At the Science Museum in London sit full-size turbine engines that tell the story of 300 years of steam power. This week, the museum will play with the government’s dreams for a new industrial renaissance – this time for nuclear energy.
The secretary of state for energy security and net zero, Grant Shapps, has chosen the venue to set out his ambitions for the UK’s nuclear programme. He is expected to light the way towards the government’s current commitment to build 24 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity – the equivalent of a quarter of Britain’s total generating capacity – by 2050.
The event, scheduled for Thursday, is also the official launch of the arm’s-length government body tasked with driving the delivery of new nuclear energy projects.
The first priority of Great British Nuclear (GBN) is to streamline the government’s ambition for small modular nuclear reactors.
These mini-reactors offer rare bright spots of optimism in the government’s nuclear plans. Attempts to bring forward investment in traditional-sized reactors have only yielded the much-delayed and over-budget Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset so far.
But mini-reactors present an opportunity to use the benefits of modular manufacturing techniques to cut overall construction costs and speed up construction times. The government considers nuclear power to be an important part of its ambition to reach its 2050 net zero emissions target and the more ambitious 2035 target to cut carbon emissions from the electricity system. A new nuclear dawn should also create highly skilled jobs in engineering and manufacturing.
The hope is that the GBN will be able to speed up the rollout of the mini-reactors by operating a step removed from the political wrangling in Whitehall and Westminster. In turn, mini-reactors are expected to provide a cheaper alternative to traditional nuclear power plants and are easier to build.
It makes sense, then, that both plans have been significantly delayed by the political turmoil of recent years. Under Boris Johnson, the government has put nuclear power at the center of its energy strategy, which was announced in April 2022, in response to climate concerns and a desire to get rid of Russian gas.
Each new government raises new cost lines to support small modular reactors. The current government hopes to announce the first winners of the competition in the autumn. Industry sources are hopeful that Shapps could use his upcoming speech to explain how the competition is evolving.
Any explanation would be welcomed by executives at jet-engines-to-nuclear-reactors company Rolls-Royce, who said its small modular reactors could begin to provide “stable, safe supplies of cheap power” in the early 2030s.
But Rolls-Royce is not alone. In the time it took the government to launch its competition, the market for small modular reactors became less crowded.
Hitachi submitted a design for regulatory approval, while infrastructure group Balfour Beatty and Holtec, which manufactures components for power plants, agreed to propose a Holtec design, with Hyundai support.
Rolls-Royce is understood to be confident about the rising competition, and comfortable in the belief that it can provide a compelling and competitive nuclear option. However, it did not escape his notice that if there had been less delays in the first place, it might have enjoyed a greater start.