UK’s Nuclear Dragon’s Den to Select SMR Provider

Cody Good
Nuclear reactors on grass
Courtesy of Euronews

Life often imitates art.

If the art is a reality tv show where capitalist kingpins are pitched gimmicky consumer products, then the UK is imitating that art by holding its own competition for funding, specifically for small nuclear reactors (SMRs).

What happened: Yesterday, the UK government launched a competition in search of leading SMRs to replace its ageing nuclear fleet. The contest will run till the end of 2023; the ‘winners’ with the best and most viable demonstrations will be co-funded by the British government for development.

Background: Nuclear currently accounts for around 6.5 gigawatts or 15 percent of the UK’s power generation with goals of reaching 24 gigawatts by 2050. Great British Nuclear, a new government body, will be set up to oversee the growth towards a nuclear capacity to meet 25 percent of Britain’s future electricity needs.

  • To be correct in our language, we’ll call this an atomic energy revival. It must be from the nuclear region of France to be a proper renaissance.

Not the first time: This will be the second time the UK has run a competition for SMRs. Between 2015 and 2017, 33 parties were gathered under similar pretenses, but none ever made it out of the information-gathering stage.

With no time for a third times the charm, this second time around must work out for Britain to reach its 2050 goal.

United Kingdom nuclear facilities

Nuclear sites in the UK
Courtesy of World Nuclear Association

Why the rush for SMRs? The UK wouldn’t be so hard-pressed for time if it weren’t for the retirement of four of its five operational nuclear plants before 2030. Only one new plant is currently under construction but, to no one’s surprise, it’s running years behind schedule and over budget.

  • SMRs outputs are, given their namesake, less than the traditional nuclear plant. To bring 24 gigawatts online, the UK will need to approve and implement 80 or more SMRs, depending on their output, to meet that goal.

Zoom out: Call it a revival or renaissance, champagne or sparkling wine, nuclear checks almost all the boxes to meet the urgent desire of governments to reduce their electricity emissions. The major obstacles lay in public acceptance and long project lead times.

The hope is to hit two birds with one stone, or two concerns with one small reactor.