How can planning policy help with the delivery of Small Modular Reactors?
Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear power stations that can mostly be prefabricated and produce around a quarter of the power of a standard nuclear reactor. With energy prices rising, and the government setting ever more ambitious carbon reduction targets, SMRs are increasingly on the national agenda.
Given the importance of nuclear power, how can the government enable the expeditious delivery of SMRs?
Here are five humble suggestions:
1. Stronger national policy support for SMRs
The government is currently consulting on revisions to the Overarching National Policy Statement for Energy (EN-1), and the related sector-specific National Policy Statements for renewables, oil and gas, electricity infrastructure and networks (EN-2 to EN-5). It is not, however, consulting on the National Policy Statement for nuclear projects (EN-6).
The government states in its consultation document that ‘a review of [nuclear power national policy statement] EN-6 has concluded that EN-6 will not be amended as there are no changes material to the limited circumstances in which it will have effect.’ This statement is accompanied by a reference to a Written Ministerial Statement from 2017 which provides that EN-6 will be an ‘important and relevant consideration’ even if it does not have ‘legal effect’ in relation to a proposal.
A National Policy Statement is not a prerequisite for a successful application for development consent (indeed, as a percentage, there is a higher success rate for projects decided where there is no National Policy Statement which has effect). That said, EN-6 merely being an ‘important and relevant’ consideration does mean that other plans and policies, including local plans, will have greater weight in the overall planning balance.
In this context, it is worth noting that notwithstanding the critical need for nuclear developments, and the site specific support for a nuclear power station at Wylfa, the Examining Authority on Horizon’s project at Wylfa Newydd still recommended refusal in part because they did not consider that need outweighed the impact on Sites of Special Scientific Interest. We will never know what the government thought of that recommendation because of Horizon’s withdrawal of their application. Nonetheless, this indicates that even National Policy Statement support may not be enough to ensure delivery, and so the government should be increasing the level of policy support for SMRs both on a site-specific and national basis to ensure that appropriate weight is given to the need for these developments.
At the moment, the desire for SMRs appears to be confined to the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan, a brief reference to funding research in the Energy White Paper, and a reference (arguably in need of strengthening) in EN-1 that nuclear power ‘could’ be fulfilled by large-scale nuclear, SMRs, Advanced Modular Reactors, or fusion power plants. The government seems to acknowledge that more needs to be done, noting that consulting on EN-1 is ‘a first step toward a planning framework to facilitate the deployment of advanced nuclear technologies.’
2. Recognition of funding mechanisms
During the course of the examination of Horizon’s nuclear power station at Wylfa Newydd, one of the many heated discussions related to funding.The statutory guidance for DCO projects provides that ‘applicants should be able to demonstrate that adequate funding is likely to be available to enable the compulsory acquisition within the statutory period’. This contrasts with the guide for Transport and Works Act Orders which provides that ‘the applicant should be able to demonstrate that the proposals are capable of being financed in the way proposed.’The latter is arguably a lower bar, but perhaps necessary for projects where funding is only fully in place until after a planning consent has been granted. A recognition of the specific funding mechanisms in place for SMR in the planning system therefore could reduce the amount of time spent on this issue in the examination of DCO projects.
3. Not restricting technological advancements over time
The Examining Authority on a recent project seems to be suggesting that there should be a cap on renewable solar energy even if the promoter can demonstrate that an increase in energy generated would not result in additional environmental impacts. Technology improvements may mean that SMRs could in future provide even more capacity than initially thought – promoters should not have to seek additional consents where their environmental impacts stay within the confines of their worst case assessment. Policy statements, and guidance, could therefore helpfully be clarified to avoid restricting flexibility in increasing capacity where this would not give rise to any worse environmental impacts.
4. Flexible delivery of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG)
The Environment Bill proceeding through parliament makes clear that BNG will apply to DCO projects. The draft National Policy Statement EN-1 out for consultation has not yet caught up, but SMR projects will likely have to clear the hurdle of showing how a net gain will be delivered. Again, this has to be seen in the context of Horizon’s project being recommended for refusal in part because of biodiversity impacts. One suggestion might be to enable promoters to pool together to provide a new offsite ‘SMR National Park’, noting that the immediate environs of a number of sites may not be conducive to providing a biodiversity net gain.
5. Clear policy tests in relation to carbon reduction
Both SMRs and renewable energy projects, despite having carbon reduction as one of the key benefits, are nonetheless caught by various environmental targets and policies which require contribution to decarbonisation. This has an important impact when considering the construction phase, and the transport aspects of SMR operations post-construction. For example, the number of HGV movements in connection with the construction of a new facility or the day-to-day operation of a facility will have to show how it has considered the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP).
The issue here, however, is that the various scenarios in the TDP, and the requirements under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations to assess a reasonable worst case scenario are not always aligned. Central government direction on this issue, particularly in light of the quashing of the A38 Derby Junctions Development Consent Order on carbons grounds, would therefore be helpful.