Rolls-Royce on track for 2030 delivery of UK SMR

11 February 2021

Rolls-Royce has almost completed the feasibility stage in the development of its UK small modular reactor (SMR) and in May will focus on securing investment, its chief technology officer, Paul Stein, said yesterday. The technology will undergo the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) process with UK regulators in 2024 and will be ready for grid use five years later, he said.

Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Paul Stein (Image: Rolls-Royce)

Speaking to delegates at the Westminster Energy Forum webinar Materiality of Nuclear for Global Net Zero, Stein highlighted the consortium Rolls-Royce is leading for the UK SMR project. This includes Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O'Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and TWI.


Stein said: "This is real. Phase 1 is now coming to an end. That was the 'feasibility and investability' phase where we worked with the UK government to bring this thing to light; to turn it from a paper idea to an investable design. We're now moving into Phase 2, which is a joint investment by the UK government, by the consortium members, and now, very importantly, third-party equity is coming in, believing in the approach, believing in the design. Phase 2 will be under way in about May of this year, with a view to completing GDA in about 2024, and power on grid in about 2030 for the first SMR."

This is "a realistic and low-risk programme", he said, thanks to the construction method and the use of a "standardised" pressurised water reactor. As UK intellectual property, it is a great export opportunity and not merely a way for the country to meet its own net-zero by 2050 target, he added. By that year, production of the UK SMR could reach "the high 100s to low 1000s" of units, but these will not necessarily all be made by the UK consortium.

"One of the key scaling factors in this design is the use of digital twinning," Stein said. "So, right from the start, we've looked at a hybrid licensing model where initially the UK consortium makes all the power stations but as we get foreign interest - and already, foreign interest is building with quite a momentum, actually - parts can be exported and other parts can be made by those countries that subscribe to the right licensing authority. So the scaling has already been considered as part of the initial design, but the sky's the limit. The world currently uses USD4 trillion of fossil fuels every year - coal, gas and oil. All of that has to be repurposed into renewable technology, and we in the nuclear industry have got a chance to repurpose that energy through SMR technology."


One UK SMR will be able to power a city the size of Leeds, while global grid capacity demand for SMRs is set to exceed 79 GWe by 2040, Stein said. He also described how the UK SMR can be used not only for grid-based electricity, but in a variety of applications to decarbonise the energy system, including aviation fuel.

"One of the beauties of the SMR approach, is it becomes quite a low-cost source of energy for other parts of the decarbonisation scene, such as hydrogen and synthetic fuel," he said. One UK SMR and plant will be able to produce 170 tonnes of H2 or 280 tonnes of net-zero synthetic fuel per day, he added.

Rolls-Royce believes it will also be able to produce synthetic kerosene as a substitute to Jet A fuel "at around about twice the price" of fossil fuel-based kerosene.

"That isn't really that bad and gets us into the territory of being a believable option," he said. "Aviation globally needs 500 million tonnes of Jet A by 2050, so there's a massive industry building up in its own right alongside hydrogen and alongside grid power. The global market by 2040 is more than 500 million tonnes of synth fuel per year."

One UK SMR and associated infrastructure can heat or cool a city the size of Sheffield, with the annual global requirement for district heating/cooling forecast to be more than 10,000 TWh by 2040.

For water desalination, one UK SMR and an associated desalination plant will be able to produce 500 million cubic metres of potable water per year, he said, adding that global demand for potable water is expected to rise beyond 1 trillion cubic metres per year by 2040.

Stressing that the UK SMR is "a power station design and not a nuclear reactor", he said it has an availability factor greater than 90% and enhanced Gen III+ levels of safety and security.

Asked about the projected scale of production by 2050, Stein said: "For just replacing electricity on the grid, it's somewhere between 10 and 16 units by 2050. Then, for hydrogen, which is going to build up, particularly for transport, buses and home heating. Then, we've got the big aviation fuel initiative in the UK, which itself could create a market for a few 10s of units. The other markets are speculation, but I suspect they'll be greater than the grid market."


Each UK SMR will cost GBP1.8 billion (capex) and GBP40-60/MWh over 60 years.

"By getting the price down to GBP1.8 billion, it's very much in the territory now of being able to access private equity to buy and run a reactor, which means we believe that nuclear power can really mushroom in a way that hasn’t been the case for when it's been a state-funded enterprise," Stein said.

"The UK SMR heralds a new approach to the cost of nuclear power by broadly rethinking the manufacturing and construction methods and by the extensive use of digital twinning whilst keeping the physics package exactly the same. This is a pressurised water reactor of a type we know and love."

He continued: "All of the design philosophy is designed to minimise the cost of energy coming out, so for grid-based energy at a reasonable price for cost of capital we believe we can deliver electricity at GBP40/MWh, which is about USD56/MWh, over the 60-year life of the reactor, with a capital cost of nth-of-a-kind, with n being about 5, of GBP1.8 billion for what was a 440-megawatt power station, but we've now found a way of getting 470 MW of electric out of the core. Everything in this power station is about reducing cost, so it's about 'freezing the physics' of the reactor and then looking at every aspect of the design, working out how the cost can be driven down, the cost being the historical challenge of nuclear power."

About 90% of the value of the nuclear power station is delivered in a factory environment. That means, the nuclear island, the main concrete assembly and the other "major elements" are pre-fabricated and put together on-site.

"The power station operators have got a far lower cost of capital to raise. We're talking a GBP1.8 billion power station, with something like four years from placement of the order to selling electricity on the grid. Shortening that cycle changes the paradigm of nuclear power and actually makes the whole fleet approach to SMRs really quite attractive."

Beyond its consortium membership, Rolls-Royce recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with US utility Exelon, "which will run the power station and act as the liaison between us and the financing partners", Stein said. It is also working with other plant operators, "particularly abroad", he added.


The design features of the UK SMR include a seismic raft, which Stein said is the standard for installations of SMRs.

"It's designed by one of our civil engineering partners and consists of an about 1.5 acre-size concrete raft which sits on an aseismic bearing, a pebble-bed bearing, that provides the shock resistance for the reactor, and every single installation of these power stations has the same standardised seismic raft."

Another innovative part of the design Stein highlighted is the site canopy. "This is built over the entire 1.5 acres, and allows the project to continue, even through periods of rain, snow, inclement weather, which reduces the cost of capital by giving more certainty in the construction time," he said.

"And outside of the nuclear island, the vast majority of the components are off-the-shelf parts of the steam cycle between the steam generators of the pressurised water reactor and the electricity on-grid, if that's the application side."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News