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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Rolls Royce Looks To Disrupt The Nuclear Industry

The nuclear energy industry has been struggling to stay afloat in countries that were once nuclear powerhouses. Japan has all but turned its back on nuclear after the Fukushima tragedy in 2011, after which they immediately shut down all of their reactors. Some of Japan’s nuclear plants have since come back online, but the nuclear industry is nowhere near as strong as before 2011, and the people of Japan are still largely distrusting of this form of power production, and understandably so seeing as the aftermath of Fukushima is still wreaking havoc in Japan, which doesn’t know what to do with the vast quantities of radioactive, contaminated water that they have been using to keep the easily-overheated reactors from melting down again over the past nine years. In fact, Japan’s economy and industry ministry has suggested releasing the radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean or allowing it to evaporate into the air--a contentious proposal as the nation is set to host the Summer Olympics. 

In the United States, the world’s biggest nuclear energy producer, the industry has also been faltering. The sector simply can’t compete with the shale revolution--the flood of cheap natural gas gushing out of the West Texas Permian Basin. In many states, the nuclear industry has become dependent on government handouts, while it is taxpayers who get stuck with the staggering costs of managing spent nuclear fuel, most of which stays radioactive for tens of thousands of years. 

Many experts, however, say that it is too soon to sound the death knell for nuclear, and that there is a simple answer to keeping the emissions-free form of power production economically viable. This answer comes in the form of small nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs). These reactors are a direct solution to a lot of the industry’s biggest shortcomings. Historically, nuclear energy has had little-to-no standardization and building a new nuclear energy plant therefore was a hugely time-consuming and costly endeavor requiring whole teams of high-paid experts. Conversely, these small-scale SMRs are not only easily standardized, they can also be built offsite, making them much cheaper, more efficient, and easily scalable. What’s more, for those NIMBYs skeptical of having a nuclear reactor nearby, these smaller reactors are also thought to be safer.  Related: U.S. Shale Patch Sees Huge Jump In Bankruptcies

And now it’s not just a startup industry--there are some big players getting involved in the SMR game. The newest entry to the industry? Rolls-Royce. Last week Popular Mechanics reported that “modular reactors are au courant in energy technology, and Rolls-Royce joins startups and governments around the world in trying to shrink the footprint and increase the safety of nuclear energy.” The company’s mini-reactors will be just one-tenth of the size of a traditional reactor but they’re set to make an outsized splash. 

Rolls Royce, also known for its luxury automobile division which is now part of the BMW group, will be dipping its toe into the nuclear waters with two sites in Wales and Northern England as part of a program that the British government pledged to fund back in July of last year. The company says that they will build up to 15 new reactors, with the first on track to go online in nine years. 

Rolls-Royce's SMRs will take just four years to construct, cutting the development time of a traditional nuclear reactor in half. While the stations are just a 10th of the size of the traditional model, they pack a punch. Each of these mini-reactors will have the capacity to produce 440 megawatts of electricity, which is only a quarter less energy than full-scale nuclear reactors. 

This move marks a turnaround in the UK’s approach to nuclear energy. As Futurism reported last week, “The UK is currently working to shut down its existing nuclear plants thanks to aging infrastructure and renewed safety concerns, with the goal to close the last one by 2030. But prime minister Boris Johnson stands firmly behind a nuclear future.” On Johnson’s first day serving in the British House of Commons in July of last year, he said “It is time for a nuclear renaissance and I believe passionately that nuclear must be part of our energy mix.”

It would make sense for the United States to get behind SMRs as well, as nuclear is one of the most promising solutions to combating climate change with its highly efficient, zero-emission power production. While uranium is not a renewable resource, the United States has plenty of it and could continue to power the country for another 100 years on domestic uranium alone. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • A. Correction on January 28 2020 said:
    It's slightly embarrassing that someone commenting on the energy industry as a journalist didn't identify the distinction between "Rolls-Royce” the BMW owned car marque, and Rolls-Royce the gigantic engineering conglomerate with divisions to serve each of the Defence, Aero, Marine, Power-Generation and Nuclear markets.

    The two companies only parted ways in 1973 after all, which could be identified within a couple of clicks of a cursory Google.

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