As an energy solution, small nuclear power plants are touted as a viable option.

By Emma Woollacott
Technology of Business reporter

Image source, Seaborg
Image caption

Seaborg has plans for a number of nuclear-powered barges

Troels Schonfeldt is co-founder and CEO of Denmark’s Seaborg Technologies. “We will likely have more accident than existing reactors, because it’s new technology,” he says.

The nuclear power company he runs is among many that are developing new types of small nuclear power stations.

As others within the industry, Schonfeldt is concerned about safety.

Seaborg’s reactors are housed in floating barsges. They use molten sal to control reactions.

Herr Schonfeldt claims that because of the location and set up, large-scale catastrophes (perhaps caused by terrorist attacks) are simply not possible.

“If terrorists bomb the reactor, the salt sprays all over the place and then it sticks to the surface. The terrorist tells him to clean up the mess.

“It is a completely different scenario than bombing an old reactor. In this case, you would have a cloud of gas that wasn’t contained on your continent. This would cause an entire international catastrophe.”

Seaborg’s modular power barsges are capable of producing between 200MW to 800MW electricity, enough power to power nearly 1.6 million homes.

These smaller reactors are also claimed to be safer than larger counterparts and will therefore cost less.

Building large nuclear power plants used to require moving components around a lot of buildings and then assembling them. Modular designs are now possible and can easily be combined in factories. It makes construction much more simple.

That’s certainly the hope at Rolls-Royce, which has just received a £210m grant from the UK government and a £195m cash injection from a consortium of investors, to develop its own small modular reactor (SMR).

This would mean that 90 percent of the Rolls-Royce SMR motor plant can be constructed or assembled in factory conditions.

So you construct, in our case three factories. You create and assemble components in these factories. These modules then go on to trucks,” Matt Blake, chief engineer at SMR.

“The limiter for reactor size was the question of what the biggest single component could fit on the backside of a truck.”

At an expected cost of around £2bn each, the Rolls Royce SMR would cost a tenth of the £23bn bill for the UK’s newest nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

Rolls-Royce SMRs have a total capacity of 470MW. This is sufficient electricity to supply one million homes.

Up to 16 SMRs could be installed in various locations across the UK. One of the first is planned for 10 years.

Blake says that the warehouse is about twice as big as two football pitches. It’s more disruptive than an Amazon warehouse, which should allow for more siting options.

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Rolls-Royce is hopeful that its reactors will be more than just used for the National Grid. Rolls-Royce believes other customers, such as data centers and companies producing hydrogen or synthetic aviation fuel will also be interested in their reactors.

With their small size, it hopes to also sell the reactors overseas.

“SMRs are different in that financing will be simpler – putting together financing for £2bn is obviously a lot simpler than 10 times that,” adds Mr Blake.

Radiant Nuclear, a California-based company, has a bold tagline: “Making nuclear more portable”. It also wants to reduce the size of nuclear power stations.

According to the company, it’s developing a small reactor that can be transported easily by truck.

This project is in its infancy. The company plans to have a demonstration of fuel in 2026, and then begin production in 2028.

Radiant doesn’t see their reactors as competing with big power plants connected to the grid.

Doug Bernauer, the chief executive at the company, stated that the product is not in competition with diesel generators used for backup power.

“This is wherever you require back-up power.

Anti-nuclear activists are not convinced or comforted by the safety claims made by new players to the market for nuclear power.

Kate Hudson (director general, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) stated, “SMRs remain vulnerable to nuclear accidents, terror attacks, and they can produce more nucleus per unit than other reactors per electricity.”

Rolls-Royce spokesperson Mr Blake said that there is a process in place to deal with nuclear waste. “Spent Fuel is kept at the site and will also be processed the same as any standard PWR (pressurised-water reactor), such Sizewell, or any other location.”

He explained that it would be stored at the location and later transferred to Sellafield (or a deep-underground geological disposal facility).

Small nuclear plants are being promoted by proponents who claim that their technology can meet the anticipated doubling in demand for electricity from UK households by 2050.

Ms Hudson still remains skeptical. “It is an inconvened and untested technology, which will still cost the taxpayer large and unknown amounts.”

She adds, “Even with a most ambitious timescale.” We will need to wait for an SMR’s production of energy for ten years, as there are many renewable options and energy efficiency programs available right now.


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