VIEW FROM STEEL CITY: Reactors set to go small as Brexit finances decay

Jack Greaves, Nuclear AMRC research engineer, works on a heat exchanger assembly project for Rolls-Royce.
Jack Greaves, Nuclear AMRC research engineer, works on a heat exchanger assembly project for Rolls-Royce.
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One of the myriad consequences of Brexit is the worry that huge projects will be put on hold or even ditched.

Even as Sheffield was celebrating a switch of the proposed HS2 station from Meadowhall to the city centre, people were saying the whole £57bn project must now be in doubt.

Chair of HS2 Ltd Sir David Higgins insisted it was business as usual and – sounding impassioned in his Radio 4 interview – said words to the effect of: “The Referendum vote has shown that now, more than ever, there needs to be investment in the North.”

He was referring to what is perceived to be a protest vote against the establishment by disaffected and disadvantaged people who felt they had nothing to lose (or perhaps didn’t understand what was at stake).

The other major project commentators and experts cast doubt on – as they have many times before – are plans for an £18bn nuclear power station called Hinkley Point C in Somerset.

French firm EDF immediately responded to the doom-mongers saying it was committed to the project, which was scheduled to be up and running and producing seven per cent of the nation’s electricity by 2017. That has slipped to 2025.

Other projects such as the three reactors planned for Moorside in Cumbria are even further off.

The question of electricity cost and security of supply is particularly pressing in South Yorkshire, home to many energy intensive industries.

Forgemasters, for example, spends weeks heating huge ingots so they can be bashed into shape and spends £14m-a-year on energy.

But if traditional nuclear power stations are too big to fly, then pocket-sized ones could be the answer.

The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham – part of Sheffield University – is helping to develop small modular reactors that can be transported by lorry and installed singly or in chains at a fraction of the costs of a traditional power station.

At about £2bn each, the upfront cost is small compared to Hinkley. And about six of them could produce the same power.

University vice chancellor Sir Keith Burnett last week said it had the best civil nuclear capability in the world.

A bold claim, but it is understood all eight of the firms developing SMRs in the UK are ‘engaged’ with the NAMRC.

Much of the work is top secret, but Westinghouse and NuScale have publicly hailed the expertise they are benefiting from at the centre.

One job has been to identify whether the UK has companies capable of manufacturing the most complex parts of an SMR. The answer was ‘yes’, with a very large number in South Yorkshire.

Nuclear power stations are basically a huge kettle. Radioactive material emits heat which turns water into steam that spins a turbine which produces electricity, with no carbon emissions.

The market worldwide is valued at £400bn, presenting the NAMRC and South Yorkshire manufacturers with an incredible opportunity.

If approved, the first SMR could be up and running in 10 years, potentially leapfrogging the problems that have bedevilled the nation’s power sector, and users, for years.

Small modular nuclear reactors have been in naval service for some time and there is no practical reason why they can’t come ashore, says Richard Caborn.

The former Sheffield MP and business minister is a champion of the Nuclear AMRC. He reckons the first British-built SMRs ‘could and should’ lead to the UK establishing the world’s first production company, making factory-assembled reactors with UK components.

And the NAMRC – part of Sheffield University – is the only place on the planet with machines ready to build a prototype, Mr Caborn says.