In an interview with the BBC held today, British engineering giant Rolls-Royce expressed the view that the UK could be have added several ‘mini nuclear reactors’ to the power mix by as soon as 2029. Rolls-Royce is an integral part of a consortium of British engineering firms, also including Atkins, BAM Nuttall and Wood, working towards the development of miniature nuclear power stations.
The consortium sees these compact power stations as being manufactured in sections, which would then be assembled on site. Delivered to the power plant location by lorries, Rolls-Royce believes the new style of nuclear power generation facility would cost a fraction of the expense involved in building the kind of larger reactors in use today.
The consortium expects each mini nuclear power station to cost somewhere in the region of £1.8 billion and be capable of producing 440MW of power. That’s enough to keep a city the size of Leeds running for sixty years. Rolls-Royce plans to develop as many as 16 of these stations around the UK by 2050. It also forecasts reaching that goal would be worth £52 billion to the UK economy, create 40,000 jobs and access to an international market for it to build mini nuclear power plants around the world, worth £250 billion.
The high cost of constructing plants has made it difficult for nuclear power to compete with other energy options in the United States, particularly natural gas. That has seen only one new plant, the Watts Bar 2, entering commercial production in the USA in the past 20 years. But Rolls-Royce would hope its solution would attract interest from the USA and other countries that have been put off nuclear power by the costs involved in building plants.
The reactors that the mini nuclear power plants the Rolls-Royce consortium is developing are around a 16th of the size of that currently used in Hinkley Point. The company expects that most of the mini reactors the UK government orders will be placed at existing nuclear sites.
The companies that form the consortium developing the new nuclear technology have invested £18 million in research and development of the mini power plants. That sum was matched in November by UK Research and Innovation, a government department that operates as a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation and directs research and innovation funding from the science budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The government has also directly voiced its intention to support the project by buying the mini reactors. It sees the project as a key element to the UK achieving its emissions reduction targets.
The Rolls-Royce announcement today is further evidence that the nuclear sector is making a comeback, despite safety concerns and the increasing cost efficiency of renewable energy sources such as wind and tidal power. The shoots of recovery for nuclear power as a major contributor to a future, low emission power mix will be welcomed by an industry that has seen several major projects abandoned in recent years due to a lack of funding.
While nuclear power remains controversial in some quarters, many experts are firmly of the opinion that if the UK is to meet its ambitious net zero emissions by 2050 target, it will have to make a significant contribution.
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