New year’s resolutions for the nuclear industry
As the year draws to a close and we plan our new year’s resolutions, we’ve put together a list of what we would like to see from government in 2023 to further strengthen the contribution of the UK’s nuclear industry to energy security, affordability and sustainability.
The UK Government has recently made commitments to develop new nuclear with Sizewell C, and while we’re pleased to see the UK recognise the importance of investing in nuclear as a source of low-emission energy generation, there is more that needs to be done to bring other advanced nuclear technologies to market, which can deliver for the UK in ways traditional nuclear cannot.
For nuclear power to make up 25% of the UK’s energy mix by 2050, there is a serious need to consider a wider array of nuclear technologies. Currently, the Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) demonstrator programme shows a strong preference for High Temperature Gas Reactors (HTGRs), which are not aimed at electricity generation applications, missing out on other game-changing technologies that could be developed for wider application, including flexible energy generation and low-cost storage to complement intermittent renewables.
The UK cannot afford to put all of its eggs in one basket and miss out on advanced nuclear technologies that could be central to meeting our energy mix targets, while creating greater energy security, and providing significant export opportunities. The FLEX reactor in particular is an innovative, cost-effective technology that can be deployed rapidly, and at scale.
Here are the actions we would like to see the government take next year to foster investment in a more diverse range of nuclear technologies, including Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) such as the FLEX reactor.
1. Increase government and regulator understanding of MSRs
MSRs have been defined by government as AMRs; however, with the AMR demonstrator programme favouring HTGRs, it isn’t clear how molten salt designs can progress in the UK. As such, there is a serious need to develop a regulatory pathway for MSRs. It would also be advantageous to evaluate a designated MSR demonstrator programme, which could coexist with current programmes.
As well, to increase government and regulator understanding of this technology, there needs to be more opportunities for MSR developers to meet with technical advisers to government and the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). These meetings would ensure that the advice to policymakers and ministers reflects the latest scientific results and independent economic analysis. Government policymakers should be updated more often and in more detail about the science and ongoing and continuous improvements in the technology behind MSRs.
One way to bridge the knowledge gap is by granting MSR vendors access to the ONR in a ‘pre-GDA engagement’ capacity. If there was support from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we could provide regular, comprehensive updates on the FLEX reactor’s technology readiness level, and development and licensing strategies.
2. Support for MSR development and fuels research
To truly support the development of MSR technology, the government will need to provide companies like MoltexFLEX access to UK-owned IP relating to the performance of steels and other materials in the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor fleet to assist with research and development.
As well, additional support for MSR fuels research is required for the development of a molten salt fuels production supply chain in the UK. The soon to be launched Nuclear Fuels Fund is a possible source of funding for research, but the UK fuel supply chain needs the signals that MSRs are an area of interest.
3. A better route forward to secure a nuclear site
If we are to truly scale up our deployment of new nuclear, there needs to be a more straightforward way to secure new nuclear sites. This process could start with government formalising discussions around potential sites for a first-of-a-kind MSR.
The government has recognised the advantages of deploying AMRs on existing licensed sites, including leveraging past investment in infrastructure and grid connections. However, a clearer pathway to siting – in line with discussions we are already having with regional authorities – would help the industry thrive.
4. Conversations around economic models for MSRs
Given recent developments on energy pricing, including in the recent Autumn Statement, the government should open discussions on potential economic models for MSRs for electricity generation. Market mechanisms are needed that work with the ability of such reactors to operate flexibly instead of as baseload. Strike prices, which are currently the dominant pricing mechanism for nuclear and renewables, do not recognise the importance of generation which can be dispatched only when demand is high and renewables are not generating enough electricity.
If the UK is going to be a global leader in advanced nuclear technology, we need to diversify investment in different technologies and create the regulatory pathways that would enable them to be deployed at speed.
In 2023, we would like to see the UK make progress on these actions to push us forward on the path to achieving a secure and low-carbon energy future through nuclear.
Written by David Landon, CEO of MoltexFLEX