Media outlets and the energy journalists employed by them seem to have lost their critical faculties when it comes to writing about small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), according to critics who think the industry has no hope of delivering on its promises to build a new generation of power stations.
In the build-up to the climate talks at COP 26 in Glasgow, through the negotiations and afterwards, small modular reactors were repeatedly discussed enthusiastically in newspaper articles, government announcements, and by the nuclear industry.
In every article or press release these reactors, which in the UK have yet to leave the drawing board, were touted as a vital part of Britain’s efforts to reach zero emissions by 2050. The same treatment has been given to similar plans in Canada, France, and the United States.
Oil Price reported Rolls Royce, the British engineering giant, was “breathing life back into the nuclear industry” by promising the first reactor in operation by the early 2030s and 10 by 2035.
After months of hype, having been given £210 million of British government money and raised £250 million from private investors, Rolls Royce has finally applied to the UK licencing authority to have its design approved so construction can begin.
“Rolls-Royce SMR has been established to deliver a low-cost, deployable, scalable, and investable program of new nuclear power plants,” said CEO Tom Samson. “Our transformative approach to delivering nuclear power, based on predictable factory-built components, is unique, and the nuclear technology is proven. Investors see a tremendous opportunity to decarbonize the U.K. through stable baseload nuclear power, in addition to fulfilling a vital export need as countries identify nuclear as an opportunity to decarbonize.”
Meanwhile, campaigners and climate policy specialists at the Glasgow talks were looking for fast, deep cuts in carbon emissions before 2030, to enable the planet to have a chance of staying below 1.5°C. They cast Rolls-Royce’s plans, which have been re-announced repeatedly over several months, as another prime example of “greenwash” or “kicking the can down the road.”
Nor did campaigners at Glasgow miss the fact that Britain, Canada, and the United States, the three countries with most enthusiasm for small modular reactors, have something else in common: Their wish to go on extracting oil and gas that scientists say needs to be kept in the ground if the 1.5°C limit is not to be breached.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the fossil fuel lobby in all three countries is keen to support nuclear power as “one of the answers to climate change.” Unlike renewables that can be deployed quickly, new nuclear power is decades away, providing breathing space for a dying industry to go on exploiting fossil fuels while nuclear power plants are built.
Jonathon Porritt, chair of the U.K.’s Sustainable Development Commission between 2000 and 2009 and founder member of Forum for the Future, is scathing about the plans of the U.K. government and Rolls Royce.
He says taking the SMR through the Generic Design Assessment process takes at least four years, more likely five, and even if it passes it will take years to build, given the need to find sites and seek planning permission amid likely public opposition.
To be generous, Porritt said, it would be 2035 before the first was commissioned, let alone the five to 16 reactors Rolls Royce wants to build.
“It is therefore of zero benefit in terms of meeting the (British) government’s own target of a 78% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many times ministers bang this particular drum, or how many times deplorably gullible journalists in the BBC, Financial Times, Times, and the Daily Telegraph suck it all up. Moonshine is still moonshine.”
“It’s all such a pathetic waste of time—and of taxpayers’ money,” he added. “Whatever the time scale, SMRs will never compete with renewables plus storage.”
Porritt went on to discuss tidal stream energy using undersea turbines rather like wind turbines, which two British companies are developing with some success, and the even greater potential of using the tidal range—the height difference between low and high tide—to generate electricity to generate electricity through traditional turbines. Since Britain has the second-highest tides in the world after Canada and is surrounded by the sea, it has huge potential—but is ignored by the U.K. government.
“If our government was genuinely serious about energy security (instead of finding ways of propping up Rolls-Royce to support our nuclear weapons program), tidal power would be top of its list,” Porritt concluded.
Not all publications, however, agree with the mainstream British press about nuclear power. Under the headline “Nuclear Power Won’t Save the World—It Won’t Even Help”, published in the Green Energy Times, climate writer and retired computer engineer George Harvey said the cost estimates and timetables for nuclear power were never realistic.
“All told, we might say that putting money into nuclear power goes beyond being a monumental waste,” he wrote. “It detracts from the overarching issue of dealing with climate change by making that money unavailable for dealing with the problem using less expensive, more reliable energy that can be built far more quickly.”