As part of its plans to expand its nuclear capacity, the UK has announced that designs entered by six companies will advance to the next round in a government competition looking to develop small module reactors (SMRs).

The successful companies will soon be able to bid for government contracts, and the final decision regarding financial support will be announced in spring 2024. The timetable aims to be the fastest of its kind in the world, with the contracts set to be awarded by the summer of that year.

The competition represents part of a renewed national push towards nuclear energy, with the government aiming to generate up to a quarter of all electricity in the UK from nuclear power and to achieve net zero by 2050.

The finalists are Electricite de France (EDF), GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy International, Rolls Royce SMR, Holtec Britain, Nuscale Power and Westinghouse Electric Company UK. Judged by the UK government and the government-backed Great British Nuclear delivery body, the selected designs have been deemed able to deliver operational SMRs by the mid-2030s.

Gwen Parry-Jones, CEO of Great British Nuclear, said in a statement: “Today’s announcement is a key step forward in delivering the government’s objective of boosting nuclear power in this country. Our priority in this process has been to prioritise reliable and sustainable power to the grid early, and that’s why we have focused our first step on the technologies that we viewed as most likely to meet the objective of a final investment decision in 2029.

“These companies will now be able to prepare for the next stages of the competition, aiming for a final contract agreement in the summer, potentially benefiting from significant support from the public purse.”

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By GlobalData

The SMR competition represents part of a revival of nuclear power within the UK. The industry has seen significant decline since the 1990s with several plants being permanently shut. According to the World Nuclear Association, most of the existing 6.5GW of nuclear capacity in the UK is due to be retired by the end of the decade.

However, the government is aiming to introduce 24GW of new nuclear capacity by 2050, with SMRs regarded as a viable solution to achieve this with backers claiming their smaller designs will make the reactors easier to manufacture and quicker to build.

Despite the closures, the nuclear energy industry has seen major growth in the UK, according to open roles data identified by GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company. Nearly 3,900 positions were tracked in August 2023, compared to only 564 in August 2020, an almost sevenfold increase.

Growth in the nuclear industry is also reflected in filings made by the finalists in the UK SMR competition. Documents filed by EDF and analysed by GlobalData show a significant increase in mentions of the frequency of the term "nuclear" since 2018.

Rolls Royce’s focus on "energy" within its filings, meanwhile, has also seen a steady increase.

Of the SMR competition, UK Minister for Nuclear and Networks Andrew Bowie said in a statement: “This programme provides the blueprint for how the government can work together with industry to grow the economy and set the future of new, exciting nuclear technologies.

“I am delighted today we have taken the next step in our plans to unleash a new generation of nuclear technology, boost our energy security and deliver our net zero ambitions.”

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