UK Gov’t push for SMRs hits Brexit and looming skills crisis

  • Storm CloudsA renewed push by the UK government to plan to meet the nation’s energy needs with small modular reactors is facing two enormous challenges.
  • The so-called SMR competition never awarded any of the $250M{L} in development money due to the distractions of Brexit and possible unraveling of ties to Euratom.
  • These uncertainties if left unresolved will push skilled workers into other professions leaving the nuclear industry with no one to build its full size plants like Hinkley Point or future small modular reactors.

Major vendors of nuclear technologies in the UK may have finally gotten the government’s attention in an effort to restart the SMR competition and get some or all of the money out the door. Four firms – Rolls-Royce, Hitachi, Westinghouse, and NuScale have gone public with their concerns that the government, distracted by Brexit, had dropped the ball on the program.  In response the House of Lords issued a statement that it was “alarmed” by the government’s failure to make the money available.

A spokesman for the government agency in charge of the SMR money told the Telegraph newspaper that it plans to get the ball rolling again, but did not commit to a date to award the money.

One of the problems is that the minister who advocated for the program – George Osborne – is no longer part of the government.  At the time he said that the cash awards for development of SMRs “would revive the UK’s nuclear expertise.”

Osborne vigorously opposed the Brexit vote and was shown the door when PM Theresa May came to power.

Success for SMRs depends on the firms developing them being able to develop factories to build them in modules. In turn this means developing a robust supply chain and having skilled workers for both the factories and the reactor sites.

All of these elements being in place depend on having sufficient orders from customers which so far have not materialized. Without them investors will not put up the money for the factories and the planned economies of scale will not emerge to make SMRs competitive.

Tony Roulstone of the Cambridge Nuclear Energy Center told a nuclear trade journal – the Engineer Magazine – that, “The manufacturing approach works in every other industry. Nuclear is the only one where it’s not.”

UK Nuclear Workers Vote with Their Feet

The Financial Times reports that the UK will not have enough skilled workers to build the next generation of nuclear power plants. The reason is that the government has left too many questions unanswered in terms of how many of the planned full size nuclear reactors will actually be built.

As many as 80,000 to 100,000 engineers, skilled trades, and construction workers will be needed if all 19 GWe of nuclear power plants are built over the next 10-15 years.  Even as work is proceeding on the twin 1600 MW Areva EPRs at Hinkley point, problems with investment in the Moorside project make a commitment to breaking ground a distant prospect. The reason is that the plant is supposed to consist of three 1150 MW Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, but the company declared bankruptcy in the U.S.

Other barriers include competition from other large infrastructure projects like a high speed rail line. The likelihood of importing foreign workers will be limited by the fact that the UK is leaving the EU making the labor shortage even more acute.

Training new workers for nuclear project takes longer because safety and security regulations add to the duration and cost of the effort.  The remote sites of new nuclear power plants puts them at some distance from cities where there is surplus labor. Many workers with families will not live at the remote sites in temporary quarters for the long periods of time needed to build the plants – as along as six-to eight years.

The government has started apprentice programs at colleges near the nuclear sites to encourage young people to enter the industry that way.

Nuclear Industry’s Woes Are Putting US Security At Risk

(NucNet): Former US DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz says the decline of the US nuclear energy industry is putting the country’s security at risk. In a report issued by his consulting firm, Moniz that calls for greater federal investment in the industry. The report from the Energy Futures Initiative says a commercial nuclear power sector is necessary to keep uranium-processing technology away from terrorists and to support nuclear-powered Navy vessels.

It says: “The dominant Russian presence in the Mideast nuclear power market does not augur well for US national security objectives.”

The report by Mr Moniz, a nuclear scientist who served as energy secretary under president Barack Obama, calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.It warns that the US faces the threat of a diminished workforce in the nuclear energy sector.

Domestic university programs are likely to tip more towards international students coming from countries with expanding nuclear prospects, which will further dilute the pool of American nationals who can fill national security roles. Retirements are also a significant concern, as the nuclear power sector will soon lose 25,000 skilled workers to retirement. The report is online:

NRC Approves Power Uprate For Three-Unit Browns Ferry In Alabama

(NucNet): The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved a request by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to increase the power generating capacity of Units 1, 2, and 3 at the Browns Ferry nuclear power station in Alabama by a combined total of 14.3%. The upgrades will add approximately 155 MW of electric power output to each of the three units.

This means each unit will have a net capacity of about 1,255 MW after the uprates. The NRC said TVA could increase the reactors’ output primarily through upgrading plant systems and components. The NRC said TVA plans to make the upgrades during a series of refuelling outages scheduled for the units in 2018 and 2019. Browns Ferry-1, -2, and -3 are all boiling water reactor units in commercial operation since the mid-1970s.

What is interesting about this decision by TVA is that two years ago it said in its 20 yeasr Integrated Resource Plan that it would need no new nuclear energy capacity in the foreseeable future. This is a significant uprate equal to a mid-range SMR. Separately, TVA is continuing to pursue an early site permit for an SMR at its Clinch River site.

China Approves Plan to Promote Unified Nuclear Reactor Brand

(Reuters) – China has approved a plan from its two state nuclear developers to promote a single integrated nuclear reactor brand that will help speed up construction and strengthen their ability to compete in markets overseas.

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and the China General Nuclear Project Corporation (CGN) have been jointly developing an advanced model known as the “Hualong One”, but despite government pressure, they have continued to work separately on their own designs.

In a plan approved by regulators last week, the two companies agreed to use integrated technical standards when building Hualong reactors. They will also transfer intellectual property rights to Hualong International, a joint venture launched by the firms last year, China’s Energy Observer reported, citing a CGN spokesman.

With China aiming to become a dominant global nuclear player, the government told CNNC and CGN in 2011 to pool technology instead of competing for the same projects.

The aim is for the Hualong One to compete with advanced models such as the Westinghouse AP1000 or the European Pressurized Reactor designed by France’s Areva.

China has a deal with the UK to build two Hualong One reactors at the Bradwell site sometime in the 2020s. It has another deal to build one in Argentina.

Olkiluoto-3 EPR Set For Commercial Operation In December 2018

(NucNet) Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 EPR remains on track to begin commercial operation in December 2018 as it nears a comprehensive test phase, the plant’s project director said on August 17, 2017, according to Reuters. The news agency said the unit is running almost a decade behind its original schedule.

Meanwhile, owner Teollisuuden Voima (TVO) and the plant suppliers, an Areva-Siemens consortium, continue their legal case related to its rising costs.

However, problems at the site are now over, project director Jouni Silvennoinen told Reuters. He said hot functional testing is due to start in the coming months.

Reuters said the project’s total costs have increased from an initial estimate of €3.2bn ($3.8bn) to around €8.5bn.

TVO spokesman Pasi Tuohimaa was quoted as saying plans for a fourth Olkiluoto unit could be revived once Olkiluoto-3 is up and running. The Reuters report is online:

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2 Responses to UK Gov’t push for SMRs hits Brexit and looming skills crisis

  1. Pingback: UK Gov’t push for SMRs hits Brexit and looming skills crisis - Neutron Bytes - Pro-Nuclear Power Blogs - Nuclear Street - Nuclear Power Plant News, Jobs, and Careers

  2. Jack R. Keeling says:

    Regarding the Browns Ferry uprate, this uprate was included in the TVA Integrated Resource Plan as new capacity. The Integrated Resource Plan said no new full-plant nuclear additions are needed or anticipated for at least 20 years. This allowed TVA to scrap Bellefonte.


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