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Rolls-Royce-led consortium plans to build 16 small nuclear reactors in UK

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Rolls-Royce is eager to power the UK using small modular nuclear power stations, with the company leading a consortium of firms to make it happen. 

The UK SMR consortium is made up of a whole host of firms looking to bring small nuclear power plants online in the UK. Current members include Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O’Rourke, the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), the Nuclear AMRC, Rolls-Royce and TWI.

Currently the consortium plans to enable a fleet of 16 small modular (SMR) reactor power stations to be built across the UK over the next 20 years. It argues that the stations will be able to help secure the UK’s net zero commitments without breaking the bank, as well as create as many as 34,000 long-term jobs by the mid-2030s. 

While the 34,000 jobs are a long way off and are desperately needed to aid in our Covid-19 recovery, Rolls-Royce does note that its nuclear reactor programme will actually create 5,000 jobs within the next five years. It will also help revitalise the UK’s regional industrial base and position the UK to secure exports of at least £250bn, according to Rolls-Royce. 

The firm notes that up to 80% (by value) of the power station components will be made in factories in the Midlands and North of England, before being transported to existing nuclear sites around the country for rapid assembly inside weatherproof canopies.

Government backing needed

In order to achieve its goals, the SMR consortium is in need of backing from the UK Government. Thankfully the current leadership are sympathetic to nuclear power, noting that more nuclear will be needed in the UK to achieve net zero by 2050. 

Tom Samson, interim CEO of the UK SMR Consortium, commented, “We have developed a manufacturing and assembly process that will make reliable, low carbon nuclear power affordable, deliverable and investable.

“By creating a factory-built power station that rolls off the assembly line we have radically reduced many construction risks associated with new nuclear power stations; and by using proven nuclear technology alongside standardised and simplified components, we make it much more cheaply.

“Our consortium combines decades of nuclear experience and pioneering world-class manufacturing expertise. We represent the strength that UK industry has to offer in our fight against climate change.

“The UK SMR Consortium presents the UK with a domestic nuclear energy solution for the first time in a generation, with a product that is engineered, designed and manufactured in the UK. This creates a unique opportunity to revitalise the UK’s industrial base and paves the way for the future commercialisation of advanced reactor solutions, including fusion technology.

“Our ambition to accelerate the deployment of a fleet of these power stations across the UK will contribute massively to the ‘levelling up’ agenda, creating sustainable high value manufacturing jobs in those areas most in need of economic activity.

“In addition, the fleet approach will bring huge value to the communities of which these power stations will be a part, with economic activity spanning 60 years of operations. Families and businesses in our existing nuclear estate, such as West Cumbria and North Wales, will benefit from prosperity, social mobility and opportunity for decades to come.”

What do these small nuclear reactors offer?

Rolls-Royce says that each compact nuclear power station will provide 440MW of electricity, enough low carbon power for a city of 450,000 homes for 60 years. It believes that the first unit will be operational within 10 years of the first order, with the factories able to produce two units per year thereafter. Doubling or tripling the number of factories would allow more power stations to be made more quickly to meet additional UK and international demand.

Additionally, the firm believes that the power stations will be able to provide low-carbon energy to produce net zero synthetic aviation fuels and hydrogen, supporting the UK Government’s Jet Zero ambition and the wider decarbonisation of transport.

Two new agreements have been announced this week, highlighting the power station’s international appeal. US power giant, Exelon Generation, has agreed to pursue the potential for it to operate compact nuclear power stations both in the UK and internationally. Czech Republic power entity CEZ, has signed up to see how it could be used in its domestic programme. Turkey is also currently working through a feasibility study for domestic use, as well as possible joint power station production, to underpin clean economic growth.

The current phase of the programme has been jointly funded by all consortium members and UK Research and Innovation.

So what’s the hold up?

Despite promising a lot, these small nuclear reactors have yet to be proven and have so far attracted major criticism. Not only are organisations such as Greenpeace against the idea of small nuclear reactors, noting that they pose a similar risk of radioactive releases as larger reactors, but those in the electrical industry have also been sceptical. 

Our very own Gossage column in this month’s Electrical Review has detailed why you should be sceptical of these ‘small nuclear reactors’, noting that the prototype is the same size as all the earlier large nuclear power stations. Thus, not exactly meeting the ‘small’ definition. 

What’s more the cost of the small nuclear power plants, as well as the delivery times may be a little optimistic. Throughout the UK’s history we have been promised time and time again that we’ll see nuclear power plants built in record time, and yet time scales have constantly slipped. UK SMR’s 10-year time scale could likely slip too. Plus, when have they ever been built on budget?

So, while Rolls-Royce and the rest of the UK SMR are eager to get building these small nuclear reactors, they may not be the holy grail that the UK grid is looking for after all.

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