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Rolls-Royce set for funding fillip to build nuclear power stations based on small modular reactor technology

Private-sector investment could unlock additional government cash

British engineering and aerospace giant Rolls-Royce has secured funding to build nuclear power stations based on small modular reactor (SMR) technology.

A consortium of BNF Resources UK Ltd, Exelon Generation Ltd and Roll-Royce Group will invest £195m roughly over a three-year period. This cash injection will allow the companies to qualify for a £210m grant from the British government, specifically the UK Research and Innovation Funding.

The path forward includes Rolls Royce entering the UK Generic Design Assessment process and closing in on sites for the factories to build the modules that will allow for on-site assembly of the power plants.

The funding could see four SMRs built based on nuclear submarine technology. Rolls Royce said a SMR power station will be the size of two football pitches and power circa one million homes.

Warren East, Rolls-Royce CEO said in a statement that “With the Rolls-Royce SMR technology, we have developed a clean energy solution which can deliver cost competitive and scalable net zero power for multiple applications from grid and industrial electricity production to hydrogen and synthetic fuel manufacturing. The business could create up to 40,000 jobs, through UK deployment and export enabled growth. As a major shareholder in Rolls-Royce SMR, we will continue to support its path to successful deployment.”

SMRs are much smaller than the current generation of nuclear reactors under construction. While Hinkley Point C, currently being built by EDF in the west of England, is expected to produce 3,200MW of electricity – around 7 per cent of the UK's consumption – SMRs are expected to produce 300MWe per unit. Rolls-Royce said one of its SMR power stations will have the capacity to generate 470MW of "low carbon energy."

But what SMRs lack in economies of scale, they make up for in modular design and off-site construction. The International Atomic Energy Authority says that "prefabricated units of SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on-site, making them more affordable to build than large power reactors, which are often custom designed for a particular location, sometimes leading to construction delays. SMRs offer savings in cost and construction time, and they can be deployed incrementally to match increasing energy demand."

Hinkley Point C is now billions overbudget and is expected to be completed a year later than planned in 2026.

While conventional nuclear reactors use water cooling, proposals for SMRs include water, liquid metal, gas, and molten salt as coolants. One design, the Toshiba 4S, a micro-sodium-cooled reactor, is supposed to require little supervision.

The government's Ten Point Plan for the Green Industrial Revolution said the first SMR demonstrator would be deployed in the UK in the early 2030s. The November 2020 strategy document promised to "enable investment of up to £215m into SMRs to develop a domestic smaller-scale power plant technology design that could potentially be built in factories and then assembled on site. It will unlock up to £300m private-sector match-funding."

The cumulative effect of the plan would cut UK emissions by 180 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2023 and 2032 and help meet the target of net-zero by 2050, the government said. ®

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