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Can Cumbria cash in on modular nuclear?

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Moorside site

Is the tide turning against large-scale nuclear projects?

The Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset has been criticised for the high strike price of the electricity it will generate, which at £92.50/MWh is considerably higher than the latest offshore wind projects.

Meanwhile NuGen’s plans to build three reactors at Moorside, next to Sellafield, are on hold following a financial crisis at its backer Toshiba.

NuScale Power Module (NuScale)
NuScale Power Module (NuScale)

NuGen hopes to secure Korean or Chinese investment to replace Toshiba but chief executive Tom Samson admitted last week that there was no prospect of the power station being operational by the target date of 2025.

Earlier this year, Insight reported that the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto made no mention of nuclear power, although the document did talk about shale gas and renewables.

Conventional nuclear is also omitted from a new report from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a body chaired by the former Chancellor and architect of the Northern Powerhouse George Osborne, which aims to bring together business and civic leaders to promote the interests of the North.

Powerhouse 2050: The North’s Routemap for Productivity is the Partnership’s pitch to government on how the North can create 850,000 jobs and contribute an extra £100bn to the UK economy by 2050.

It identifies the potential for expertise at Sellafield to capitalise on the global market for nuclear decommissioning, estimated at £250bn.

But there is no mention of Moorside. Instead, the report highlights an opportunity for the North West to build and export a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) and is asking the Government to contribute towards the £1bn investment needed to achieve this.

An SMR is defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as producing up to 300MW of electricity, a fraction of the output of Moorside.

SMR reactors are compact and factory built, then assembled on site, with a footprint the tenth of the size of a conventional nuclear plant. They can be placed underground, moved for decommissioning, require fewer staff and use a relatively small amount of nuclear material.

Their small size allows them to be sited in consumption hotspots, such as cities, reducing transmission costs and losses.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s report argues they could be erected on the site of existing power stations to utilise their grid connections.

It says: “The North’s world-class industrial and academic assets, allied to its expertise and highly-developed supply chain, place it in a unique position to become the centre of SMR design, manufacture and maintenance.

“The Government has already launched a £250m fund for research and development alongside the competition to identify the best SMR design.

“In addition to providing scalable low-carbon power for the country, the global market for SMRs is estimated to be worth up to £250bn-£400bn.

“This offers the North a tremendous opportunity to once again become a world leader in nuclear by exporting its technology and knowledge abroad.

“Companies based in the North already have the skills and the capability to support projects as uniquely complicated as a nuclear new build programme.

“This includes a strong base of predominantly North West nuclear design engineering capability, manufacturing capability of the large nuclear forgings and steam generators, and manufacturing a nuclear fuel supply from the Springfields facility near Preston for example.

“France has been successful in exporting nuclear expertise thanks to targeted interventions by its government. The UK government should match this ambition to deliver a world-leading SMR programme.”

This offers the North a tremendous opportunity to once again become a world leader in nuclear by exporting its technology and knowledge abroad.

Earlier this year, a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommended that the UK “should focus on developing SMRs to secure the country’s future nuclear industry post-Brexit”.

But Rob Johnston, Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, believes that the Northern Powerhouse Partnership is wrong to ignore the contribution of conventional nuclear projects such as Moorside.

He said: “They are right to identify the potential for the North West to manufacture SMRs. And if it happens, we will work with Cumbrian businesses in the nuclear supply chain to ensure they maximise the opportunity.

“But this is an unproven concept. No nuclear industry programme has yet produced a series of SMRs along factory production lines.

“The UK is facing a looming energy shortfall with around half of our electricity capacity due to be decommissioned by 2030.

“The only way to address that, within such a tight timescale, is through conventional nuclear new build at Moorside, which would generate more than 7% of the UK’s electricity at a stroke.

“It’s significant that [NuGen’s chief executive] Tom Samson said last week that, despite the delay caused by the problems at Toshiba, he still believes Moorside can be operational by the end of the 2020s.

“That is going to be crucial for the UK’s energy security.”

© Cumbria Chamber of Commerce

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