Take a second to open your mind and imagine a (not very) distant future. It is the late 2030s. Energy prices continue to soar and climate change remains a major concern for humankind.
Britain’s forward-thinking social housing sector has spent several years demolishing and rebuilding its least energy efficient homes, as well as insulating others with inexpensive super-efficient aerogels. But it still needs to cut emissions and reduce costs – and this has prompted a collective of providers to take their energy supplies into their own hands. They are working together on huge solar installations across their housing stock and investing in their own wind farms, as well as large battery storage options across their estates nationwide.
They have even considered the emerging technology of nuclear fusion, which – as you may know – potentially offers unlimited clean energy with little waste, but this is still some decades away from being commercially available.
However, another form of power which relies on tried and tested nuclear fission – the kind of nuclear energy that’s been used for decades – is providing part of the answer. And an organisation you’ll know the name of is at the heart of it.
Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs – small nuclear power stations, precision built in a factory – are becoming increasingly common and can supply enough energy to heat and power up to one million homes for 60 years. In fact, they are so powerful that a number of different housing providers have clubbed together to invest in an SMR which can supply all their residents. The energy is reliable, relatively inexpensive, uses no fossil fuels and provides constant power alongside the more variable generation from solar and wind.
Despite the huge challenges the world is facing, housing providers seem to have found a solution to at least one problem; keeping their residents reliably warm and meeting their energy needs at a stable price.
But, is this science fiction or is something like it just inevitable?
As an enthusiastic member of Greenpeace (in my younger days) and lover of great outdoors, I have always had an affinity for nature and the environment. It is actually pretty difficult not to when you grow up in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District, spending all the time you’re not on a computer on a hill, on adventures in woods or swimming in rivers by meadows. I am lucky.
As a technologist, I am fascinated by any developments which may help humankind tackle climate change. And, as an optimist, I think we have a spectacular capacity to solve problems – assuming we can find a way to come together and do so.
Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric power and biomass provide an increasing proportion of our energy, while sources such as tidal production have the potential to add more. But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, energy storage is a challenge – and they also come with their own environmental impacts.
As for nuclear power, I am also tickled by the concept of human beings manipulating the very building blocks of reality to produce energy, energy which is seemingly limitless and free of greenhouse gases. However, I am also full of questions about its practical viability and safety.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to chat to Tom Samson, chief executive of Rolls-Royce SMR, the division of the world famous engineering company which is working to bring this new Small Modular Reactor technology to the commercial market.
What is an SMR?
We are all familiar with the concept of large scale nuclear power stations, where a nuclear reactor creates steam to turn turbines and generate electricity.
As the name suggests, Small Modular Reactors are smaller than large nuclear plants (such as Hinkley Point C or Sizewell B), with the total area required for the SMR building only requiring about two football pitches of land.
SMRs are designed to be produced in factories (which means lots of quality control) and installed on site with ease. Their relatively small size means they can be installed in places unsuited to larger projects and power a huge number of energy intensive users and homes through the national grid. Their design also makes them potentially valuable for providing power in remote areas around the world.
The Rolls-Royce SMRs will come at a cost of around £2bn, and provide nearly 500MW of power and are expected to be ready for a commercial rollout in the next decade. Each SMR will be designed to run for at least a 60-year lifespan and be refuelled every couple of years or so.
“The first-of-a-kind aspect of this is the fact that we build it in a factory not in the field,” says Tom.
“It’s not a construction project. Once we get the regulation and approvals and we’ve done the design, it doesn’t change. It’s the same product that comes out of the factory – and that means the quality control of the final product is exceptionally high and consistent.”
Rolls-Royce already has 60 years’ experience in installing smaller reactors in Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet.
“The nuclear side of the technology is proven technology and the fuel is proven fuel,” says Tom.
“We’ve chosen not to create a different type of reactor or use a different type of fuel. We’ve made a variant of this type of design for the submarine fleet for 60 years. It’s a different size, but it’s exactly the same family of reactors, and 50 per cent of the world’s reactors are in this family of reactors – so it is really, really tried and tested.”
Could SMRs be a low cost, zero emissions source of energy for housing providers?
So, come the late 2030s, could my vision of an SMR-powered housing providers, or group of housing providers, become a reality?
“Yes, I think so. Let’s say there’s a handful of the larger housing associations who come together and they have enough demand for one SMR,” says Tom.
“These guys have got balance sheets and they’ve got capital.
“What they can do is invest in a company, that company then raises debt to complete the funding acquisition, they buy an SMR, we build it for them, that company then has a contract with somebody to operate it.
“In return for their investment, the housing associations gets 60 years of access to low cost energy, the return is delivered through that stable, unfluctuating energy, which in today’s climate of fluctuating energy prices, caps and uncertainty is a hugely valuable commodity.”
What are the risks?
Any conversation about nuclear power will soon turn towards two topics. One: nuclear disasters such as Fukushima, Chernobyl or even the Windscale Fire at Sellafield, in Cumbria. Two: How to deal with the radioactive waste left over from spent nuclear fuel and other materials.
These are perfectly legitimate concerns, which frankly – I share myself. However, in Tom’s mind these questions have to be balanced against the harm we know fossil fuels are doing to the environment and human health right now. He makes an interesting point.
“If we want to get to Net Zero without nuclear, it will have extremely large costs to consumers which might make it potentially prohibitive, or there’s potentially still emissions involved and you have to use carbon capture and storage,” he says.
“Carbon capture and storage may only have an effectiveness of say 70 per cent overall, so there’s still 30 per cent of the CO2 going into the atmosphere.
“The waste fear is what has prevented nuclear from being widely adopted in the last 20 years or so. In the same period, we’ve been pumping out tons of CO2, and about six or seven million people a year die of air pollution in the world. Taking no action is already killing people.
“If you were to rely on nuclear power for all of your energy needs and you lived to be 100 years old, everything that you’ve had energy from in your life – your computer, your car, your home – the waste that you would produce as an individual would fill a can of coke.”
As someone who has read quite a bit of Tom Clancy and could binge watch Jack Ryan for days at a time, I am also naturally concerned about rogue actors who will seek to create mayhem by stealing or otherwise interfering with nuclear material.
“I think that people should be comforted by the fact that we are a highly regulated industry and we have built in all the latest safety features to protect them from things like aircraft impact. These facilities and the way the fuel is stored are extremely safe, and we have many, many layers in the design in to defend the asset,’ says Tom.
Now, I don’t mind admitting that I wasn’t initially fully convinced about this, of course everything Tom said around these layers of defence is going to be true – but surely the risk of nuclear material being stolen was real. I mean, you only have to watch what the terrorists did to Doc Brown in “Back To The Future”, just before Marty made off in the Delorian, to know this.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that there is already a huge amount of nuclear material in circulation, much of it used in industrial and medical applications, and the stuff that can cause real harm – which could be used in weapons – is extremely complicated to handle. The greater risk to the world is, disturbingly, existing military hardware falling into the wrong hands, not fuel that has been designed specifically to power facilities like SMRs.
So, could nuclear play a part in powering the housing providers of the future?
It is undeniable that there are still questions to be answered around SMRs. For one thing they need to be made commercially available and viable, although Rolls-Royce SMR are on the cusp of making this a reality, with installations planned at locations across the world. Also, very careful thought has to be given to how the radioactive waste is stored and kept safe.
However, if we are going to decarbonise our society quickly enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, then we need to be open minded and consider every option.
Of course, it would be preferable if we could rely entirely on renewables and maybe this could be possible in the future. But technology such as SMRs seem to me likely to play a vital part in the transition and cutting our emissions in the short to medium term. We’re likely to see them become commercially available and a feature of our lives within the next decade.
As always, as in any business, it is essential that housing providers begin thinking about how they may make use of this emerging technology for the good of their residents and communities. The appeal of stable, affordable energy is simply too big to ignore.
So, could we see housing providers working together to power residents’ homes in the next decade? Could there be energy collectives for renewables or even an SMR as I’ve imagined here? I’d love to hear your thoughts – go find me on LinkedIn and let me know there.