by Vince Zabielski, Partner, Pillsbury

Following the government announcement that six firms have passed the first stage of the UK’s flagship competition to build small modular reactors (SMRs), concerns that the recently launched Great British Nuclear (GBN) would be slow out of the blocks could well be put to rest. Claiming to be the fastest of its kind globally, the SMR competition has the potential to help position Britian as a global leader in nuclear power, while advancing their net zero and energy security targets.

The UK intends to generate 25% of its electricity from nuclear sources by 2050, and SMRs are a prime candidate for the speed of delivery needed to meet such ambitious net zero goals, while also providing an unmatched opportunity for affordable and clean energy security. Although traditional nuclear power reactors have become inexorably associated with cost overruns and delays, SMRs will be produced in factories on assembly lines from a standardised design, ensuring consistent quality is maintained at lower costs. SMRs have the potential to bring nuclear power to the markets and applications where it was previously uneconomical or technically not feasible. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that SMRs might do for carbon-free energy in the 21st century what the Ford Model T did for the automobile in the 20th century.

It is particularly reassuring, then, that SMRs are playing a central role in GBN’s nuclear strategy. If the government manages to meet its ambitious targets on quickly delivering a fleet of SMRs, they could also realise their mission of attracting a wave of much-needed investment into the nuclear sector. A clear plan will give companies the confidence to invest, further incentivised by SMRs’ potential to reduce construction risk and associated delays and cost overruns.

With grant funding totalling up to £157 million and a world-leading SMR competition under the UK’s belt, the path to obtaining a clean, safe, and carbon-free energy supply for the years ahead has never looked clearer.

However, before we can breathe a sigh of relief and relish in the knowledge that the UK is safely on its way to releasing its ambitions of becoming a leader in nuclear technology, there remains a few challenges that could still threaten GBN’s position.

Firstly, speed is key. While the first steps initiated by GBN are promising, work on building new nuclear power plants should have started decades ago. If the UK government wishes to establish long-term energy security, it has to make-up for lost time. Fortunately, the government is giving every sign that it now understands the need for urgency.

The conflict in Ukraine starkly exposed the extent of the UK’s dependence on energy imports to ensure a stable power supply. Lest we forget, only a year ago the UK had to pay Belgium over £10,000 per MWh to prevent a blackout, which became a new world record price for electricity. The UK’s dedication to speed of delivery on SMR development could be the essential factor in seeing it move from a nation dependent on energy imports to one with strong energy security, and even the potential to become a leading exporter – if, that is, it is able to stick to its ambitious timeline.

As well as this, a small but vocal minority still stand in strong opposition to nuclear power. Such criticisms, based on irrational fears that have often coloured perceptions of the energy source, are deeply misguided. In the West, nuclear power has an unmatched safety record, leading the World Health Organisation to herald it as the safest of all forms of energy production. Whilst it is encouraging to see the government seemingly tuning out ill-informed noise, the potential for political pandering could still threaten progress towards net zero targets, as shown by Germany’s recent shut-down of its nuclear fleet. Notably, since Germany’s plants powered down in April their carbon emissions have grown significantly.

Indeed, considering that nuclear energy is increasingly seen as the best option on both the left and right of the political spectrum for meeting net zero targets and creating greater energy security, it is concerning that the power source appears to be in retreat in some parts of Europe. Yet perhaps Europe’s setback might present an opportunity for the UK to advance its goal of becoming a prominent international energy exporter.

Ultimately, Britian’s ongoing energy dilemma of navigating a three-way balancing act between affordability, emissions, and energy security has found its answer with nuclear power, and SMRs are the best option for delivering this solution. However, despite GBN’s promising first steps it is perhaps too soon to say that nuclear is fully in the clear. If the UK is to effectively obtain clean energy security and make the UK as a nuclear leader, the government has to stick to its ambitious timeline and continue to choose science-based decision-making over political pandering.


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