SMRs: Cut the PR crap, and let's get serious

By Richard Black, ECIU Director

I’m afraid that supporters of small modular nuclear reactors aren’t doing themselves any favours right now.

Any undeveloped energy technology is an opportunity for public relations professionals to get into hyperdrive. We cannot by definition know whether something that doesn't yet exist will work, how much it will cost, whether we’ll need it or whether the public will accept it – so why not claim the earth, and while you’re at it the heavens as well?

Frack Free Zone By Steve Harbula

'Hype' around shale gas sparked a backlash from protestors. Image: Steve Harbula, creative commons licence

At the height of the shale gas frenzy it wouldn’t have been that surprising to see headlines claiming shale gas could cure cancer or promote world peace.

But, in the end it didn’t work. Asking a Daily Mail journalist a while back why his paper had stopped running effusive shale gas pieces, I got the answer: ‘Because nothing’s actually happening, we realised we'd been spun, and the attitude is now “wake me up when it does”.’

So swiftly does hype turn to ennui. 

There are two serious points here. One is that shale gas actually can have a role to play in Britain’s energy future. But a cure-all it isn’t; and pretending that it is leads to expectations that cannot be met. The other is that having a facile discussion obstructs the more mature one that is actually in the nation’s interest.

Into hyperdrive

As with shale gas then, so now, I fear, with small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).

One presumes that Rolls-Royce, the company spearheading the current SMR push, has a hefty budget to spend on public relations.

Last week it launched a document [pdf] – officially a report, more realistically a funding prospectus for a 'once-in-a lifetime opportunity' – claiming that it will be able to deliver SMRs for electricity generation in the UK on a timescale of about 10-15 years, contingent on government support.

The case is couched in terms of ‘safe, reliable and affordable’ energy, jobs and economic development, and the argument that building a power sector SMR industry would prop up the existing programme making reactors for submarine propulsion.

Note how the PR strategy attempts to co-opt good words. ‘Safe, reliable and affordable’ – the linked Twitter account goes for 'low-cost' - as if we will osmotically believe that alternatives are 'unreliable', and the economics proven.

In time-honoured fashion, the prospectus was trailed in advance in The Telegraph, which now seems to be the paper of choice for such matters, in a piece highlighting, unquestioned, the claim of being able to provide electricity at £60 per Megawatt hour (MWh).

And a panel discussion held simultaneously by the Policy Exchange think-tank, with the neutral title ‘The electric economy: achieving our low carbon energy future’, turned out to be largely a plug for the Rolls-Royce prospectus, with the company itself represented on the panel alongside other nuclear enthusiasts. Policy Exchange is now launching a programme of work on SMRs.

The PR strategy was slightly stymied by pesky events. The £60 figure was presumably selected to look good alongside the prices secured in the latest offshore wind power auction, which were generally predicted to come in around £70/MWh. In the event, the lowest prices turned out to be £57.50.

Still, The Telegraph gave another plug this weekend with a story saying that ministers were poised to ‘give the green light’ to mini-reactors – a somewhat mystifying statement, given that any company has always been able to develop them. (For those of us long enough in the tooth to remember, it’s also exactly the same language that the government and EdF used when the Hinkley deal was brewing almost a decade ago – and it was equally true then that any company was already able to propose building a nuclear power station.)   

The Telegraph article stated as though it’s established fact that SMRs ‘will be able to offer energy at a third of the price of that generated through giant conventional reactors, such as the ongoing Hinkley Point in Somerset’. The maths is baffling enough (£60 can be a third of Hinkley’s £92.50, but only after a number of years if inflation scales up one of them but not the other) – but for a paper to report this unquestioningly is extraordinary.

All of this is also timed, of course, to feed into the government’s cost of energy review, the writer of which, Professor Dieter Helm, is deeply critical of the costs of existing nuclear power deals.

Too much lippy

With shale gas in mind, let’s strip away some of the lip-gloss and look at the underlying facts.

Nuclear-submarine-by-Defence-Images

SMRs were originally developed to power submarines. Image: Defence Images, creative commons licence

  • Small nuclear reactors are not a new technology. Originally developed to power submarines, the first commercial nuclear power station in the US at Shippingport, opened 60 years ago, came from an aircraft carrier
  • Power station reactors got bigger because developers found the economics were more favourable. While SMRs do in principle offer advantages in terms of lower unit cost, more learning through doing and shorter build times, none of these have yet been quantified because no-one is currently building and installing power SMRs
  • Some companies have innovative designs that ought to be safer than conventional large reactors. But the Rolls-Royce concept [pdf] is a light-water reactor – the family that encompasses the original submarine designs, as well as virtually every power station reactor in construction today
  • …which begs a key question: is this innovative, or not? Rolls-Royce can’t have it both ways. If it is innovative, why does the company feel able to make such bald statements about safety, reliability, cost and deliverability? If it isn’t, why is the company asking for state backing for a 60-year-old technology?

As with shale gas, the reality is that SMRs might have a role to play in Britain’s energy mix – they’re certainly a low-carbon option.

But the economics are unknown - £60/MWh is essentially a finger in the air – and they might end up more expensive than their bigger relatives. (Oh, and by the way, the £60 figure only applies once the industry is up and running, not to the first units, which Rolls-Royce says will come in at £75 per MWh - something that it seems to have forgotten to tell The Telegraph)

Public acceptability is also unknown: if the good burghers of Kirby Misperton, Preston New Road and Balcombe are prepared to put their bodies on the line to prevent shale gas drilling, what do you think will happen if companies try to set up dozens of small nuclear reactors across the countryside?

And - do we need SMRs? 

Given the spectacular cost falls in offshore wind technology (which essentially means they’re not now subsidised), the burgeoning battery storage and electric vehicle market, the growing potential for demand shifting, the seven new giant cables that will improve exchange of electricity between us and the rest of Europe long before 2030… you’d have to conclude that the case for SMRs is not made.

There is certainly a case, however, for discussing them. We should talk about small modular nuclear reactors, pros and cons, just as we should talk about shale gas. Opponents dismiss both too lightly. 

But let’s just cut the PR crap, shall we? Because it’s so shallow as to be transparent, and it isn’t fooling anyone. And then we can have the serious, evidence-based conversation, acknowledging the unknowns as well as the knowns, that really would be in the national interest.