Rolls-Royce Reignites The Race To Build Mini-Nuclear Power Plants
Global manufacturer Rolls-Royce is the latest entrant in the tech race to provide small-scale nuclear power. Last month, the company announced plans to build 10-15 small modular reactors (SMRs) in the United Kingdom by 2029, with each unit compact enough to sit on the back of a tractor-trailer. The plants would be constructed on so-called “brownfield sites” in Cumbria and Wales where aging or decommissioned nuclear power stations are still in place. Rolls Royce has thus far received £18 million ($23.1 m) from the British government, and is requesting £200 million ($258 m) more.
This company push comes with the backdrop of the global energy sector facing increasing pressure to produce more green power more quickly more affordably – and in more places. All while reducing their carbon footprint.
As I’ve written about before, SMRs are the next evolutionary step of nuclear power: compact, affordable, quick to construct, emission-less, and even transportable. China has great aspirations to lead in this field, as it does or attempts to do in solar panels, wind energy, 5G communications, MAGLEV trains, artificial intelligence, and more. The UK wants to give China a run for its money.
If done right, SMRs can integrate with renewable power sources and can generate highly resilient baseload power at cost-competitive prices. Their modular design facilitates mass production and enables units to be scaled up and down according to need. Generally, SMRs produce power in the 50-megawatt to 400- megawatt range, whereas a conventional nuclear power station is in the neighborhood of 1,000 megawatts.
The tech is there: for decades small reactors have powered nuclear subs and icebreakers. Tiny fission reactors powered satellites. There is even a NASA program which envisions small fission reactors powering a human base on mars.
The U.S. military would like portable reactors to provide energy for remote military bases or even battlefield weapons: think of all the laser weapons one small nuclear reactor could feed.
According to Paul Stein, Chief Technology officer of Rolls Royce, their units would use mass manufacturing techniques to drive down costs and accelerate build times: “The trick is to have prefabricated parts where we use advanced digital welding methods and robotic assembly and then parts are shipped to site and bolted together.”