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The UK is pushing ahead with plans for new nuclear reactors and to help deliver them it has launched Great British Nuclear (GBN). The new organisation has £20bn ($25.6bn) on offer to give industry and investors the confidence they need to deliver, at speed, a programme of new nuclear projects beyond Sizewell C.

GBN is a so-called ‘arms-length’ body (i.e. directed by but separate from the government) intended to boost the delivery of new nuclear. The body has been launched with interim chair Simon Bowen and chief executive Gwen Parry-Jones and its ‘sponsoring department’ is the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ).

Key among GBN’s activities will be support for new small modular reactor (SMR) designs and a site selection process for SMR projects. It began the process of identifying SMR technologies to be supported with market intelligence gathering about reactor designs, which concluded in June 2023. That was followed in July with the launch of a £20bn competitive process to select SMR Technology Partners to design, develop, manufacture, supply, install and commission “various products, equipment or services related to the key plant required for SMR nuclear generation, including but not limited to reactor, steam generation, turbine, electrical generation, as well as the integrated design of these component parts”.

The Technology Partners will be responsible for “delivery to site of a designed and tested solution, a complete set of interface specifications, and installation and commissioning of the solution”. A tender for Technology Partners opened on the government portal, closing on 23 August. Effectively the tender is a ‘down-selection’ of technologies, which GBN said would be completed in Autumn 2023. GBN says it may make up to four awards, depending on the quality of tenders, as well as affordability and value-for-money considerations.

The Procurement Process will take the form of a Competitive Procedure with Negotiation. Applicants who pass the qualification stage will be invited to submit an initial tender. Up to four applicants will be invited to negotiate following evaluation of initial tenders, after which they will be invited to submit a ‘best and final offer’.

The next phase will launch “as quickly as possible”. This will be a contract notice setting out an intention to enter into a development contract with successful bidders. They will be offered:

  • Funding to support technology development and site-specific design
  • A close partnership with GBN, which will be ‘ready and able to provide developer capability’. GBN initially intends to establish project development companies, with developer capabilities.
  • Support in accessing sites.

Up to 50% co-funding will be available through GBN on commercial terms to support Technology Partners in developing a generic design solution for Final Investment Decision (FID) by 2029.

GBN said in the tender that it is looking for a site-agnostic technology that may be deployed across sites with varying ground conditions and cooling options. Sites will include at minimum all those identified for nuclear deployment in the 2011 National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation. GBN will award a two-stage contract (design and supply) for a Site Specific Design Solution. The supply stage is conditional on the exercise of an option by GBN and for a first-of-a-kind project in the UK will include manufacture, supply, installation, provision of fuel assemblies and supporting maintenance services up to and including the first refuelling outage.

Discussing the launch of GBN in his regular planning blog, Mustafa Latif-Aramesh, partner and parliamentary agent at law firm BDB Pitmans, said: “In stark terms, this will mean that the government is finally putting money where its mouth is for small and nuclear reactors.”

He said the government should “throw resources at updating the National Policy Statement for Nuclear” in advance of its 2025 publication target, and explicitly confirm that nuclear projects outside of existing or decommissioned nuclear sites can progress.

More investment in large and advanced units

Just days after launching GBN, UK DESNZ confirmed a £170m ($217m) investment of previously allocated funding for development work on Sizewell C. The investment – part of a £700m ($894m) investment scheme announced in November 2022 – will help fund Sizewell C’s continuing development so it can reach the point of a final investment decision, including preparing the site for future construction, procuring key components and expanding the workforce.

DESNZ said the investment would “help attract potential private investment into new nuclear projects”. Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps said the planned EPR at Sizewell C “represents the bridge between the ongoing construction of Hinkley Point C and our longer-term ambition to provide up to a quarter of the UK’s electricity from homegrown nuclear energy by 2050”.

The UK government also announced funding for three research projects for so-called advanced modular reactors (AMRs), whose high-temperature operation means they can provide heat for hydrogen and other industrial uses while generating power. They are:

  • Up to £22.5m ($28.7m) to Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation UK in Warrington to further develop the design of a high-temperature micromodular reactor.
  • Up to £15m ($19m) to the National Nuclear Laboratory in Warrington to accelerate the design of a high-temperature reactor, following its success in Japan.
  • Up to £16m ($20.4m) to the National Nuclear Laboratory in Preston to continue to develop the capability to manufacture the coated-particle fuel that is suitable for high-temperature reactors.

GBN launch has mixed reaction

The UK’s Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) is an ‘arm’s length’ body that describes itself as “the government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects”. In its Annual Report on Major Projects 2022-23, published on 20 July, the IPA chose to highlight Great British Nuclear.

The IPA held an Opportunity Framing workshop as part of the establishment of GBN aiming to drive consensus among key stakeholders, accelerate strategic decision making and define actions around GBN’s structure, scope and purpose. The IPA said it identified critical success factors, including the potential funding model and capability building, and aligned key stakeholders to a high-level decision roadmap and claimed that “by investing key stakeholders in the journey early on, the programme has been set up for success, ready to move forward in a joined-up way to achieve its vision”.

However, MPs on the Select Committee on Science, Innovation and Technology were doubtful GBN had the strengths claimed by the IPA.

Select Committees are cross-party groups of set up to scrutinise the work of government departments and also conduct ad-hoc inquiries in their sectors. The committee’s report, Delivering Nuclear Power, was also published in July and it warned that “the role of the recently launched Great British Nuclear is unclear beyond its initial task of running a selection between competing SMR developers.”

The committee warned that the government’s stated target of 24GW of nuclear-generating capacity by 2050 and its ‘aspiration’ to deploy a new nuclear reactor every year were “more of a ‘wish list’ than the comprehensive detailed and specific strategy that is required to ensure such capacity is built”. The committee’s chair, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, was supportive of the government as it identified nuclear power as an important contributor to meeting electricity needs. But he said that achieving 24 GW of nuclear power by 2050 “would be almost double the highest level of nuclear generation that the UK has ever attained. The only way to achieve this is to translate these very high-level aspirations into a comprehensive, concrete and detailed Nuclear Strategic Plan which is developed jointly with the nuclear industry, which enjoys long-term cross-party political commitment and which therefore offers dependability for private and public investment decisions.”

The repeated requirement from witnesses across the nuclear industry was for a much clearer and more concrete strategic plan than currently exists. The committee sought fast action: it recommended that a comprehensive Nuclear Strategic Plan should be drawn up, consulted upon and agreed upon before the General Election due to be held next year.

The report said that for 70 years since the UK built its first civil nuclear reactor in 1956, “Britain’s nuclear energy policy has been characterised by intermittency”. Of the latest initiative to build 24GW of nuclear, including small modular reactors (SMRs), it said “targets are not a strategy”. An Energy Security Strategy  published in March 2022 was followed by  an Energy Security Plan in March 2023. But “Even taken together, the 2022 Energy Security Strategy and the 2023 Energy Security Plan, do not amount to the comprehensive, detailed and specific strategy that we believe is required if the Government’s aspirations are to be delivered.”

Some progress has been made. The committee report said, “A common theme of evidence to our inquiry was ambiguity as to what GBN’s role would be.” Interim chair of GBN Simon Bowen told the MPs that GBN requires statutory powers and they will be granted as part of the Energy Bill now under parliamentary scrutiny. The committee said, “ We are pleased to see this progress, as during our Inquiry the government had not been able to provide us with any clarity on GBN’s role or how it would be set up. But “there is still ambiguity over what GBN’s exact remit will be in the future, beyond running a SMR competition.”

Giving evidence to the committee Professor Grubb, University College London, said GBN “appeared to have multiple yet conflicting roles”.

After Simon Bowen was appointed as industry advisor to the proposed GBN in April 2022, his team was tasked with determining the scope and structure of the body. A report presented to the then-Prime Minister in September 2022, which included 25 recommendations for GBN remains unpublished.

The Select Committee wants the government to set out a comprehensive statement of GBN’s remit, operational model and budget, and its intended role with respect to ministers and government departments. Within this, the government should clearly define what the role for GBN will be on supporting new nuclear projects beyond the initial SMR competition.

The Committee said that although GBN had been tasked to run an exercise to choose between alternative SMR propositions (as above), “At this stage, it is unclear what contribution the government expects SMRs to make to its 24GW target”. It called for the Nuclear Strategic Plan to answer key questions on:

  • What deployment of SMRs it wants to see, if any?
  • What technologies and vendors it intends to deploy, and whether they will be from a single supplier or multiple suppliers?
  • What sites should SMRs be located at?
  • What financial model would be used to pay for the contribution of SMRs to electricity supply?

It said, “Each of these questions will require a clear answer if vendors are to be able to take decisions on whether and when to take the next steps towards eventually deploying SMRs.”

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine.