The government said it will specifically explore high temperature gas reactors (HTGRs) as the most promising model for the demonstration programme, which ministers are investing £170m into delivering by the early 2030s.
The proposed HTGR plants are smaller than conventional nuclear power stations, more flexible, and could be built at a fraction of a cost, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said.
As well as creating electricity to power homes on the grid, the UK is hoping HTGRs will also be able to generate low-carbon hydrogen, or “green” hydrogen. In addition, thanks to also generating extremely high temperature heat, they could help decarbonise industry and potentially power district heating networks by the 2040s.
Around one-third of the UK’s carbon emissions come from heat, with a significant portion from heavy industrial processes. By generating heat at between 500°C and 950°C – higher than other types of advanced reactor – HTGRs could significantly cut emissions from processes such as cement, paper, glass and chemical production in the UK’s industrial heartlands.
Ministers are now inviting views from industry and the public on the government’s preference to explore the potential of HTGRs for its demonstration project. The call for evidence seeks to strengthen the government’s evidence base around the potential of advanced modular reactors and HTGRs in particular.
Energy minister Anne Marie Trevelyan said while renewables like wind and solar will become an integral part of where the country’s electricity will come from by 2050, they will always require a stable low-carbon baseload from nuclear. “That is why, alongside negotiations with the developers of Sizewell C in Suffolk, we are pressing ahead with harnessing new and exciting advanced nuclear technology.”
The government said today’s step builds on the commitment made in the energy white paper and prime minister Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan for £170m of investment in an R&D programme for advanced SMRs, as part of a £385m package to accelerate the development of more flexible nuclear technologies.
Advanced SMRs use new types of fuel and coolants compared to conventional reactors, which tend to use water for cooling. Internationally – as part of the Generation IV International Forum for further research and development – there are six main types of advanced SMR technology, which could play a role in achieving net zero, with some potentially re-using spent nuclear materials as new fuel. However, with one of the highest temperature outputs, HTGRs are being considered for the UK’s demonstrator programme.
Meanwhile, the BEIS is preparing to submit a summary of evidence on nuclear energy to a working group, which will report to the government on how to address nuclear energy in the UK’s green taxonomy.
The green taxonomy will be a common framework setting rules for investments that can be defined as environmentally sustainable. This would help clamp down on greenwashing – unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims that an investment is environmentally friendly. “It will make it easier for investors and consumers to understand how a firm is impacting the environment to encourage greater investments in funds that will help the UK achieve net zero,” the government said.
The London-based Nuclear Industry Association said the announcement was “an exciting and important” step towards the delivery of an advanced reactor demonstrator, a key part of nuclear’s future in the clean energy mix. “We hope the government will move swiftly forward to agree a funding settlement and delivery timeline for a demonstrator this year,” a statement said.
NIA chief executive Tom Greatrex also called for urgent action on a new financing model that ensures the UK can deliver nuclear, large and small, to secure its net zero future.