Advanced Modular Reactors: Criticality Tests - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:47 pm on 19 March 2024.

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Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour 2:47, 19 March 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assistance they provide to the developers of advanced modular reactors to enable them to conduct criticality tests.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My Lords, advanced modular reactors hold significant potential to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors. As part of the advanced modular reactor research, development and demonstration programme, the Government are exploring what further underpinning research and development is required, such as critical assembly tests for fuel, to demonstrate the abilities of high-temperature gas reactors. The Government are committed to building on our existing support for the sector and, as part of the alternative routes to market for new nuclear projects consultation, we are seeking views on how we can go further to unlock these opportunities.

Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Several projects aimed at developing advanced fourth-generation modular reactors are under way in the UK, but they are wilting through a lack of the support that should be forthcoming from the Government. They require licences and test facilities in order to prove their designs. All the leading projects are seeking foreign affiliations and may be lost to this nation. Would the Government be happy to rely on foreign enterprises to provide the next generation of nuclear technology, to the detriment of our own nuclear industry?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Of course we would not, which is why we are offering support for many of these technologies. The noble Lord’s Question asked about criticality tests—we are aware of that requirement and are in discussions with a number of companies interested in carrying them out in the UK, but these are not simple issues.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

My Lords, as I understand it, Great British Nuclear says that the final decision on smaller modular reactors will not be made until 2029 for the present competition, and that no smaller modular reactor will be in service until 2035—that is five years and 11 years ahead. Can my noble friend explain why it will take so incredibly long, when other countries are racing ahead?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I do not recognise the dates that the noble Lord cited. Great British Nuclear is obviously heavily ensconced in the design selection process at the moment, and I understand that, given a fair wind, the reactors should be online and producing electricity by the early 2030s.

Photo of Lord Ravensdale Lord Ravensdale Crossbench

My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. One reminder from the conflict in Ukraine is that energy security and national security are indivisible. The Government set out welcome guidance that Russian nuclear fuel imports into the UK will be banned by 2030, but it is a major national security issue to be relying on these imports for another six years. Does the Minister agree that we need to legislate to bring forward this date, as our partners and allies in the US are doing?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I understand the noble Lord’s concern, and I know the close interest he takes in this; I share his concerns. I know he had a very productive meeting with the Secretary of State and Minister Bowie to discuss these matters, and he has written following that. A letter on that is being drafted and will come to him shortly.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, following the transfer of the intellectual property and personnel in the U-battery project to foreign control, are the Government confident that enough action and support are being provided to UK-based projects to develop advanced modular reactors to prevent them also falling under foreign ownership?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Of course there is always more that we can do to support these projects, but we are supporting them with massive financial resources and research and development designs. It is always concerning if foreign companies are taking control of some of these projects, but we nevertheless have a really good scheme of projects in the UK and we are supporting them.

Photo of Baroness Blake of Leeds Baroness Blake of Leeds Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Net Zero), Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade)

My Lords, it is very welcome to hear that the Government plan to invest in new nuclear research and development. However, after their failure to build a single nuclear power station in 14 years and with the rollout of small modular reactors proving to be a protracted process, can the Minister give us a date for the conclusion of the SMR competition?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

It is great to see that Labour now supports new nuclear projects, because that was not always the case for previous Governments. As I said to my noble friend Lord Howell, we want to see them in production by the early 2030s.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the acquisition of Wylfa, which is hugely significant for both the generation of nuclear power and the people of north-west Wales. But why are they supporting only high-temperature gas reactor technologies in the AMR RD&D programme?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I thank my noble friend for her question and her positive advocacy of Wales and the Welsh nuclear programmes. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, was going to ask me something similar —he may well still do so. The Government selected HTGRs for research and development purposes in the AMR R&D programme following analysis by the Nuclear Innovation and Research Office of the responses to a call for evidence. This analysis suggested that HTGRs are the most promising AMR technology for decarbonisation due to their ability to generate high-temperature heat and their high technology readiness levels.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and the plea made by the noble Viscount in introducing this Question. I reiterate my support for Trawsfynydd and Wylfa and welcome the steps being taken there. Over the past four years Ministers have repeatedly stressed the role that the Government see for nuclear energy in the challenges of climate change, yet here we are again failing to put resources where they matter, particularly for enhanced safety and disposing of nuclear waste. Will the Government either come clean and admit that they are not fully committed to this next generation of nuclear technology or commit the necessary money to make this happen?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I am delighted to see the support from across the House for the contribution that Wales makes to our nuclear technologies, but I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Lord. We are putting in substantial sums of money: £385 million into the advanced nuclear fund, £210 million to support the development of Rolls-Royce SMR design and up to £170 million for an AMR research, development and demonstration programme across three phases. I could go on with the levels of support; we are supporting most of these technologies.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very good point. Can my noble friend the Minister explain why Japan’s high-temperature gas-cooled reactor technology, endorsed by my right honourable friend Greg Hands in 2021—which is inherently safe, internationally licensed and has been operating for more than 10 years—has been consigned to the back burner as part of the AMR research, development and demonstration programme? This technology needs to be brought forward into the GDA process now, or it will be too late to make its much-needed contribution to the decarbonisation of industry.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

I refer my noble friend to the answer I gave to my noble friend Lady Bloomfield. We have selected high-temperature gas reactors for research and development purposes in the AMR R&D and demonstration programme.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, do the Government give any assistance to these developers in terms of the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of their systems, or is that completely disregarded?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

Of course it is not disregarded. The safety of the UK’s nuclear programme—the disposal of waste nuclear fuels, et cetera—is one of our highest priorities. We have an excellent record when it comes to nuclear in this country.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, while we are on nuclear, what do the Government make of the reports last week of a major breakthrough in fusion technology, and what support are they giving to British technology in this field?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

There is indeed lots of exciting talk and articles about developments in fusion, and there are a number of British companies at the forefront of that—we are supporting them. The note of caution I give is that fusion has been the coming technology for about the last 30 years; every year it is 10 years away. To not be cynical about it, there are some great breakthroughs and we are now finally getting more energy out of the system than we put into it, which is very encouraging. But it is a long way away yet.

Photo of Lord Bellingham Lord Bellingham Conservative

My Lords, can the Minister say something about winning the support of local communities? Obviously, the crucial aspect in all this is getting local buy-in for these small nuclear reactors. Can he say what the Government are doing to win this argument and to change the narrative from where it is at the moment?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My noble friend makes a very powerful point; it is really important to take communities along with us. The interesting thing about nuclear technology is that it is very well supported in the communities where it already exists, but I suspect that if you applied to put it in a different community, you might run into different levels of opposition. It is really important that we explain to people what the technology is, what it does, how safe it is and how it is crucial to the UK’s energy mix in the future.