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What might trip up the Rolls Royce plan for small nuclear reactors?

Fix the Planet newsletter: Can small nuclear power go big? Small modular reactors are being pitched as an affordable and fast way to decarbonise power grids but questions about the technology abound, New Scientist  EARTH, 25 November 2021, By Adam Vaughan

”……… nuclear power did have a showing in Glasgow, at official events in the conference, deals on the sidelines and cropping up as a subject during press briefings.

One new technology popped up a few times: small modular reactors (SMRs), mini nuclear plants that would be built in a factory and transported to a site for assembly. A UK consortium led by Rolls-Royce wants to build a fleet in the country to export around the world as a low carbon complement to renewables. During COP26 the consortium received £210 million from the UK government. More private investment is expected soon.

Yet questions abound. Why should this technology succeed where large nuclear plants have failed to take off in recent years, beyond China? If they are small, will they make a sizeable enough dent in emissions? And will they arrive in time to make a difference to a rapidly warming world?……

What exactly is planned?

The reactors that Rolls-Royce SMR wants to build have been six years in development, with their roots in ones the company previously built for nuclear submarines. Despite being billed as small, the new reactor design is fairly large. Each would have 470 megawatts of capacity, a good deal bigger than the 300 MW usually seen as the ceiling for an SMR.

The consortium hopes to initially build four plants on existing nuclear sites around the UK. Ultimately it wants a fleet of 16 , enough to replace the amount of nuclear capacity expected to be lost in the UK this decade as ageing atomic plants retire. Later down the line, the SMRs could be exported around the world too.

 Alastair Evans at Rolls-Royce SMR. says the first SMR would cost about £2.3 billion and could be operational by 2031. Later versions may fall to £1.8 billion, he claims. That may seem cheap compared to Hinkley, but an offshore wind farm with twice the capacity costs about £1 billion today, and that figure will be even lower in a decade’s time………….

What might trip them up?

SMRs have been in development for years but have made little inroads to date. The UK government has been talking about them for much of the past decade, with nothing to show. Progress elsewhere around the world has been slow, too. Outside of Russia there are no commercial SMRs connected to power grids. Even China, one of the few countries that has built new nuclear plants in recent years, only started construction of a demo SMR earlier this year, four years late. It wasn’t until last year that leading US firm NuScale had its design licensed by US authorities.

Paul Dorfman at the non-profit Nuclear Consulting Group, a body of academics critical of nuclear power, says the nuclear industry has always argued economies of scale will bring down costs so it is hard to see why going small will work. He says modularisation – making the reactors in factories – will only bring down costs if those factories have a full order book, which may not materialise. “It’s chicken and egg on the supply chain,” he says. He also notes the plants will still create radioactive waste (something another potential next gen nuclear technology, fusion, does not). And he fears nuclear sites near coasts and rivers will be increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as storm surges as seas rise.

What’s next?   The Rolls-Royce SMR group this month submitted its reactor design for approval by the UK nuclear regulator, a process that could take around five years. It now needs to pick three locations for factories and start constructing them. The group also needs to win a Contract for Difference from the UK government, a guaranteed floor price for the electricity generated by the SMRs……..

November 27, 2021 - Posted by | Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, UK

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