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Great British Nuclear officially launched, sparks funding doubts

Nuclear Power

The UK Government has officially launched Great British Nuclear, a new Government agency that is designed to support the growth of nuclear energy in the UK. 

The official launch of Great British Nuclear was initially tipped for July 13, although the launch was pushed back due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Despite the delayed start, the Government has high hopes for the new department, with it hoping to create a renaissance for nuclear energy in the UK. 

One of Great British Nuclear’s first acts will be to kickstart a competition for small modular reactor (SMR) technology, which it believes could help boost energy security, create cheaper power, and grow the economy through well-paid jobs. 

Many in the industry have been calling for the UK Government to do more to encourage the construction of more nuclear power, including SMRs, as the UK transitions towards cleaner power generation. The UK Government has even gone so far as to claim that nuclear will be essential to our net zero future, noting that it will provide a ‘baseload’ to cover more intermittent renewable energy generation – something that our Gossage Gossip columnist recently described as a ‘load of cobblers’

How will Great British Nuclear Help?

So we’ve heard that Great British Nuclear has high hopes to kickstart a renaissance period for nuclear power in the UK, but how does it plan on achieving that? Well, thanks to the official launch, we now have more concrete information as to what the body plans to do.

From today, companies can register their interest with Great British Nuclear to participate in a competition to secure funding support to develop their SMRs. Additionally, the Government body is eager to explore future sites for new large gigawatt-scale nuclear power plants, such as those at Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C. 

That’s about as much as we know about Great British Nuclear’s initial plans – although the UK Government is throwing its weight behind the nuclear industry with a brand-new funding package totalling up to £157 million. 

This includes:

  • Up to £77.1 million of funding for companies to accelerate advanced nuclear business development in the UK and support advanced nuclear designs to enter UK regulation, maximising the chance of small and advanced modular reactors being built during the next Parliament
  • Up to £58 million funding for the further development and design of a type of advanced modular reactor (AMR) and next generation fuel. AMRs operate at a higher temperature than SMRs and as a result they could provide high temperature heat for hydrogen and other industrial uses alongside nuclear power. This includes:
    • Up to £22.5 million to Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation UK in Warrington to further develop the design of a high temperature micro modular reactor, a type of AMR suited to UK industrial demands including hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel production.
    • Up to £15 million to the National Nuclear laboratory in Warrington to accelerate the design of a high temperature reactor, following its success in Japan.
    • Up to £16 million to National Nuclear Laboratory in Preston to continue to develop sovereign coated particle fuel capability, a type of robust advanced fuel which is suitable for high temperature reactors.
  • A further £22.3 million from the Nuclear Fuel Fund will enable eight projects to develop new fuel production and manufacturing capabilities in the UK, driving up energy security and supporting the global move away from Russian fuel. This will include:
    • Over £10.5 million to Westinghouse Springfields nuclear fuel plant in Preston to manufacture more innovative types of nuclear fuel for customers both in the UK and overseas, boosting jobs and skills in the North West.
    • Over £9.5 million to Urenco UK in Capenhurst Chester, an international supplier of nuclear materials, to enrich uranium to higher levels, including LEU+ and high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU). LEU+ will allow for current reactors and SMRs to run for longer between refuelling outages, improving reactor efficiency and economics both in the UK and abroad. HALEU development will ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of fuel development for future advanced reactors.
    • Over £1 million has also been awarded to Nuclear Transport Solutions, a subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, to develop transport solutions to facilitate a supply chain for highly enriched uranium in the UK and internationally.
    • Over £1.2 million to support MoltexFLEX, a UK molten salt reactor developer based in the North West, to build and operate rigs for the development of molten salt fuel. Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) are an AMR type that use a molten salt as a coolant and fuel, leading to intrinsic safety compared with conventional fuels.

Is the UK Government unable to fund its promised nuclear renaissance?

Despite announcing £157 million in investment for the nuclear industry in the UK, many experts will argue that the UK Government’s funding plans are woefully inadequate to meaningfully move the needle. 

Recent nuclear projects within the UK have been unable to get off the ground without significant Government intervention, including Hinkley Point C, which the Government has committed at least £679 million towards, despite the new reactor facing constant delays – with its opening date now set for September 2028. 

Rolls-Royce, which is currently undergoing regulatory testing on its small modular reactor technology, has suggested that SMRs will be cheaper – although the company still believes each SMR will carry a price tag of at least £1.8 billion when they start rolling out of factories in 2030. That is expected to get you around 440 MW of generation – which for the same price, you could purchase 782 Enercon E82 onshore wind turbines, netting you up to 2346 MW of generation. 

One industry insider suggested that the UK Government’s woeful funding figures was “the best example I have ever seen of what a Government on its last legs sounds like when it has nothing to say and no money to spend.” Adding that, “All this amount will buy you, literally, is a very large pile of paper and possibly a few more headlines.”

Given the Conservative Party’s performance in recent polls, it’s likely the UK Government is unwilling to commit large amounts to Great British Nuclear when it’s unlikely to be in Government for much longer. Unfortunately, large infrastructure projects of this nature require huge investment across multiple parliamentary terms – and the short-sighted nature of the country’s leaders got us into this situation in the first place. In fact, by the time Hinkley Point C comes online, it will be 20 years since the Government of the day supported a new reactor.

Will the launch of Great British Nuclear move the needle?

The UK Government is hopeful that Great British Nuclear will move the needle in the development of nuclear power technology in the UK. While it may not have the budget to invest in new nuclear reactors itself – it could potentially foster an environment that is ultimately friendly to nuclear power. 

Unfortunately, as our industry insider notes:

  1. “Great British Nuclear has no legal basis – the Energy Bill has been delayed till the autumn, so it can’t do anything legally.
  2. “Great British Nuclear has no budget, so it can’t buy anything or commission anything.
  3. “Great British Nuclear has no premises.
  4. “Great British Nuclear has no paid staff.”

So, the chance of meaningfully moving the needle is essentially nil. But at least the current Government can capture headlines and act like it’s trying to help.

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