Nuclear energy infrastructure

nuclear power station

Nuclear power plants, Hydropower and Geothermal Energy plants are the only type of power plants able to produce abundant CO2 free Electricity “on demand” without the variability weather elements (e.g. wind and sun). Our research considers nuclear power under three different perspectives: small modular reactors, load-following and co-generation, decommissioning and end of life management.

Small modular reactors

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are nuclear reactors with electric power output of less than 300 MWe. Several SMR designs are currently at different stages of development around the globe. SMR are designed to pursue simplicity, enhanced safety and modularity, but they are historically not considered economically competitive with Large Reactors (LR) because of a misguided application of the economy of scale principle. According to this, the unitary capital cost of a nuclear reactor decreases with increasing size.

This is due to the unitary reduction of unique setup costs in investment activities, the more efficient use of raw materials and the exploitation of higher performances which are a characteristic of larger equipment. However, the economy of scale applies if and only if the comparison is one LR versus one small reactor of a similar design, as has largely been the case in the past. This is no longer true today where SMR have very different designs and characteristics from their large-scale counterparts.

SMR are designed to be factory manufactured, transportable and suitable for the production of heat, desalinated water and other by-products that industrial sectors require. Our research considers critical aspects such as: economics, financing, licensing and relationships to design and construction.

Load-following and co-generation

Load following is the capability of a power plant to adjust its power output according to the demand and electricity price fluctuation throughout the day. In nuclear power plants, the adjustment is usually done by inserting control rods into the reactor pressure vessel.

This operation is inherently inefficient as nuclear power cost structure is composed almost entirely of sunk or fixed costs. Therefore, lowering the power output, does not significantly reduce operating expenses and the plant is thermo-mechanical stressed. A more attractive option is to maintain the primary circuit at full power and use the excess power for cogeneration, e.g. producing hydrogen, fresh water or by district heating.

Decommissioning and end of life management

At the end of their life, many infrastructures, and energy infrastructures in particular need to be decommissioned and dismantled. Project management research has often focused on new build nuclear power projects and only in recent years has decommissioning projects and megaprojects become the focus of research efforts. Nuclear Decommissioning Projects and Programmes (NDPs) are jeopardized by several risks, long schedule and cost estimates that lie in the range of hundreds of billions of pounds. Moreover, in some countries, these estimates keep increasing and key stakeholders have a limited understanding of the determinants that engender this phenomena.

The research is focused on developing a benchmarking process to address the issues. Benchmarking refers to the process of comparing projects in order to identify best practices and generate ideas for improvement.

Researchers at the University of Leeds are developing an innovative methodology to benchmark decommissioning projects, both from the nuclear and non-nuclear industry, within the UK and worldwide. From this cross-sectorial and cross-country analysis, it is possible to gather a list of key NDPs' characteristic and statistically test their correlation with the project performance. The ultimate aim of the research is to investigate the possible causation between the NDPs' characteristics and the NDPs' performance and to develop guidelines to improve the selection, planning and delivery of future NDPs.