Developing nuclear energy

Nuclear energy

High-level discussions between Sheffield's Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and civil nuclear energy providers from around the world could see UK firms playing a key role in the design and development of a new generation of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMR).

"Most of the world's existing nuclear technology is large scale," says Mike Tynan, CEO of the Nuclear AMRC. "But these reactors come with such a hefty price tag, and long lead times, they are often seen as a high risk option by investors and governments."

SMRs substantially reduce that risk, says Tynan, the former boss of Westinghouse UK who was head hunted by the government for his current role in the University's burgeoning advanced manufacturing and research campus.

Recently returned from giving a keynote speech at an international conference on the future of SMRs, Tynan argues that a new home grown SMR technology could not only give the UK much-needed security in its energy supply mix, but also drive export-led growth in the UK’s nuclear supply chain, thus boosting economic performance.

Tynan told the conference how SMRs promise lower capital costs, reduced construction risk, and a shorter period before they start generating electricity and income.

"We recently signed a deal with the US-based reactor company NuScale to develop a groundbreaking small modular reactor for the UK market, and are in productive talks along similar lines with a number of other suppliers," said Tynan.

What attracts them to Sheffield is our unrivalled expertise in advanced manufacturing techniques, many of which have been developed in our close collaboration with leading companies in the aerospace industry.

Mike Tynan

Unlike large-scale reactors, which are chiefly constructed on-site, this new technology would be produced in factories. "This is what excites our potential partners and the government. By harnessing the advanced manufacturing techniques developed here at Sheffield they will be able to drive down production costs and deliver the economies of scale that come from multiple production," Tynan added.

Many of the manufacturing technologies being developed by the Nuclear AMRC – including electron beam welding, diode laser cladding, hot isostatic pressing and large-scale high-precision machining – have the potential to deliver significant productivity savings for SMRs. "We believe the Nuclear AMRC is the only collaborative R&D centre in the world with the capabilities to manufacture key assemblies and components for a full-scale SMR prototype," Tynan added.

He also sees the growing diplomatic friendship between the UK and China, as evidenced by the recent state visit of President Xi Jinping to Britain, as a positive development.

"A number of Chinese firms have been to see us about how we could help them enter the UK market. Chinese companies have been developing nuclear reactors on a large scale and very quickly, and are pushing the boundaries of nuclear new builds, including SMRs. As a partner, they would provide tremendous opportunities for our companies to be involved in nuclear new builds," Tynan says.

"The UK government is entering a further period of feasibility study for small modular reactors, which should conclude in spring 2016. There will hopefully be tremendous opportunities for UK and Chinese companies to be involved, should UK government give the go-ahead for a demonstration SMR in the UK," he added.

Industry collaborations

An industry-led feasibility study shows that small modular reactors (SMRs) offer the UK the opportunity to regain leadership in low-carbon generation technology and to develop a sustainable energy source.

The report, commissioned by the government, was produced by a consortium of key industry bodies and companies including the Nuclear AMRC, and was led by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). It emphasised the role advanced manufacturing techniques would play in reducing production costs. The Nuclear AMRC’s R&D work with companies large and small is expected to deliver further cost reductions, the report notes.

"Small modular reactor technology has the potential to play a substantial part in the UK’s clean energy future, and also to help boost UK wealth creation by virtue of the significant scope for UK companies to be part of the supply chain for SMR systems," said Paul Howarth, NNL Managing Director.

"The Nuclear AMRC is working with principal SMR technology vendors in support of their drive for a UK SMR and has the technology, expertise and experience to de-risk SMR programmes, support design for manufacturing, develop innovative solutions for SMR manufacture and deliver high value complex components, large and small," said Mike Tynan.