A small modular reactor (SMR) consortium is “eagerly awaiting” a government announcement that could help the U.K. regain its former leadership in nuclear technology.

SMRs are under development in several markets and are widely favored to become the nuclear technology of choice in the future, with proponents saying the reactors could be deployed more quickly and cheaply than full-scale plants.

“The consortium has applied for support from the government's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is designed for exactly this kind of high-impact opportunity,” said Andrew Storer, CEO of the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, an industrial organization, in written responses to GTM's questions.

Yesterday, the consortium, which is led by British power systems manufacturer Rolls-Royce, pledged to create 6,000 jobs in the U.K. within the next five years if the government “makes a clear commitment that enables a fleet of 16 SMR power stations to be built over the next 20 years.”

The consortium is looking for a minimum commitment of £200 million ($264 million) in matched funding, on top of £18 million ($24 million) that was handed out late last year, Storer told GTM.

Last year’s funding is due to run out in 2021, and Storer says the group needs "the next phase to follow on immediately to maintain momentum in the project and avoid skilled people moving on to other projects."

It is understood the £200 million will help the consortium to move forward with reactor design, manufacturing technology and regulatory licensing. More government cash would be needed to build SMR factories for full-scale production and possible export.

Government ready to resolve its nuclear commitment issues

U.K. government support for new nuclear has wavered in the past, with concerns over funding leading developer Hitachi to walk away from two full-scale plant projects, totaling 5.8 gigawatts, in September.

But recent activity suggests the administration, which is battling Europe’s highest coronavirus death rate and has yet to conclude negotiations over Brexit, could be about to make a big bet on the nuclear sector.

Last month the BBC reported that the government had ramped up talks with EDF, the French multinational building Hinkley Point C, over another project at Sizewell in Suffolk. “The government is close to giving the green light to a new nuclear power station,” the report said

And this week, U.S. developer Bechtel stepped forward to take the reins of the Wylfa Newydd project abandoned by Hitachi. The decision over whether — and how — to support new-build nuclear in the U.K. is expected to take place at a meeting this month, another BBC report said.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the U.K. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy reaffirmed the government’s commitment to nuclear power.

"Nuclear power will play a key role in the U.K.'s future energy mix as we transition to a low-carbon economy, including through our investments in small and advanced modular reactors,” said the agency in a statement.

"The U.K. is fast becoming an exciting place for developing small and advanced nuclear reactor technologies,” it added.

SMR race heats up

Storer said the proposed SMR program could deliver more than £50 billion of economic value by 2050, creating up to 40,000 jobs, as well as kickstarting a potential £250 billion export industry.

“All these projects would make a major contribution toward meeting the U.K.'s net-zero targets and the government's energy and climate policy objectives,” said Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at the World Nuclear Association.

The U.K. government “needs to continue” its support for the early development of SMRs, Cobb said. “Significant progress is being made in projects in Canada, the U.S., Russia and China, and the U.K. shouldn't be left behind.”

But even with funding, the U.K.’s future leadership of the nascent SMR market is still far from assured. One nuclear insider told GTM: “The biggest hurdle will be getting safety approval for the first unit.”

“It took a long time to get a generic design assessment for the EPR and AP1000, and it is unclear how or why it will be any faster for new Rolls-Royce SMR reactor designs.”

It took more than five years for EDF to get its EPR unit licensed in the U.K.