Rolls-Royce
Image credit: Rolls-Royce

The UK SMR consortium, led by Rolls-Royce, has announced it expects to create 6,000 regional UK jobs from its small modular reactor power project within the next five years.

The 6,000 jobs by 2025, together with a further 34,000 long-term jobs by the mid-2030s, will be feasible if the UK government makes a clear commitment that enables a fleet of 16 small modular reactor (SMR) power stations to be built over the next 20 years.

The power stations will help secure the UK’s net-zero commitments affordably, revitalise the UK’s regional industrial base and position the UK to secure exports of at least £250 billion ($329.3 billion).

Rolls-Royce and project partners will make up to 80% (by value) of the power station components in factories in the Midlands and North of England, before being transported to existing nuclear sites around the country for rapid assembly inside weatherproof canopies.

The power stations will also provide low carbon energy to produce net-zero synthetic aviation fuels and hydrogen, supporting the UK government’s Net Zero ambition and the wider decarbonisation of transport.

Each compact nuclear power station will provide 440MW of electricity, enough low carbon power for a city of 450,000 homes for 60 years. The first unit will be operational within 10 years of the first order, with the factories able to produce two units per year thereafter.

Tom Samson, interim CEO of the UK SMR Consortium, said: “We have developed a manufacturing and assembly process that will make reliable, low carbon nuclear power affordable, deliverable and investable.

“By creating a factory-built power station that rolls off the assembly line we have radically reduced many construction risks associated with new nuclear power stations; and by using proven nuclear technology alongside standardised and simplified components, we make it much more cheaply.

“Our consortium combines decades of nuclear experience and pioneering world-class manufacturing expertise. We represent the strength that UK industry has to offer in our fight against climate change.

“The UK SMR Consortium presents the UK with a domestic nuclear energy solution for the first time in a generation, with a product that is engineered, designed and manufactured in the UK. This creates a unique opportunity to revitalise the UK’s industrial base and paves the way for the future commercialisation of advanced reactor solutions, including fusion technology.”

“Our ambition to accelerate the deployment of a fleet these power stations across the UK will contribute massively to the ‘levelling up’ agenda, creating sustainable high value manufacturing jobs in those areas most in need of economic activity.

With a defined path forward in the UK, the prospects for global exports are enormous and the unique features of UK SMRs make them attractive low cost, deliverable and investable solutions in many countries looking to decarboniSe their economies. The total export potential by 2050 for the UK is expected to be at least £250 billion and possibly leading to further UK jobs.

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Mixed industry reaction

Commenting on the development, Prof Stirling form the University of Sussex, said: “Whatever form they take, debates about employment are seriously misled, by quoting figures for jobs from just a single kind of large-scale Government spending. The UK Government really needs to be asking which among many possible kinds of investment, offer the best jobs benefits?

“Once the issue is looked at comparatively like this, the case for nuclear actually looks relatively poor.  Of course, there are devils in the details: for instance concerning exactly how much of any given supply chain is with UK-based industry. But in general, existing evidence strongly suggests that – pound for pound – investment in renewable energy creates more engineering-based employment in the UK than would a similar level of spending on nuclear power.

“And a further query that should be raised, is whether the relative prospects of newly-created jobs will be sustainable by export opportunities. Here again, even the most ardent nuclear supporter must concede that it is very clear that the international export markets for wind and solar are already massively greater than those for nuclear power, with the gap growing fast.

“Another important issue is about the economic risks of employment strategies based alternatively around renewables or small modular reactors (SMRs). Again, no matter how they’re viewed, the kinds of SMRs currently envisaged by Rolls Royce, are not only commercial untested, but not yet even built as pilots. That the nuclear industry has a grave history of hype and disappointment, strengthens this concern.

“The long-run commercial viability of wind and solar power, by contrast, are already very well proven in global mass markets. With costs continuing to decline rapidly, their competitive position is significantly more favourable than that of nuclear power.

“So, the initial numbers, potential for growth and long run riskiness of jobs achievable from renewable support, are clearly far more favourable than those associated with subsidies towards Rolls Royce SMRs. It has to be asked, why the Government is pursuing such a one-sided policy – and why the issues are so often presented in such biased ways.”

Nigel Driffield, Professor of International Business at Warwick Business School and an expert on UK regional economies, said: “While it is undeniable that the investment climate in the UK will be challenging for at least the next two years post-Brexit, the announcement by Rolls Royce highlights an example of the types of investment that the UK, its regions and investment promotion agencies should be targeting.

“While activities linked to trading with the EU are going to decline, energy, infrastructure and advanced manufacturing will still continue.

“There needs to be a more joined up approach to understanding the energy needs of business, and how all different energy sources can play a role in this.

“While dispersed manufacturing of this type is clearly good for UK regions, we need to think about how we can build supply chains here to sustain these high profile activities, and how the support for these supply chains can feed into regional productivity.

“Often the drag in the success of such investments are gaps in supply chains, and the understanding of these gaps, and how we can fill them will be crucial to the recovery and success of the UK economy post-COVID and Brexit.”