Britain Goes Nuclear As Rolls-Royce Triggers £250 Billion Mini Reactor Race

  • Date: 14/06/20
  • Mail on Sunday

A consortium of British businesses led by manufacturing giant Rolls-Royce has submitted proposals to Ministers to accelerate the building of a new fleet of mini nuclear reactors in the North of England. 

Artist’s impression of Rolls-Royce SMR-based power station

The plans, circulated in Whitehall ‘in the last few weeks’, could see construction of high-tech factories to build the small reactors begin by next year. 

The consortium – which includes UK construction and engineering firms Laing O’Rourke, Atkins and BAM Nuttall – would use British intellectual property to build the reactors. It would work with partners from the US, Canada and France. 

It has been estimated that exporting small nuclear reactor technology could be worth £250billion to the UK if the programme is successful. 

Sources told The Mail on Sunday that the plan is ‘starting to resonate’ in parts of Government because it could boost the economy as the country recovers from the destruction wrought by the pandemic. 

Figures last week showed the economy contracted by 20.4 per cent in April and job losses in the travel, hospitality and retail sectors are mounting. 

Sixteen Rolls-Royce-backed reactors, each able to power a city the size of Leeds, could be built by 2050. The project would employ 40,000 people. 

Hundreds of related jobs would be created this year if the Government gives the green light. 

The plan to deliver British-made nuclear reactors would help the Government to meet the UK’s commitment to shift to clean energy by 2050. 

It would also appeal to Tory MPs keen to reduce Britain’s reliance on China. Chinese firms are currently appointed to build large nuclear reactors in Britain at locations including Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex. 

However, there are growing concerns among senior Tories about Chinese influence over critical infrastructure in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated his intention to distance the UK from China economically, amid talk of phasing out Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s new 5G mobile internet network. 

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is under pressure to announce measures to boost the economy in his mini-Budget next month and in his full-blown recovery Budget pencilled in for the autumn. Formal backing from the Government would propel the project into activity, says Tom Samson, interim chief executive of the consortium. 

He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We could be looking at locations and beginning to build factories as soon as next year with modules [to build the reactors] starting to come out of the factories by 2024 or 2025. 

‘We’ve got over 100 people today working on the programme. It could generate hundreds more jobs even this year. As soon as we get the signal we’ll be able to start ramping up our activities on engineering, planning and project management.’ 

The so-called small modular reactors (SMR) would be manufactured piece by piece in factories before being transported to approved sites for assembly. The production line process allows reactors to be built more cheaply. It is understood that the cost of building each one will fall to £1.8billion after the first handful are constructed. 

The rollout plans submitted to officials require £500 million of funding with the Government putting up half. That investment would follow an initial outlay of £36 million made last year, with half provided by Government. 

Samson said the plan ‘could deliver near-term economic benefits as part of the economic recovery’. He said: ‘We can do a number of things in parallel. We can develop the technology, we can be preparing sites to host the SMR across the UK, we can also look at where the factories could be and start to look at what commitments are needed to commence construction.’ 

Most of Britain’s eight large-scale nuclear power plants are due to close within a decade. The sites under consideration for the new project include Moorside in Cumbria and Wylfa in North Wales, where plans for future large reactor projects were recently shelved. 

Samson said: ‘We want to become a champion of that clean energy space and I think, equally compelling, is the potential to connect the SMR programme to the production of industrial heat applications, synthetic fuels and aviation fuels being deployed in our engines, not just to provide energy into the grid. 

‘It’s not unrealistic for us to be focusing on bringing on the first unit by 2029.

Full story

see also GWPF report on the UK’s troubled small modular nuclear power policy

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