New Rolls Royce mini-reactors: mini genius or mega-risk?

Lilla Marshall calls into question whether the latest invention from a leading car manufacturer is as good as it claims to be

Lilla Marshall
10th February 2020
Rolls-Royce have announced plans to build mini nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom by 2029.

The new mini-reactors would be just 6.25% the size of the current standard and would be produced in modules - reducing costs and making materials easier to transport. Rolls-Royce boast that the new reactors would be small enough to fit in Wembley Stadium and yet produce enough energy to supply the entirety of Leeds.

According to the Rolls-Royce website, one of these reactors will produce enough energy to fully charge over 60,000 electric cars. With transport being the major source of carbon dioxide emissions within the UK, Rolls-Royce argue that someone is going to need to supply clean energy to charge those cars if the country is to meet the internal deadline of 2050 for net zero carbon emissions.

"It’s far more economic to build one 1.2 Gigawatt unit than a dozen 100 Megawatt units.”

- Paul Dorfman, senior researcher at University College London

This idea of cost-cutting has been criticised by Paul Dorfman, a senior researcher at UCL, who argues that a mistake in batch production will mean greater expenses and hassle, ultimately arguing that "It’s far more economic to build one 1.2 Gigawatt unit than a dozen 100 Megawatt units.”

A government report in 2017 concluded the same thing, estimating power generated from mini nuclear reactors will cost more than the current standard.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, said at the time, "Ministers are ploughing huge sums of money into supporting overpriced nuclear, while retaining a de facto ban on onshore wind and failing to give solar the support the sector needs."

The nuclear energy sector has been struggling over the last decade, with the rise in popularity of renewable energy and increased concerns towards the safety of nuclear power. A YouGov poll in 2012 found that only 44% of the UK public believe that "nuclear power is safe, if properly handled". Being so soon after the tragic tsunami in Japan may have had some influence on these numbers, however.

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