shortages and ensure their energy security. While some go all out on renewable energy projects, others are more supportive controversial developments in nuclear power. After a major movement away from nuclear power across much of the world in recent decades, several state governments are turning to the much-criticized energy source.

In June, the British government bought a 20% stake in the Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk to $100 million, demonstrating its commitment to a future with nuclear energy in the energy mix. The development is owned by EDF and China General Nuclear Power (CGN), although government involvement could see CGN kicked out of the project after criticizing China’s excessive involvement in UK infrastructure plans.

Earlier this year Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented national plans for the development of eight nuclear reactors by 2030. Sizewell C is expected to gain planning permission on 9e July, despite controversy over construction costing ratepayers more than double previous estimates and taking five years longer to build.

Delays have already been seen at EDF’s Hinkley Point C, which is set to open a year later than planned, in 2027, and cost $3.6 billion more than expected, totaling between 30 and 31.5 billion dollars. EDF is partnering with CGN for the construction of Hinkley and says the cost evolution will not result in any additional expense for ratepayers. The development was originally approved in 2016 but faced delays due to pandemic disruptions, according to EDF.

In addition to large-scale nuclear power projects, the UK is also embracing smaller-scale developments by moving away from traditional nuclear power alone. After announcing plans to build several small modular reactors (SMRs) across the UK last year, Rolls Royce is set to gain development permission by 2024, having started the regulatory process this year. The company hopes start producing nuclear energy by 2029.

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Rolls Royce announced this week that it has drawn up a shortlist of sites for its first SMR factory. The government aims to build 16 SMRs over 25 years as part of its decarbonization strategy. SMRs can be built on a production line to be assembled on site. Suggested locations are Richmond in North Yorkshire, Deeside in Wales, Ferrybridge, Stallingborough in Lincolnshire, Sunderland and Carlisle. Nuclear power plant sites would receive an influx of investment and see an increase in the number of employment opportunities in the region.

The aerospace and defense company received $236 million in funding from private companies and $254 million from the government for its SMR business last year. SMRs are becoming more attractive because they take up considerably less space than a traditional nuclear power plant, at around one-tenth the size, while providing enough energy to power around one million homes. Rolls Royce expects each SMR to be capable of generating 470 MW, equivalent to the power produced by 150 onshore wind turbines, costing $2.4 billion each.

And now a UK startup is seeking a share of the action as it announces recent innovations in nuclear energy. In June, nuclear energy startup Newcleo raised $315 million in funding to develop its technology and launch pilot projects in France and the UK. London-based Newcleo aims to reduce the cost of nuclear power generation by using a lead-cooled fast reactor, a new technology that uses atmospheric pressure rather than high-pressure water reactors. The system can be powered by waste produced in traditional plants, without the need for mined uranium. It is believed to be safer than existing nuclear technology.

Newcleo aims to build its first 30 MW prototype for $480 million, a fraction of the cost of a conventional nuclear power plant. The firm’s CEO Stefano Buono explained “We will use these reactors as a test for these technologies.” He added: “We think our reactor is cheaper than current reactors.”

The prototype is expected to be scaled up for construction of a 200 MW plant if deemed viable. Newcleo is currently appealing to the UK government for approval of the construction site and granting of its operating permits. It also hopes to produce mixed plutonium-uranium oxide fuel from processed nuclear waste.

Significant innovations are being seen in UK nuclear power, with the potential for the construction of several new conventional power stations as well as the development of alternative nuclear reactors, thanks to recent technological innovations. As well as the development of renewables, nuclear power is expected to make a substantial contribution to UK decarbonisation plans.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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