Small Modular Reactors

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:13 pm on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change) 5:13 pm, 20th February 2019

I congratulate Trudy Harrison once again on securing this important debate. I want to concentrate on the wording of the motion, because we are talking about small modular reactors. A number of hon. Members have concentrated not only on the potential for small modular nuclear reactors, but on the wider issues relating to the nuclear programme. John Woodcock, my hon. Friend Albert Owen and the hon. Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) all talked, in one way or another, about the disappointments that have followed the closure or suspension of the existing nuclear programmes, which have featured large nuclear plants. Of course that has been a dreadful disappointment, and a potentially serious problem, for those parts of the country.

It is tempting to say that small modular nuclear reactors are the solution to the problem of size for the future. They are certainly capable of being replicated by modular construction in a way that large plants generally cannot be; they can be deployable locally; they can be deployable on a large number of sites, rather than just the big nuclear sites that recent developments have concentrated on; and they may be able to fit into the future energy market in a way that large power, whatever its origin, might find increasingly difficult. There are a lot of potential positives to small modular nuclear reactors, provided that they can do better, cost-wise, than the nuclear reactors in front of us at the moment.

What concerns me about some of the early information about small modular nuclear reactors is that they do not appear likely to be any cheaper than existing nuclear reactors. I refer to a 2016 report that the Government commissioned about their likely cost. The initial cost is projected to be 30% higher than for existing nuclear plants. As that research projects, the learning curve that would go with the modularisation of those reactors—I am talking about first-of-a-kind—would probably mean that, if several such plants were deployed, the costs could be level with present nuclear plants within 10 years. However, as we have seen recently with Wylfa, one of the issues was the apparent cost of the nuclear plant coming forward, in relation to the power going out to the public, and the unwillingness of Hitachi to go ahead with it, despite substantial assistance from the Government of up to about £75 per MWh for production.

First, it is clear that small modular nuclear reactors have to get their costs down to be viable. The Minister needs to be apprised of that. The Government claim to have invested substantial amounts of money over a period of time in the development of small modular nuclear reactors. There was a competition in 2016 and the then Chancellor