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The UK Department for Energy Security & Net Zero (DESNZ) and Great British Nuclear (GBN) have selected six companies to advance to next phase of the small modular reactor (SMR) competition for innovative nuclear technologies.

The companies are EDF, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy International , Holtec Britain Limited, US-based NuScale Power, Rolls Royce SMR and Westinghouse Electric Company UK Limited. The government and GBM said the chosen designs are considered as the most able to deliver operational SMRs by the mid-2030s. The next stage of the process will be launched as soon as possible where successful companies will shortly be able to bid for government contracts. The aim is to announce in Spring 2024 which of the companies the government will support, with contracts awarded by Summer 2024. “This timetable aims to make this competition the fastest of its kind in the world,” DESNZ noted.

The Small Modular Reactor (SMR) competition is part of the government’s plan to revive nuclear power and for the UK to lead the global race to develop cutting-edge technologies to rapidly deliver cleaner, cheaper energy and greater energy security. The government aims for up to a quarter of all UK electricity to come from nuclear power by 2050. The statement pointed out that, “as well as backing SMRs and other emerging nuclear technologies, the government is also investing in the large-scale project at Sizewell C, a near exact replica of Hinkley Point C, the first nuclear plant to be in construction for over a generation”.

Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho said SMRs “will help the UK rapidly expand nuclear power and deliver cheaper, cleaner, and more secure energy for British families and businesses, create well-paid, high-skilled jobs, and grow the economy”. She added: “This competition has attracted designs from around the world and puts the UK at the front of the global race to develop this exciting, cutting-edge technology and cement our position as a world leader in nuclear innovation.”

Minister for Nuclear & Networks Andrew Bowie said the programme “provides the blueprint for how the government can work together with industry to grow the economy and set the future of new, exciting nuclear technologies”.

Gwen Parry-Jones, GBN CEO, said: “Our priority in this process has been to prioritise reliable and sustainable power to the grid early, and that’s why we have focused our first step on the technologies that we viewed as most likely to meet the objective of a final investment decision in 2029. These companies will now be able to prepare for the next stages of the competition, aiming for a final contract agreement in the summer, potentially benefiting from significant support from the public purse.”

The government’s objective has been to select technologies which offer the greatest confidence in being able to make a final investment decision in 2029 and be operational in the mid-2030s.

For companies who were not successful in this initial process, the next opportunity could be the government’s consultation on alternative routes to market for nuclear technologies which is due to be launched soon. This will look at how to support newer technologies so that the UK can benefit from them as well.

The government is set to consult later in the year on how best to ensure other nuclear technologies can potentially get underway in the UK – and this could include some of the technologies that were not selected through this process.

The six technologies selected all depend to a large extent on traditional nuclear technology. The 470 MWe Rolls-Royce SMR design is based on a small pressurised water reactor. The design was accepted for UK Generic Design Assessment review in March 2022 and Rolls-Royce SMR expects to receive UK regulatory approval by mid-2024. A Rolls-Royce-led UK SMR consortium aims to build 16 SMRs. The consortium – which includes Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O'Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and TWI – expects to complete its first unit in the early 2030s and build up to 10 by 2035.

Rolls-Royce SMR CEO Chris Cholerton said Rolls-Royce SMR welcomed being shortlisted and was “eager to build on this progress, moving quickly to the next stage where we can work to agree a contract for deployment and help the government reach its ambition to deliver up to 24GW of nuclear power by 2050.” He added: “We have the only SMR technology in a European regulatory approval process, putting us almost two years ahead of any of our competitors.”

The company noted that the SMR will also be able to provide energy for the manufacture of green hydrogen and synthetic fuels. It will occupy approximately one tenth of the size of a conventional nuclear generation site, thereby reducing local ecological impacts. The SMR will be factory built, enabling completed modules to be transported by truck, train or barge, reducing vehicle movements and completion risk and increasing build time certainty.

Above: Artist's impression of the Rolls-Royce SMR (courtesy of Rolls-Royce SMR)

GE-Hitachi’s BWRX-300 SMR features an innovative and simplified configuration, resulting in less concrete and steel needed for construction. GE-Hitachi says it is a cost-competitive solution that can be deployed for electricity generation and industrial applications, including hydrogen production, desalination, and district heating. “Using a combination of modular and open-top construction techniques, the Nth-of-a-kind BWRX-300 can be constructed in 24-36 months while achieving an approximate 90 percent volume reduction in plant layout. In addition, reducing the building volume by about 50% per MW should also account for 50% less concrete per MW – a significant improvement in both affordability and advantageous size.”

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's President and CEO Jay Wileman said: "We believe that our SMR, the BWRX-300, is an ideal solution for the UK’s energy security and decarbonisation goals. Customers in Canada, the US and Poland are investing in our technology and this global collaboration is helping accelerate its deployment.”

Above: Artist's impression of the BWRX-300 SMR (courtesy of GEH)

EDF’s NUWARD is a 340MWe SMR plant with two independent reactors (170MWe each) housed in a single nuclear building, optimising the use of mutualised equipment. It introduces a balanced approach to utilising proven technologies and integrating innovations to increase constructability, operational competitiveness and environmental performance. NUWARD says it is “a fully integrated Generation III+ pressurised water reactor (PWR), meeting the highest safety standards”. The design is focused on standardisation, modular manufacturing and simplicity for in-factory mass production, flexibility in the construction and operation phases. It is designed to support load following and adapted also for non-electric usages. It will have an operation cycle of up to 24 months and a design life of 60 years with fully digital I&C. The core will hold 76 fuel assemblies. The nuclear island building is semi-buried with a fully integrated reactor pressure vessel (RPV), and passive safety cooling system. The NUWARD SMR is being reviewed jointly by three safety authorities: France’s ASN), the Czech Republic’s SUJB) and Finland’s STUK.

Above: Artist's impression of the NUWARD 340MWe SMR (courtesy of EDF)

NuScale’s VOYGR SMR plants are powered by the NuScale Power Module, a small PWR that can generate 77 MWe or 250 MWt (gross), and can be scaled to meet customer needs through an array of flexible configurations up to 924 MWe (12 modules). It is the first and only SMR to have its design certified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and it says it is being considered for deployment by more than 10 countries. It describes its design as "based on proven pressurised water-cooled reactor technology, and was developed to supply energy for electrical generation, district heating, desalination, commercial-scale hydrogen production and other process heat applications".

Above: Artist's impression of the NUWARD 340MWe SMR (courtesy of EDF)

Westinghouse launched its AP300 SMR earlier in 2023, as “the only SMR based on an advanced, large Generation III+ reactor already in operation globally”, the AP1000 technology. It “utilises the AP1000 engineering, components and supply chain, enabling streamlined licensing and leveraging available technical skills”. These factors “provide confidence that the first operating unit will be available in the early 2030s”. The AP300 SMR is already under consideration by customers in the UK, Europe, and North America.

Welcoming its shortlisting, Westinghouse CEO Patrick Fragman said it “will leverage our deep UK and global nuclear heritage, expertise and delivery in support of the UK.s net zero and energy security ambitions”.

Above: Artist's impression of the AP300 SMR (courtesy of Westinghouse)

Holtec’s SMR-160 advanced SMR is a pressurised light-water reactor, generating 160MWe (525MWt) using low-enriched uranium fuel, with flexibility to produce process heat for industrial applications and hydrogen production. The design has completed the first phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's three-phase pre-licensing vendor design review and is undergoing pre-licensing activities with the US NRC. Holtec has also applied for a Generic Design Assessment of the SMR-160 in the UK. Ukraine, signed a cooperation agreement with Holtec earlier this year with a target date of supplying power by March 2029, and deploying up to to 20 SMRs across the country.

Above: Artist's impression of the SMR-160 (courtesy of Holtec)

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) most recent edition of its biennial IAEA booklet, Advances in Small Modular Reactor Technology Developments, published in 2022 includes detailed descriptions of 83 reactors under development or construction in 18 countries. The 424 pages provide details of the technologies involved while Annex I summarises the information in a series of tables, including deployment timelines. IAEA notes in its introduction: “Several major milestones have been reached in SMR technology deployment.

It lists Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov floating power unit with two-module KLT-40S that started commercial operation in May 2020; the HTR-PM demonstrator in China connected to the grid in December 2021; the CAREM25 under construction in Argentina and expected to reach first criticality in 2026; the ACP100 under construction in China and targeted to start commercial operation by the end of 2026; Russia’s BREST-OD-300 lead-cooled fast reactor planned to be completed in 2026 for operation in 2029; and NuScale’s Power Module. It notes: “All the other designs…are either in the pre-conceptual/conceptual or basic/detailed design stages.” It places Nuward in the conceptual design stage; Rolls Royce SMR and BRWX-300 in the detail design stage; NuScale’s VOYGR as “equipment manufacturing in progress”; the Westinghouse SMR as “conceptual design completed”; and the Holtec-160 as “detailed design to complete by 2025”.

Date: Friday, 06 October 2023
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