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Approve a mini nuclear reactor or delay green revolution, Johnson told

·4-min read
Rolls-Royce mini nuclear reactor - ROLLS-ROYCE
Rolls-Royce mini nuclear reactor - ROLLS-ROYCE

Boris Johnson must give approval for a pioneering Rolls-Royce mini nuclear reactor project in the next six months or risk delaying a project vital to his green energy revolution, the company has warned.

Rolls will be unable to meet a target of deploying its first reactor by 2029 unless ministers place an order before the end of the year according to Tom Samson, the project's chief executive.

The company's small modular reactors (SMRs) are expected to play a key part in the Prime Minister's plans for an energy revolution.

Mr Johnson is said to be extremely "gung ho" about nuclear and wants it to generate about a quarter of the UK’s power by 2050.

This deadline is considered to be extremely tight, and any delay for Rolls would potentially have a severe knock-on impact.

Mr Samson said: “If we do not have an instruction to deploy our technology in the UK by the end of this year, then our ability to meet 2029 will move back accordingly.”

Rolls, one of the UK’s largest engineers, is leading a group of investors aiming to harness its nuclear submarine technology, used by the Royal Navy to power vessels for a decade at a time.

The company hopes that its SMRs will be bought individually by heavy industry customers to power their factories, or grouped together for domestic generation with output comparable to a traditional reactor.

Each SMR is expected to cost £1.8bn and take up about ten acres of space. They would generate about a seventh of the power of Hinkley Point C, but only cost a twelfth of the price.

Rolls has shortlisted six sites as potential hosts of a factory where it intends to build the reactor vessels central to a nuclear power plant’s construction.

Boris Johnson Tom Samson - Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street
Boris Johnson Tom Samson - Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street

Next, it needs the Government to agree on a site to host the first power station and to open negotiations over the price that will be paid for the power it generates.

Mr Samson said: “Getting the first SMR online by 2029 involves the Government making a commitment to deploy our technology in the UK now.

“We are ready to sign a contract to deliver our first unit and, with an order or instruction from Government, we can immediately begin building the factories to produce our modules and work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or others to host our technology within the UK’s existing nuclear estate.”

People close to Rolls say that UK backing as a first customer is critical to the technology becoming a successful UK export, since foreign governments have asked how far along Britain is in approving the first deal.

Rolls will now choose between factory sites in Richmond, Sunderland, Deeside in Wales, Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire, Stallingborough, Lincolnshire, and Carlisle.

The Government is understood to be supportive of moving at pace, but with an eye on safety.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, asked the nuclear regulator to start the process of approving the design in March.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has illuminated the UK and other nations’ reliance on energy imports.

Oil and gas prices have shot up as countries attempt to end the purchase of oil and gas from Russia, which is one of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Mr Johnson urged the Opec+ alliance of oil-rich countries – which include the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq – to increase production and bring prices down.

He said: “There is no doubt that we are going to need a lot more Opec+ oil.”

Rolls-Royce is up against other developers of mini reactors, which are also racing to get designs approved.

While Rolls has opted for an established technology – the pressurised water reactor – a London-based rival set up by a nuclear physicist turned medical entrepreneur wants to use a newer process to turn the UK’s 140 tonne plutonium waste dump into energy, making even smaller reactors that could power ships.

Newcleo will probably put its first reactor on British soil because of a precedent for private operators of nuclear plants in the UK, Italian physicist Stefano Buono, chief executive, told The Telegraph last month.

The company raised €300m (£257m) last month to help fund its first reactors after raising €100m last year from investors including ex-Goldman Sachs banker Claudio Costamagna and asset manager Azimut last year.

A Government spokesman said: “While Small Modular Reactors do not yet exist, ministers are determined to accelerate progress where possible.

“The technology offers exciting opportunities to cut costs and build more quickly, and we have already committed £210m towards the project.

“Rolls-Royce’s reactor design is currently being assessed by safety regulators – a critically important process that must be allowed to run its course.”

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