- Bespoke car maker Rolls-Royce is advancing research on nuclear small modular reactors.
- Rolls-Royce's staid reputation as haute luxury belies its legacy of innovation in aerospace and other engineering.
- Modular reactors are easier to manufacture, making costs both lower and more predictable.
Rolls-Royce has taken a sharp right turn, from making million-dollar luxury sedans to researching cutting-edge nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs). Modular reactors are au courant in energy technology, and Rolls-Royce joins startups and governments around the world in trying to shrink the footprint and increase the safety of nuclear energy.
With its SMR design, which is "just one-tenth the size of a typical large-scale reactor site," a pressurized water reactor is enclosed with robust safety layers that are still far smaller in volume than the reactor space in a traditional nuclear plant. The reactor is oriented vertically, so gravity helps to move the hot and cold water around. Despite its much smaller size, the reactor will produce an expected 450 MWe, compared with 600 MWe at each of the two reactors at the existing Dungeness B plant in Kent.
Since the late 1800s, the Rolls-Royce company has engineered electronics and machinery, including engines for airplanes, automobiles, and ships. The car business—where Rolls-Royce handmakes extreme high-end luxury vehicles only—is the tip of an experimental iceberg that goes back over a century, although the company has sold off some of its more interesting arms of business in recent years.
Today, it’s pushing for SMR technology in a series of new power plants around the U.K. Rolls-Royce is known for handcrafted vehicles, but it’s worked to revolutionize tooling and manufacturing in its nitty gritty engineering arm. The company says its approach to SMRs is motivated by how modular manufacturing can save a great deal of resources and money, making cutting-edge nuclear an option even during the twilight of England’s existing nuclear plants. The last of these traditional plants will be offline by 2030.
By relying on predictable, relatively portable nuclear reactors, manufacturers can standardize how much these nuclear plants will cost and therefore how much the energy they make will cost, Rolls-Royce says. In the U.S., nuclear power plants are often a complex nest of tax subsidies. This is a big change from the heyday of nuclear, when plants had to incentivize to the places where they sought to build.
The predicted first two sites of Rolls-Royce SMR plants are in northern England and Wales. One site is home of an interminably delayed nuclear project, and the other a decommissioned nuclear plant. In a way, this technology is a case of the “faster spaceship” problem: Traditional nuclear projects launched sometimes decades ago are so complex and hard to finalize and pay for that a lightweight startup project can lap them many times over.
What are the advantages of an SMR plant over a traditional nuclear plant? Well, proponents say almost everything about modular reactors is an improvement. Rolls-Royce in particular says that manufacturing many small reactors at once saves money and overhead compared with “a stand-alone bespoke major project.” That, in turn, enables “a predictable programme from first concrete to commissioning in just four years, including 500 days on site for the modular build.”
Among the U.K.’s existing nuclear plants, the shortest build time was eight years and the longest was nearly 20. Rolls-Royce’s modular construction time is in line with the U.K.’s earliest (and now long-retired) original Magnox plants, which took four years each to get on the grid.
These SMR plants sit somewhere on a continuum between a traditional handmade Rolls-Royce car and an Ikea bookshelf, hopefully bringing together the best aspects of both—and with no Allen wrenches.
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