GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) has submitted a Generic Design Assessment (GDA) entry application for its BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) to UK authorities, kicking off a key regulatory process that could give the advanced nuclear technology a competitive edge as the country races to potentially triple its nuclear capacity to up to 24 GW by 2050.
The effort expands GEH’s efforts to engage with regulators in the UK for its BWRX-300, a 300-MW boiling water reactor (BWR). “Regulatory agencies in Canada and the U.S. are collaborating on their licensing review of the BWRX-300. Through the GDA process, we look forward to engaging U.K. regulators and enabling collaboration with their global counterparts,” noted Sean Sexstone, GEH executive vice president of Advanced Nuclear, on Dec. 20.
GDA: A Non-Mandatory But Significant Regulatory Process
The GDA is a non-mandatory regulatory process overseen by the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and Environment Agency (EA) to ensure that new nuclear power plants built in the country “meet high standards of safety, security, environmental protection and waste management.” The joint process is separate from site-specific licensing, which the ONR grants as a legal document for the entire lifecycle of a facility, and environmental permits from the EA (or Natural Resources Wales). A four-step technology-neutral assessment introduced in 2007, the GDA serves as a first step to reduce project risk, providing confidence that a proposed design can be built, operated, and decommissioned in the UK under existing standards.
However, entry to the GDA is controlled by the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), a ministerial department focused on science, research, and innovation and is responsible for ensuring the country’s energy security. BEIS, notably, updated its GDA entry process on Dec. 13, issuing new guidance for advanced nuclear applicants and applicants to the Future Nuclear Enabling Fund (FNEF). FNEF is a £120 million fund the government launched in May 2022 to help “mature” nuclear projects—projects in a position to take a final investment decision by 2025—reduce project risks. While BEIS has closed the submission period for the FNEF, it will accept applications FNEF funding that will contribute toward the cost of the GDA until Jan. 3, 2023.
To date, UK regulators have completed GDAs for four designs. All reviews have taken up to five years or more. EDF’s UK EPR, whose GDA review spanned 2007 to 2012, is now under construction at Hinkley Point C and is proposed for Sizewell C, a project the UK recently announced it would support with a 50% ownership stake. A review of Westinghouse’s AP1000 occurred between 2007 and 2017, while a review of GEH’s ABWR spanned 2013 to 2017. A more recent review of Chinese firm CGN’s UK HPR1000 took five years, from 2017 to 2022. Regulators are now reviewing one application: Rolls-Royce’s 470-MW SMR. The review began earlier this year.
The UK’s Urgency to Revitalize Its Nuclear Sector
In an energy strategy unveiled on Apr. 6, the UK moved to “reverse decades of myopia” and target adding up to eight new nuclear reactors to its six existing reactors—potentially tripling its nuclear capacity to up to 24 GW by 2050. The government said the effort would boost nuclear’s UK generation share from 15% to 25%. While the sweeping plan presented a sharp reversal of ambitions announced in October 2021 to source 100% of the country’s power from renewable energy, it directly addresses a critical power supply and fuel affordability crisis that has been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government added.
The UK has since moved swiftly, but industry observers note a rapid nuclear expansion is riddled with challenges. Between 2000 and 2021, the UK’s annual share of nuclear power fell from 23% to about 15%. Its current nine-reactor fleet represents a combined power-generating capacity of 6.5 GW. The UK has meanwhile partly retired its fleet of second-generation advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) built between 1965 and 1988. The last nuclear plant it built was EDF’s 1.2-GW Sizewell B station in Suffolk—the UK’s only pressurized water reactor (PWR)—in 1995. The country also recognizes lifetimes of its dominant fleet of AGRs cannot be extended for technical reasons, and all are slated to be shuttered by 2030.
Nuclear stakeholders suggest the UK expansion could unfold in four phases. The current phase entails building out a Gen III+ fleet, though only one nuclear plant—EDF’s Hinkley Point C, composed of two EPRs—is under construction in Somerset, England. While construction of the 3.2-GW Hinkley Point C project began in December 2018, and Unit 1 was originally scheduled to be operational at the end of 2025, the first reactor is now expected to come online in June 2027. Project completion costs have soared from £18 billion to £22-23 billion (up to $30.13 billion). The government recently said it would bolster a second twin-EPR project, Sizewell C, with a 50% partnership stake. The nuclear industry suggests cost reductions for future new builds can be achieved by repeatability and modularity, better project management, and more predictability concerning labor and supply chains.
The second phase could unfold during the 2030s and comprise advanced nuclear technologies—potentially smaller, modular, and more flexible designs. The UK has committed to taking at least one small modular reactor (SMR) to final investment decision. Rolls-Royce’s 470-MW SMR, a Gen III+ PWR technology that uses standard fuel, has so far received the most public and private investment. The company on Dec. 19 unveiled three potential locations for the first heavy-pressure vessel factory. Tom Peacock, component lead of Steam Generator and Heat Exchangers for Rolls-Royce SMR, on Nov. 28 said the company’s strategy would focus on reducing cost, improving deliverability, and enhancing investability. Rolls-Royce anticipates a four-year onsite construction timeframe and is exploring the potential to get its first plant on grid by the early 2030s with a capital cost of just under £2 billion (targeting a levelized cost of electricity of around £35–50/MWh).
The UK is meanwhile exploring “advanced modular reactors” (AMRs)—which essentially encapsulate Gen IV reactors—for deployment in the 2040s. In December, the government committed up to £60 million to bolster research into high-temperature gas reactors (HTGRs), a technology the UK has historically demonstrated.
Finally, the UK is banking on fusion energy. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) is developing a ground-breaking STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) prototype fusion energy plant that will be built at the site of the West Burton power station, a 1-GW coal-fired plant owned by EDF in North Nottinghamshire, in the East Midlands region of England. For now, UKAEA is targeting first operations in the early 2040s. Still, even if the research and demonstration project is successful, the UK does not expect fusion energy will be economically competitive until at least 2050.
Ultimately, the future of nuclear will depend on several factors, including nuclear economics and financing, the government acknowledges. New nuclear applications—including for cogeneration of heat and hydrogen—successful siting, public support and community impact, a secure supply of nuclear fuel, and a feasible long-term strategy for nuclear waste management, could also dramatically shift the energy source’s potential trajectory.
BWRX-300 Trailblazing Regulatory Pathways in Several Countries
GEH told POWER timing for the BWRX-300’s GDA review will depend on UK regulators. “We will need to be accepted into the GDA process first and then discuss timing with the regulators,” it said. “We believe that the experience we have gained from progressing the licensing of the BWRX-300 in Canada, the U.S., and Poland provides a solid platform to help accelerate the UK GDA process.”
Interest is soaring in the BWRX-300 worldwide, it noted. In Canada, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), a Crown corporation wholly owned by Ontario’s provincial government in December 2021 selected the BWRX-300 for its SMR project at Darlington Nuclear Station. The single-reactor could be deployed by 2028. OPG on Oct. 31 submitted an application for a Licence to Construct to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). OPG has suggested that the process could likely culminate in a CNSC public hearing by 2024.
Saskatchewan provincial utility SaskPower and U.S. federal corporation Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) have also selected the technology as their first potential advanced nuclear new builds. TVA CEO Jeff Lyash on Aug. 2 said the utility had signed an agreement with GEH to support planning and preliminary licensing for the potential deployment of a BWRX-300 at Clinch River, near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. On Tuesday, GEH said TVA is developing its construction permit application for the Clinch River site, “targeting submittal to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] in late 2023.”
Regulatory progress for the BWRX-300 is also underway in Poland. ORLEN Synthos Green Energy (OSGE), a joint venture that holds exclusive rights for BWRX-300 deployment in Poland, has so far applied to the National Atomic Energy Agency for a “general opinion” of the SMR technology. “The technical dossier is based on documentation prepared by the technology supplier for the Canadian regulator CNRC as part of the Vendor Design Review (VDR), i.e. a pre-license technology review carried out in accordance with the Canadian law,” the company said in July. “OPG’s choice of the BWRX-300 technology is also a major catalyst for projects deployed in Poland, because it means the first project in Poland will be a NOAK (Next of a Kind) implementation, with the FOAK (First of a Kind) project deployed in Canada as its reference design.”
GEH meanwhile says it has memoranda of understanding or other agreements in place “with companies in Canada, Czech Republic, Poland, U.K., U.S., and Sweden, among others.” While the company attempts to trailblaze regulatory pathways for advanced nuclear reactors in these countries, it appears to be proceeding cautiously. On Tuesday, it noted the UK GDA entry application was supported by Jacobs U.K. Ltd, a firm that has supported licensing applications for new nuclear power plant projects in the UK since 2007. GEH’s entry application drew from Jacobs’ “deep understanding of the GDA process and site-specific regulatory requirements,” it said.
However, GEH is confident that its technology—the 10th evolution of GE’s BWR technology—is suitably poised to make an impact on the UK’s urgent endeavor to secure its future energy supplies. GEH says the BWRX-300 represents “the simplest, yet most innovative BWR design since GE began developing nuclear reactors in 1955.” On its website, GEH also notes that the design is based on the Gen III+ 1,520-MW ESBWR, which the NRC certified in 2014.
“One of the most valuable contributions that GEH and its partners can make to the UK government’s Energy Security Strategy ambition is technology that is deployable sooner. Utilizing familiar components, existing fuel, and a simplified design minimizes project risk,” the company told POWER on Tuesday. “We believe this provides a solid basis for building a fleet of BWRX-300s, with a first targeted operation of 2030, and fully realizing the advantages of multiple units on several sites using a standard licensed design.”
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).