Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc is proposing small nuclear reactors as the most effective way of powering grids all over the United Kingdom (U.K.).
In a move that caught a few by surprise, the renowned auto manufacturer has joined startups and governments working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The company has been trying to convince government agencies and potential clients in the private sector that its small modular reactors (SMRs) are the future of clean energy.
Employing technology developed for atomic submarines, SMRs generate a considerable amount of energy but are only one-tenth of the size of a typical large-scale reactor. And they are safer.
From “No Nukes” to “Yes, Nukes …Please!”
The company’s pitch is impeccably timed. Despite worries over global warming, coal was responsible for 38 percent of the world’s power in 2017. That is precisely the same level as when the first global climate treaty was signed 21 years ago. Even worse, research shows greenhouse-gas emissions rose by 2.7 percent the following year.
The stagnation has led many policymakers and environmental groups to conclude that we need more nuclear energy. Even United Nations (UN) researchers – unenthusiastic in the past – now say the only way to prevent a global climate catastrophe is through a jump in nuclear energy.
Big Power, Compact Design
The Rolls Royce SMR design features a vertically-oriented, pressurized water reactor enclosed in a thick jacket of safety layers. The vertical orientation helps move the hot and cold water around. Despite their robust safety coating, SMRs are still far smaller than reactors in traditional nuclear plants.
A new report by the U.K.’s government-backed Energy Technologies Institute outlines what it considers to be a reasonable timeline for the country to adopt the new reactors. The institute says they could be in use by 2030.
The Rolls Royce SMR nuclear apparatus can produce 450 MWe, according to the company, which is impressive considering its size. Each of the much bigger reactors at Dungeness B plant in Kent yield around 600 MWe.
Luxury Cars and Fighter Planes
Most people today recognize Rolls Royce for its line of handcrafted luxury cars, but the company’s association with aviation and cutting-edge technology goes back decades. The London-based firm – once famous for building engines for P-51 Mustang fighter airplanes – is currently Europe’s largest manufacturer of jet engines.
Last year, the company approached several prospective partners in a bid to power the production of carbon-neutral synthetic aviation fuel with SMRs.
Rolls Royce CEO Warren East says the company could install its reactors in individual plants where they would generate enough electricity to secure hydrogen. The chemical element is a key ingredient in the production of clean jet fuel.
Groundbreaking technology notwithstanding, both proposals face significant impediments. There is widespread public concern over radiation leaks and the disposal of nuclear waste in the U.K.
There is also controversy surrounding the government’s plans to revive the nuclear energy sector after Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. withdrew from major projects.
Rolls Royce aims to minimize regulatory barriers by building a preliminary network of 16 SMRs on the sites of former nuclear power stations still approved for atomic use, according to Bloomberg.