Small Modular Reactor Summit, London: Speech by our Chairman

I am delighted to be here as a lifelong strong supporter of nuclear power. I have advocated more vigorous response to challenge of climate change for more than 20 years

 

The challenge of climate change

I’m convinced that international concern about climate change will intensify in next decade. The need to decarbonise global economy is becoming more urgent and will be highlighted at Paris CoP soon

Electricity generation is at heart of the challenge as the world reduces dependence on fossil fuels, it must find replacements for coal

 

Nuclear’s contribution to tackling climate change

While I welcome and support the growth of renewables, the problem of intermittency means we cannot rely entirely on solar and wind to keep lights on. Nuclear can provide baseload power in a way that intermittent renewables cannot

 

The energy trilemma

Governments around the world are grappling with the energy trilemma; how to achieve energy supplies that are simultaneously secure, green and affordable.

 

Rolling out nuclear power

Beyond doubt nuclear is secure and low carbon. The main barrier at present to rapid large scale expansion of nuclear is cost, a problem that is extremely topical here in Britain as we agonise over the decision about Hinkley Point.

 

Cutting the cost of new nuclear

Making nuclear more affordable depends on scaling up and moving from first of a kind which has so often characterised our approach to nuclear to taking a chance on one technology and reaping the savings which come from higher volumes.

Nth of a kind will always be cheaper than FOAK but capturing the benefits of the economies of scale is something we’ve not been good at doing. Actually, it’s something that isn’t easy to do given the huge capital costs of each new large nuclear power reactor.

 

Small modular reactors

So this brings us to SMRs on which attention is starting to focus once more. SMRs have two enormous potential advantages. Firstly they offer the prospect of much lower capital costs making the possibility of privately financed new build a much more realistic option. Secondly, the current trend in electricity generation is clearly moving away from large centralised units whose effectiveness depends on large scale transmission grids and towards smaller decentralised units which can serve smaller populations.

Furthermore we have the proven success of many hundreds of small reactors built for naval use from which enormous expertise in engineering small power units has already been obtained.

Shortly before I left the House of Commons in May, the ECCSC under my chairmanship published a report on SMRs drawing attention to their potential advantages including the benefits of serial construction.

 

Overcoming the barriers to deployment

But despite these important advantages, SMRs will still face barriers to widespread deployment and one of these barriers may be NIMBY. Before I address this challenge, I want to say a quick word about NNWE.

NNWE was launched at the end of last year. It is an informal consortium of nuclear industry companies, large and small, working together under my chairmanship to promote a revival of the civil nuclear power industry in Europe.

NNWE believes that nuclear power is an essential element in the energy mix, a view that is shared by at least a half of EU members.

At NNWE we also believe that nuclear power offers big economic benefits in terms of jobs both in the supply chain and during the construction period and we believe that cutting costs is most likely to occur when tried and tested technology is used.

If any companies represented here are interested in joining this consortium, please talk to me later

or visit the NNWE website. There is no charge for joining

 

The challenge of NIMBY

Turning to the challenge of NIMBY, I am an optimist. I believe the public will be more easily persuaded to accept SMRs than either fracking or large scale wind or solar, though I should emphasise in passing that I support all three.

There is no reason to expect that the strong opposition which is usually aroused by any proposals for storage of nuclear waste to occur in relation to SMRs. Of course I recognise that lots of different SMR technologies are at present being considered but this need not affect the level of public acceptance, and in any case the industry is likely in its own interests eventually to coalesce around one or two.

 

The encouraging level of public support

On the issue of NIMBY, current market research shows that local resistance to nuclear power is lowest in those areas where existing nuclear reactors are operating.

Encouragingly for supporters of nuclear like me the data shows that people who know most about nuclear power are the most likely to be supportive. Equally important is the fact that the better educated someone is the more likely they are to support the expansion of nuclear power.

Here in the UK the nearer you live to an existing nuclear power station the more likely you are to support the construction of a new one

 

A trusted regulator

That is an excellent starting point for supporters of SMRs. It reflects first and foremost the excellent experience which the UK public has had with nuclear power so far and the trust that is placed in the regulator, Particularly impressive is the way that public support for nuclear scarcely faltered in the wake of Fukushima.

I gladly salute the record of the Office of Nuclear Regulation, and its predecessor body, which has been vital in building and maintaining public trust in nuclear power.

 

The merits of nuclear

So the first way to overcome NIMBY is to point to the outstanding safety record of the UK civil nuclear power industry and indeed of the industry in all western countries.

 

An outstanding safety record

No sector in the energy industry is more tightly regulated than nuclear from the start. Safety has rightly been the paramount consideration. Indeed if the coal industry had had to meet the same safety standards as nuclear it would have been shut down decades ago.

 

Clean as well as safe

A second reason why nuclear is popular among those communities which are familiar with it, is that it is recognised as clean.

SMRs will not create air pollution or GHG emissions. It is a better neighbour than any form of fossil fuel power.

 

Distributed generation

SMRs will bring a further benefit by facilitating distributed power. They reduce the need for new transmission capacity. Few forms of energy infrastructure are more unpopular or unsightly than overhead pylon.s

 

Spreading the message

Getting all these positive messages across requires a vigorous and extensive engagement strategy.

 

Where to start

My advice to the promoters of SMRs would be to start the rollout of this new industry on sites which are close to existing nuclear power stations. These are the places where resistance is least likely to be encountered.

 

How to engage

As to the methods of engagement, the tried and tested routes are best. Transparency should be the watchword. Trust the British public to understand and recognise the benefits that SMRs can offer.

 

All politics is local and so is engagement

Get the message across at the most local possible level. Remember that people place far more trust in their local media than in national media.

 

Emphasise the environment

Exploit the greater interest shown by younger people in environmental and sustainability issues and make the very positive case for nuclear as an essential element in our energy mix.

 

Conclusion

The case for SMRs is strong even though the road ahead is long and winding. Who better to quote In the week of the visit of China’s President than Confucius:

“The longest journey begins with a single step”.

 

Advancing SMRs

Advancing the progress of SMRs requires action on several fronts. Winning the hearts and minds of the public isn’t the only one, may not even be the most important, but it is a condition precedent for eventual success.

By their nature SMRs are potentially far more numerous than large scale nuclear reactors. They will therefore be far more local. They need to be good neighbours because they will be neighbours to far more people.

 

Winning hearts and minds

It’s never too early to start shaping public opinion so the task is simply to convince people of the merits of the case.

In summary, the threat of climate change, the dangerous and unpredictable consequences of an end to the climate stability which has prevailed for the last few thousand years – a tiny tiny fraction of our planet’s lifetime – a stability which has enabled one of the planet’s most recently arrived species – human beings – to proliferate in number and enjoy phenomenal, and probably unprecedented success, those dangers are starting to be understood.

 

The world needs nuclear

The energy industry is at the heart of the challenge. Decarbonising electricity is absolutely critical and that requires, for the next half century at least, a revival of nuclear power. Part, possibly a very big part of that revival, may be in SMRs.

 

Seizing the moment

The opportunity is there with a first-class safety record, a technology that is environmentally friendly and the prospect of much lower costs. As nuclear power stations become a commodity instead of a bank busting gigantic capital project.

Here in the UK we start with two more advantages a more supportive public and a trusted regulator.

So let’s get out there and spread the message

Nuclear is safe

It’s clean

It creates jobs and economic growth

And SMRs are a chance for Britain to show the same leadership that 60 years ago made it a world leader in civil nuclear power.

 

Tim Yeo

TY SMR Summit