From engine-maker to electricity provider: Rolls-Royce as mini-nuke pioneer

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Mini nuclear reactors have long been touted as a better means of generating power than larger, eye-wateringly expensive plants that risk becoming white elephants before they’re completed. Now their time has come.

That’s the thinking in Whitehall, which is pumping £210m into Rolls-Royce’s new small modular reactor (SMR) business in hope of weaning “Britain off its reliance on imported energy”, said Howard Mustoe in The Daily Telegraph. “The investment marks a victory for Rolls”, which has long championed SMRs, not least as a “potentially lucrative export market”.

The taxpayer is being joined by two big foreign backers: France’s BNF Resources and the US nuclear giant Exelon. The plan is to build up to 16 SMRs (each the size of two football pitches) at £1.8bn a pop, each capable of generating up to 440 megawatts – “enough to power a city the size of Sheffield”. An additional benefit is that they could generate green hydrogen.

Still, said BBC Business, that hasn’t assuaged critics who argue that the development of truly clean renewable energy could be compromised “if nuclear eats all the pies” – and that SMRs, while supposedly easy to assemble from factory parts, will probably take at least a decade to come online.

Yet this year’s energy ructions show “we can’t rely on renewables alone”, said Oscar Williams-Grut in the London Evening Standard. Moreover, Rolls, which “has been working on UK nuclear submarines since the 1950s” has “a long history” in the technology. It’s all “great in theory” – but “likely more complicated in practice”.

Cynics wonder whether a company “still grappling with fixes for its Trent 1000 engines” can really make the transition from engine-maker to electricity provider. Investors, who sent shares surging, clearly like the story. Let’s hope Rolls “can pull it off”.

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