Small nuclear reactors and net zero

Professor Richard Taylor, the Dalton Nuclear Institute, sheds light on small nuclear reactors and their role in meeting the net zero challenge ahead.

The drive to on net zero is one of the greastest challenges of the century, calling for bold and decisive action. Small nuclear reactors have characteristics that could make them uniquely suited to becoming part of this story. Join Professor Richard Taylor, BNFL chair in Nuclear Energy Systems at The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute, to discover more.

Recorded in August 2020

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Lecture transcript

We're going to talk about on net zero. This of course is a massive challenge. It's probably one of the biggest challenges of our generation. We certainly would have all said that before March of this year, and of course when you've got a massive challenge like getting the country to carbon neutral, it needs a matching massive ambition.

It needs the resolution and the courage to do something profoundly different. I'm going to talk a little bit about small nuclear reactors and how they might play a small part in that big story. Small nuclear reactors are enjoying quite a fair bit of government support at the moment, both the current generation integrated small reactors and the next generation more advanced reactor types.

Now the reason for this is the perceived advantages that they bring. They are by definition smaller, so they're cheaper to build. They're also potentially quicker to build which means that they are more financeable in a way that new nuclear build is proving very difficult.

The other advantage they have is that they are flexible, so they potentially produce benefits built beyond electricity and they're also, because of their design, potentially more inherently safe. Now the thing about small reactors is that they play into this agenda of profound courageous change because you need to build lots of them.

The advantages that they potentially have only really work if you build a fleet, if you build lots of them. These things are built in a factory. They're not built in a muddy field, so what that means is if you build a lot of them, you get better at it and they get cheaper and quicker, and all those advantages are potentially realised.

So the thing about small modular is that they play into that big, national agenda, that big, ground breaking, new normal agenda that will be necessary to deliver on net zero; and they actually have another advantage which is that they play into the idea of commoditisation.

What these small reactors can be if you build them in a factory, is they are by definition small, they are identical, they can even be beautiful and they can be a new brand. So what that means is if they're going to become ubiquitous, if they're going to be commonplace amongst us, then they have the potential to share all those characteristics of the other technology that sustains and enriches our lives.

So, the takeaway message is net zero is a massive challenge for us all, a massive opportunity for us all to build back better after the pandemic. But what it needs is courage and resolution. It needs big ideas and in its own perhaps modest way, small modular reactors and small nuclear may play a part in that bigger plan.

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