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Rolls Royce plans 16 mini-nuclear plants for UK via BBC

By Justin Rowlatt

A consortium led by Rolls Royce has announced plans to build up to 16 mini-nuclear plants in the UK.

It says the project will create 6,000 new jobs in the Midlands and the North of England over the next five years.

The Prime Minister is understood to be poised to announce at least £200m for the project as part of a long-delayed green plan for economic recovery.

Rolls argues that as well as producing low-carbon electricity, the concept could become a new export industry.

[…]

Six of the UK’s seven nuclear reactor sites are due to go offline by 2030 and the remaining one, Sizewell B, is due to be decommissioned in 2035.

What is a modular nuclear plant?

Rolls Royce and its partners argue that instead of building huge nuclear mega-projects in muddy fields we should construct a series of smaller nuclear plants from “modules” made in factories.

The aim is to re-engineer nuclear power as a very high-tech Lego set. 

The components would be broken down into a series of hundreds of these modules which would be made in a central factory and shipped by road to the site for assembly.

The objective is to tackle the biggest problem nuclear power faces: the exorbitant cost.

[…]

Each plant would produce 440 megawatts of electricity – roughly enough to power Sheffield – and the hope is that, once the first few have been made, they will cost around £2bn each.

The consortium says the first of these modular plants could be up and running in 10 years, after that it will be able to build and install two a year.

By comparison, the much larger nuclear plant being built at Hinkley Point in Somerset is expect to cost some £22bn but will produce more than 3 gigawatts of electricity – over six times as much.

In addition to the six nuclear plants going offline by 2030, there’s another challenge. You have to factor in a massive increase in electricity demand over the coming decades.

[…]

That has got the critics of nuclear power worried. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say small nuclear power stations pose similar risks of radioactive releases and weapons proliferation as big ones.

Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, said that if the government wanted to take a punt on some new technology to tackle climate change it would be better off investing in hydrogen or geothermal power.

And there are other reasons to question the SMR concept, says Prof MV Ramana of the University of British Columbia in Canada. He is a physicist and an expert on nuclear energy policy who has studied small modular reactors.

He said UK SMR’s 10-year time-scale for its first plant may prove optimistic. The one constant in the history of the nuclear industry to date is that big new concepts never come in on time and budget, he said.

He is sceptical that the factory concept can deliver significant cost savings given the complexity and scale of even a small nuclear plant. Smaller plants will have to meet the same rigorous safety standards as big ones, he points out.

He said that where the concept has been tried elsewhere – in the US and China, for example – there have been long delays and costs have ended up being comparable to those of large nuclear power stations.

Finally, he questioned whether there will be a market for these plants by the 2030s, when UK SMR says the first will be ready.

Export opportunities

But Boris Johnson’s powerful adviser, Dominic Cummings, is known to be taken with the modular nuclear idea.

One of the reasons the government has been fighting so hard to free itself from the EU’s state aid rules is so it can get its shoulder behind technologies it thinks will give the UK economy and its workers a real boost.

Modular nuclear has the potential to do just that.

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