Net-Zero Transition News

How many is too many renaissances?

Ieuan Williams, Madano consultant and prospective parliamentary Labour Party candidate for Ynys Môn
Ieuan Williams, Madano consultant and prospective parliamentary Labour Party candidate for Ynys Môn

For those who follow the goings on of the UK’s energy sector, nothing quite has its ups and downs like the nuclear industry.

From the highs of being the first country to commercialise nuclear power, to the lows of the privatisation of British Energy, from Tony Blair’s landmark U-turn towards new stations, only to have two mega-projects cancelled in the last few years, it’s easy to be cynical whenever you hear there’s a nuclear renaissance on the horizon.

Last week saw the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris and the annual celebration of World Nuclear Energy Day, with the UK’s annual nuclear conference and dinner taking place this week. Yet the status quo, for the most part, remains unchanged. When we take a step back and look at what’s happening internationally, there is a lot to be hopeful for, but equally much to learn from.

The United States has led a major push at COP28 to triple global nuclear capacity by 2050; every week there seems to be a fresh announcement about another Eastern European country signing agreements to build a new generation of power plants; the fourth of four new massive Korean reactors at Barakah in the UAE has just been given its operating licence; and there’s even been a petition led by a former member of the Manx Parliament to explore nuclear options for the Isle of Man.

Not to be outdone, China is building at a scarcely believable rate, with 25 reactors in construction, 43 planned, a further 78 under proposal, and 76 more in the early stages of development.

However, on the flip side, in recent weeks there has been the cancellation of NuScale’s leading project, and a major merger between X-energy and Ares Acquisition Corp has been called off.

Despite this, there remains a high level of optimism in the sector, with Great British Nuclear seemingly making progress, and work is ongoing on the UK Government’s Nuclear Roadmap, which is expected at some point in the New Year.

Perhaps nuclear’s greatest strength is also it’s weakness, it has always offered something that can seem too good to be true, and the same can be said of the next generation of reactors.

We’re now in an era in which dozens of vendors are developing advanced technologies, smaller reactors, which don’t just offer clean, reliable and cost competitive electricity as their product, but are firmly placing themselves as vital components in the arsenal needed to decarbonise the wider economy, with the ability to do things no other energy source can do.

The promise is enticing, the production of low-cost/high-yield hydrogen, high temperature steam for innumerate chemical processes, creating truly carbon-neutral synthetic drop-in fuels for aviation, decarbonising shipping with microreactors, the list goes on and on.

Inevitably, as with all things nuclear, this new generation brings its own confusion. There are endless permutations and combinations of reactor technology on offer. You have your standard pressurised water reactors and high temperature gas reactors, the likes of which are already established in the UK. Spicing things up are molten salt, sodium, lead and chloride reactors, capable of reaching incredibly high temperatures without the need for highly pressurised vessels.

However, we’re still not done, there are also the different types of fuel on offer. Several small reactors use the Uranium-235 we’re so used to, but how it’s packaged is where it gets interesting. There’s tri-structural isotropic particle fuel, or TRISO for short, and high-assay low enriched uranium fuels, also known as HALEU. Beyond Uranium several reactor vendors are working on designs which use plutonium in mixed oxide fuels, and there’s always the perennial promise of thorium. Still with me?

In addition to the reactors themselves, a number of enterprising companies are offering innovative energy storage solutions to complement their nuclear plants, enabling them to deliver even greater flexibility with their power.

Needless to say, the names of each one of these reactor vendors would be a winning answer on Pointless.

Joking aside, this inherent complexity makes advanced nuclear technologies hard to understand even for someone who is already pro-nuclear and generally engaged in the energy sphere. Expecting your average, or even well informed, politician or government official to have a grasp of the nuances of what each advanced nuclear technology can do is a tall order. It could be argued that this is fundamentally hindering progress in the sector.

Crucial to the success of this promising new era of nuclear power is finding concise, elegant and clear ways of communicating the characteristics of each type of small reactor.

In a crowded field only those that are understood stand out.