Rolls-Royce Is Getting Into the Small Nuclear Reactor Business

Rolls-Royce Is Getting Into the Small Nuclear Reactor Business
An artist's rendering of the reactor. (Image: Rolls-Royce)

The favourite luxury vehicle of rich old billionaires and rap moguls may soon share a name with some small new nuclear reactors. The famed British aerospace and energy manufacturer Rolls-Royce Holdings said this week that it had secured roughly $US600 (A$822) million in public and private funding to develop its business making small modular nuclear reactors.

First, let’s clear up the car thing: Rolls-Royce the car company is now owned by BMW, which acquired the name and licensing rights from Rolls Royce Holdings in the late 1990s. In other words, the company making an all-electric Spectre that will retail for around $US400,000 (A$548,530) isn’t dabbling in baby nukes. But given that Rolls-Royce Holdings makes stuff like engines for aeroplanes, and has worked on nuclear reactors aboard British submarines since the early 1950s, producing nuclear reactors isn’t too much of a step outside the mega company’s wheelhouse. It is, though, a well-financed leap into a new area of energy for the company. For its part, Rolls-Royce said international interest in small modular reactors was “unprecedented.”

Some of the money for this new nuclear venture comes from a big U.S. company: Exelon, the largest electric utility in the U.S. and a major producer of nuclear power, which will be partnering with French company BNF Resources to give $US260 (A$356) million to fund the venture over the next three years. Much of the rest of the cash will come from the UK government, which is giving $US280 (A$383) million as part of its plan to jumpstart green investment. Rolls-Royce itself will kick in the remaining $US70 (A$96) million or so. The company also said that it will keep looking for investment in the venture.

According to a press release issued by Rolls-Royce, one of the 16 reactors it’s planning to build will take up the space of two football fields — about a tenth of the size of a conventional reactor — while providing enough power for 1 million homes. Per the press release, the business will now move on to the preliminary stages of starting production, including identifying factories where it could possibly produce modules for the on-site assembly of the reactors.

Nuclear reactors are usually enormous, complex, and expensive infrastructure projects. Smaller reactors, like the ones Rolls-Royce is proposing to build, have the advantage of being made with parts that can be assembled in factories and then trucked to construction sites, making them much easier and faster to build. Small modular reactors like the proposed Rolls-Royce models are also much less expensive than traditional plants. Each Rolls-Royce model will cost $US2.7 (A$3.7) billion. That may seem like a lot, but for nuclear, it’s positively bargain-bin pricing: the Hinkley Point C plant, by contrast, which was granted a permit in 2012 and has been under construction in Somerset, England, for the past three years, has a total price tag of $US31 (A$42) billion. (Though when the plant is finished, it will provide enough power for 6 million homes.)

However, the comparatively smaller size of these proposed reactors doesn’t necessarily spell a fast or cheap road for Rolls-Royce. The reactors won’t be ready for production until the early 2030s. The company will likely use up much of the budget it’s been given before any of the construction actually happens. In addition to the time needed for development, the government will also need to grant permits for actually siting and building the things, adding a possible additional few years to the timeline. Nuclear power is carbon-free, which is a huge benefit. But the time it will take to deploy these has some critics worried about the timescale of the projects versus the urgent need to cut carbon pollution now and invest funds wisely in the right technologies with the most immediate bang for the buck.

“If nuclear eats all the pies which it is looking to be doing … we won’t have enough money to do the kind of things we need to do which we know practically and technologically we can do now,” Paul Dorfman, chairman of the Nuclear Consulting Group, told BBC Today.

Despite the big and undeniable challenges ahead, UK officials expressed excitement at what the announcement could mean for the country’s clean energy future.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the UK to deploy more low carbon energy than ever before and ensure greater energy independence,” said UK Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.