Rolls Royce Small Modular Nuclear Reactors: not small, not modular, not cheap, and not going to happen

100% Renewables 16th July 2020, The Government has just announced a £40 million research programme into so-called advanced modular reactor technology that is highly unlikely ever to see any practical use. That is because the so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) are much too expensive for civilian use.

In an important sense it is nonsense to talk about research to develop SMRs as a ‘new’ technology simply because they already exist. They power military submarines and also US aircraft carriers. Their design is simply a smaller
version of the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) design that dominates the world nuclear power industry. Indeed PWRs began as small projects housed in submarines which were then developed up in scale so that they could produce electricity more cheaply.

At 450 MW for their proposed plant, the plant is not far off the same order of magnitude as conventional plant – for
example the AGR series that currently generates the bulk of British nuclear plant has units of around 600-660 MW. In fact, as Tom Burke points out, they are close to the size of Britain’s first generation of reactors, the ‘Magnox’ reactors.

Neither is the plant proposed by Rolls Royce modular in the sense that such plant can be rolled off a production line. What Rolls Royce claims is that some parts can be produced in a ‘modular’ fashion. This is not the same as producing whole units off a production line, and in fact the developers of the nuclear plant Vogtle in the USA also claim to produce parts in a ‘modular ‘fashion (although this plant is now hopelessly behind schedule with very large cost overruns).

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