WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As the world tries to wean itself off of fossil fuels nuclear power is making a come back.
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As the world tries, almost desperately at times it seems, to wean itself off its fossil fuel addition and embrace renewable energy sources that include everything from traditional solar farms and even orbiting power stations, Rolls Royce has announced that it plans to build, install, and operate up to 15 mini nuclear reactors in the UK, with the first set to go online in nine years time. In a BBC Radio 4 interview with business journalist Katie Prescott Paul Stein, the Chief Technology Officer for Rolls Royce, said that the company is leading a consortium “to produce factory built modular nuclear reactors that can be delivered for assembly by ordinary lorries” – a plan that doesn’t sound too far removed from Lockheed Martin’s plans to build and deliver truck sized nuclear fusion reactors albeit that realise those particular ambitions are going to take a lot longer to realise.
Currently, the world is undergoing a boom in nuclear power. According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 448 operating civilian reactors and another 53 under construction. However, almost all of these are being built in Eastern Europe and Asia, with China alone building more reactors than the entire Western world combined.
Artist’s concept of a Rolls-Royce SMR plant. Source: Rolls Royce.
Part of the reason for this is political with every reactor program in Europe or North America facing implacable environmentalist opposition and part of it is the expense of building and operating large reactors in an energy economy now dominated by cheap natural gas. However, one technology trend that could reverse this stagnation is the development of small, modular nuclear reactors that could be mass-produced in factories, carted to the site by ordinary lorries, and then assembled to generate cheap carbon-free electricity.
This approach too has its drawbacks, but Rolls Royce believes that its consortium has got its sums right and can restart the UK’s nuclear industry by building up to 15 Small Modular Reactors (SMR) with an expected value to the UK economy of £52 billion and a further £250 billion in exports, and 40,000 new jobs by 2050.
Each power station is projected to have a service life of 60 years and generate 440 MW of electricity, or enough to power a city the size of Leeds. The estimated cost of the electricity generated is £60 ($78) per MWh which would put it on a par with solar energy that is now the cheapest form of energy in over 50 countries.
“Our plan is to get energy on the grid in 2029,” Prescott told the BBC. “The obvious sites to put them are what we call brown-field sites – sites where we’re running elderly or decommissioned nuclear power stations. There are two sites in Wales and one in the northwest of England. Eventually in the UK, we’ll be rolling out 10 to 15. We’re also looking to a significant export market. In fact, the current estimate for the export market for SMRs is £250 billion, so this could be a huge industry.”
According to a previous press release from Rolls Royce, the British government has already promised £18 million in matching funds, or about half the present costs of the endeavour, with the consortium partners providing the rest. Prescott says that the advantage of the Rolls Royce plan is that it doesn’t involve building a whole new reactor, as other companies have tried to do, but rather to adapt a present design. In addition, the reactors will be built along manufacturing lines rather than civil construction, which the company claims will drive down costs rather than inflating them.
“Our desire has not been to create a new nuclear reactor,” says Prescott. “In fact, the design of the nuclear reactor is one that we’ve been running for many, many years in nuclear power stations around the world. It’s been a relentless focus on cost and it’s the first time that’s been done – to take a look at a whole power station design and not just the nuclear island, also the other parts of the power station, and the civil engineering construction and the time from starting it to finishing it. And I think it’s the first time an industrial consortium has focused on driving down the cost of electricity to the consumer and it’s arrived just at the right time with escalating concerns about climate change.”
Source: Rolls Royce