Small Modular Reactors: Key to Solving the Skills Deficit
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will play a major part in the ‘future of nuclear’ and are an intriguing development for the UK’s decarbonised future. Creating £60 per megawatt hour once mature SMR technology will play a key role in reinvigorating the UK energy industry. That being said, although there are strong targets and interest in the recent Government investment placed in new nuclear technologies, in order to drive this nuclear evolution forward, much more than just financial investment is required.
Currently, the UK is in a challenging situation. Yes, the SMR developments are an extremely positive step towards the eradication of fossil fuel energy generation, however the UK does not have the sufficient skills capacity to execute these current and large scale new build commitments. The UK is already in a clear nuclear skills deficit, and an SMR programme will exacerbate this capacity shortfall. How will the UK be able to sustain the skills demand on top of this?
The UK is already in desperate need for talent to complete current nuclear projects. Thousands of engineers and construction workers are currently needed to complete Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset as well as other planned nuclear plants over the next 20+ years. If the UK were to deploy 7GWe of SMRs, then over 40,000 skilled jobs would be created, but the UK requires a skills injection and strategy in order to carry this forward.
Taking stock, currently the nuclear industry contributes £12.4billion to the UK economy and provides longterm employment to 87,000 people across defence and civil, however with 100,000 additional UK jobs set to be created by 2021, there remains a capacity concern. Even when considering digitisation, given the timeline, volumes and locations for these SMR new builds, the forecast of engineers required to complete this is vast, especially over the next 30-40 years. This doesn’t take into account the thousands required to decommission the existing fleet of nuclear reactors also. Its therefore integral we maintain a balance and ideally have multi-skilled experts rather than just niche nuclear specialists.
We hope the premise of a new and exciting SMR programme will help attract the talent needed to support this, from Universities, other sectors and geographies. That being said, companies also need to step up and invest in the necessary skills required and the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group is doing an excellent job in kick-starting this. But more needs to be done. At Assystem, we hold over 50+ years nuclear experience and as one of the top three independent nuclear engineering companies worldwide, hold more of a global perspective. There is a clear need to develop a portfolio of experts across all specialisms, but importantly, to do so, tapping into global expertise to support this evolution. Skills sharing across the globe will provide a vital solution for the UK.
There is already a bi-lateral collaboration between the UK and France in large scale nuclear development, however there is no fixed agreement for similar collaboration on SMRs. This is something we need to encourage.
Joining two advanced industrial countries together where new nuclear builds are taking place is important. We have supported players in the French and in the UK nuclear energy market throughout the commissioning of the national nuclear fleets and development of R&D projects such as ITER. Collectively both the UK and France have both the capability and access to funding in addition to the motivation of significant benefits in terms of economic development, jobs and exports to third markets. So, let’s capitalise and collectively lean on our Anglo/French relationship. Most of the highly skilled jobs on the Hinkley Point project seem to have stayed in France, while the UK supply chain’s main scope remains building work related. We want to encourage a stronger development of cross border skills sharing as well as shared manufacturing facilities to better develop and deploy SMRs as a result.
In addition to global talent sourcing, we believe it’s important to develop an innovative ecosystem to guarantee the future of nuclear on a broader scale: skills and innovations focused. Our newly developed ‘Imagine’ programme will act as a catalyst for all types of innovations. Partnering with diverse players including universities, schools, incubators, research clusters, start-ups, clients, and suppliers, it will also facilitate and support the industry’s talent sourcing battle; ensuring predicted sector growth. In addition, there is a need to achieve significant cost reductions, ideally in the order of 30% across new nuclear builds. This is something we need to work towards and achieve through digitisation, advanced manufacturing, modularisation and by harnessing advanced construction methodologies. All of which can be achieved by enticing sector talent.
Nuclear power remains crucial to the evolution of the UK energy industry and the Government’s pledge to develop these small-scale reactors is a huge relief for its future. So, let’s harness this opportunity. Let’s join together as industry players, entice and secure the talent required, decrease the skills gap, meet the forecast engineer requirement in order to safeguard the UK’s decarbonised future and provide the UK with a clear competitive edge.
Robert Plana is the Chief Technical Officer at Assystem Energy & Infrastructure
 Oxford Economics
 Annual Assessment, Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, 2017
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere