UK Government kick-starts approval process for Rolls Royce’s small nuclear reactors

The UK Government has asked the nuclear industry regulator to begin the approval process for Rolls-Royce's small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), which Boris Johnson first signalled support for through the Ten-Point Plan in 2020.

UK Government kick-starts approval process for Rolls Royce’s small nuclear reactors

Pictured: An artist's impression of an SMR. Image: Rolls-Royce

It was announced on Monday (7 March) that the Department for Business, Industry and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has requested that the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) begin the approval process for Rolls-Royce’s 470MW SMR design.

While the process typically takes around four or five years for large-scale reactor designs, it is likely to be shorter in this instance.

Rolls-Royce stated in 2020 that its ambition is to bring 16 of the SMRs online across the UK by 2025. It touts a 60-year lifespan for each reactor and claims each one is capable of powering more than one million homes.

A key selling point of SMRs is that they would be quicker to deliver than large-scale nuclear plants and that they would have less of an impact on local communities.

With this in mind, the UK Government recently built on its Ten-Point Plan commitment from 2020 with a £210m funding pot for SMRs. That funding was added to £250m from the private sector. The entirety of the Government’s funding went to Rolls-Royce. For context, each SMR from Rolls-Royce is expected to take some £2bn to deliver.  

Nuclear approach

The UK currently generates around 16% of its electricity from nuclear – down from 20% before the recent closure of Hunterston B.

This proportion will likely fall further in the coming years, as almost half of the UK’s nuclear capacity is set to be retired by 2025, and much of the remainder after that by 2030.

Pro-nuclear organisations have long been calling on the UK Government to address this impending “nuclear gap” to give it the best chance of meeting future carbon budgets. A recent piece of good news for these groups was BEIS’s confirmation of £100m of funding from Westminster coffers towards Sizewell C.

Responding to this week’s news on SMRs, the Nuclear Industry Association issued a statement reading: “This is a vital step forward for British nuclear technology. The UK needs the Rolls-Royce SMR to strengthen our energy security and cut our dependence on gas as we move towards net-zero.

“The SMR can also play an essential role in enhancing British industrial capability, creating tens of thousands of jobs, revitalising the nuclear skills base and boosting the green economic recovery.”

BEIS has notably pledged to deliver a fully “clean” electricity system by 2035. This will require all gas-fired electricity generation to come offline unless it is somehow abated, compounded with a scaling-up of the UK’s nuclear and renewable generation capacity and its energy storage, according to BEIS.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to provide an update on this commitment later this week, in light of the ongoing energy price crisis and of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has prompted nations across Europe to pivot quickly to reduce their reliance on imported gas; Russia is the world’s largest gas exporter.

In the face of the crisis, it is understandable that many European countries see nuclear as a potential route to becoming more self-sufficient in regards to energy, while complying with their long-term net-zero goals. But nuclear critics have been quick to point out the costs of the technology compared with renewables, and the other risks generated. On this latter point, Russia shelled Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant last week, with the resulting fire prompting an emergency response. Staff at the plant are now reportedly being given orders by the Russian military.

Sarah George

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