The announcement of Great British Nuclear (GBN) is a long awaited positive step. GBN clearly now faces a monumental workload and a range of challenges as it sets the ground for new nuclear build in the UK. In this article, Professor Adrian Bull emphasises the need to engage with development companies rather than just ‘starting from scratch’.
- Since the original plans for an SMR (Small Modular Reactor) competition in 2015, significant developments have been made.
- Less publicised have been the establishment of a number of development organisations which could prove to be vital in making new (small) nuclear a reality.
- Government should treat these development companies (DevCo’s) as clients for GBN who can act as the voice of regions and potentially of investors too
Setting the ground for new nuclear build in the UK process starts with running a competition to find the best design of “Small Modular Reactor” (SMR). Although we may have been frustrated by the fact a similar-sounding SMR competition was launched back in 2015 by the then Chancellor George Osborne, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking there has been no progress since that time. In fact – many of the important cornerstones of today’s nuclear requirements have been delivered in the intervening years, and crucially to build on those, and not to work around them.
Groundwork and developments
A nuclear reactor development project – of any size – is about much more than the reactor itself. In addition to the choice of reactor design, a project needs funding, a market into which the electricity can be sold and regulatory approval (or at least a clear process via which such approvals can be obtained). But it also needs somewhere to go – in the form of a suitable site, as discussed in my recent article. And linked to the siting question, it needs a welcoming local community (or at least the absence of robust protest), with a skilled and available workforce for all parts of its planning, construction and operation.
Since the first plans for an SMR competition back in 2015, we’ve seen:
- The Nuclear Sector Deal in 2018 included provision for regulators to adapt their Generic Design Assessment (GDA) processes to be more flexible for the timely assessment of SMR designs.
- In April 2022, the RR SMR was the first such design to enter into a newly modernised, 3-step GDA process (adapted from the original 4-step model). And in January this year a further six reactor designs were submitted to the process.
- An Expert Finance Group was established and commissioned by Government to review financing of new nuclear in 2018. The work covered investment models, business structures and risk allocation – among other topics – and importantly concluded that there are alternatives to the traditional model of single organisation ownership which could be effective in delivering rollout of a significant SMR fleet. That is to say, investors and owners don’t have to be the utilities.
- A new Regulated Asset Base finance model for nuclear projects was introduced by Government in 2022.
Great British Nuclear – potential facilitators
The progress made has been well-publicised and welcomed by those in the industry. Though less well covered in the media was the establishment of a number of development organisations which could well prove to be vital in making new (small) nuclear a reality. These organisations – such as Solway Community Power in Cumbria and Cwmni Egino in North Wales – could well act as the catalysts for bringing the various pieces of the jigsaw together. Not only that – they can do so in a way which puts the local community and the site at the forefront of the project, rather than alienating key local stakeholders as some past projects have done.
These bodies can act as the mortar between the big “bricks” of regulation, reactor technology, financing and – crucially – government, to make sure that expectations are aligned, roles clear and sensitivities managed, especially in a local context with the multiple stakeholders on all sides. By working with them, understanding their position and listening to their needs, GBN can get a very good understanding of the landscape and what needs to be done most urgently.
It should be stressed – these development companies are not mere talking shops to shout from the side-lines or get in the way. They are led by senior figures with credibility and a track record of delivery. This credibility, and the respect they hold within a community, allows them to attract robust and reliable finance, without necessarily being long-established or having the deepest of pockets themselves.
Speeding up the process
They also have one massive advantage over Government – they can be far more agile. So they can go out to find the most suitable partners and strike arrangements without the lengthy process of consultation and “open to all” competition, both of which are good things – but not when pursued beyond reason. That means a more nimble and flexible approach to pulling teams together. Bringing in private finance in this way also helps to insulate any rollout of new nuclear from the pervasive treacle of Government spending review cycles. For the right project, a team can be brought together quickly by a DevCo and simply signed off by Government to help speed its progress.
As GBN is charged with “…driving delivery of new nuclear projects…”, inviting the DevCo’s to the table to update on their progress and to explain where they need help would be a great way to start. With a mammoth task to undertake from a standing start, GBN may well find that there are partially formed solutions already out there which simply need help and encouragement, without the need to go back to the drawing board. The DevCo’s can effectively become clients for GBN and can act as the voice of regions and potentially of investors too.
So when GBN launch their competition to deliver SMR technology to the UK, I urge them to avoid simply asking for all the reactor vendors to send in their glossy brochures and over-optimistic delivery timescales, and instead to ask “bring us your SMR-focused solutions, and tell us how we can make them happen”. That way, they can use the good work already done as a springboard to deliver progress, rather than simply starting from scratch.
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