Consortium Asks UK to Support SMR Nuclear Development

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are becoming a technology of choice among those who continue to push nuclear power as a zero-emissions source of generation. The collapse of plans to build new large reactors in the UK has meant companies there are looking at SMRs in an effort to keep that country’s nuclear power program viable.

A consortium led by Rolls-Royce, which already makes components for submarines with pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology, recently asked for more than £200 million (about $263 million U.S.) in government funding to continue its development of SMRs. The Financial Times on Jan. 27 reported that a person with knowledge of the situation said Rolls-Royce and its partners, including UK-based multinational project management firm Arup and UK-based multinational construction company Laing O’Rourke, want a sum “in the low hundreds of millions” for help developing the Rolls-Royce nuclear technology. The consortium has said it would match the government funding and use the funds to advance its nuclear licensing process, with a goal of then attracting private investment.

Rolls-Royce in a statement said: “Our consortium is in discussions with UK government officials that we hope could result in a significant joint investment in our power plant design.”

The Rolls-Royce group is among several consortiums that participated in a government-sponsored program that began in 2015. The competition was seeking designs for new, small nuclear power plants, though the government’s nuclear sector deal unveiled in June 2018 said it would only financially support more advanced modular reactors, even though SMRs have been considered closer to commercial operation.

Rolls-Royce last summer said it needed government support to continue its project. The company has said it is developing a 220-MW SMR, a unit that could be doubled for a larger-scale project. Paul Stein, the company’s chief scientific officer, in 2016 pegged the cost of a 440-MW plant at about $2.3 billion. Stein at the time said, “One of the advantages of the SMRs is that they cost a lot less [than large nuclear plants], and it is an easier case to present to private investors.”

Developers of small modular reactors, including Portland, Oregon-based NuScale Power, which last year received U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval of its SMR design, have said their technology can deliver nuclear power at a lower cost than large reactors, and with reduced risk, particularly in the construction phase that has dogged many large projects, leading to cost overruns and significant delays. Irving, Texas-based Fluor Corp., which is involved in the engineering, construction, and maintenance of power projects worldwide, and has more than 70 years’ experience in nuclear power, is a major investor in NuScale.

The Rolls-Royce group has asked UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to help fund its project, through the UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The UKRI on its website said, “The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is part of government’s Industrial Strategy, the long-term plan to raise productivity and earning power in the UK. The fund is a core pillar in the government’s commitment to increase funding in research and development by £4.7 billion over 4 years to strengthen UK science and business. It will invest in the world-leading research base and highly-innovative businesses to address the biggest industrial and societal challenges today.”

The Financial Times reported that sources with knowledge of the situation said the Rolls-Royce consortium “entered detailed negotiations” with UKRI in December of last year.

Three new nuclear projects in the UK have faltered recently, representing more than 40% of the country’s planned new nuclear capacity. Hitachi earlier in January said it was suspending its work at the $20.5 billion Wylfa plant in Wales, along with work on its nuclear project at Oldbury-on-Severn in Gloucestershire. Toshiba ended its involvement with the Moorside project in Cumbria late last year.

Those projects were impacted by some of the same challenges facing new nuclear units in the U.S., including the Vogtle expansion project in Georgia and the V.C. Summer project in South Carolina.

The UK government has said it is committed to developing new nuclear power plants and has said it is seeking private investment. However, officials have said they are not comfortable with the amount of government financing demanded by the private sector. The officials have said they will revisit the country’s energy strategy this summer, with regard to financing and plant designs.

The Financial Times said that Greg Clark, the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, in a letter to the newspaper last week wrote that “small modular reactors can have a role to play” in the nation’s energy future, but not “at any price.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).