Fix the Planet newsletter: Can small nuclear power go big?

www.newscientist.com
6 min read
fairly easy
Small modular reactors are being pitched as an affordable and fast way to decarbonise power grids but questions about the technology abound
A mock-up of what one of Rolls-Royce SMR's new mini nuclear power plants may look like. Rolls-Royce

Hello, and welcome to this week's Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive this free, monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

I've just about recovered from the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where 196 countries agreed to ramp up action on climate change. While wind and solar power often get a big airing at UN climate summits, nuclear has historically had little presence, despite offering a steady supply of low-carbon power.

Unusually, nuclear power did have a showing in Glasgow, at official events in the conference, deals on the sidelines and cropping up as a subject during press briefings.

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One new technology popped up a few times: small modular reactors (SMRs), mini nuclear plants that would be built in a factory and transported to a site for assembly. A UK consortium led by Rolls-Royce wants to build a fleet in the country to export around the world as a low carbon complement to renewables. During COP26 the consortium received £210 million from the UK government. More private investment is expected soon.

Yet questions abound. Why should this technology succeed where large nuclear plants have failed to take off in recent years, beyond China? If they are small, will they make a sizeable enough dent in emissions? And will they arrive in time to make a difference to a rapidly warming world? Read on.

What's the pitch?

Large new nuclear plants, such as Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Hinkley Point C in the UK, are infamous for running over schedule and over-budget. Assuming Olkiluoto 3 achieves full power next year as planned, it will be 13 years late. And the huge upfront costs – around £23 billion in Hinkley's case – means it can take a long time to get a final investment decision on new plants, as shown by the slow progress in…
Adam Vaughan
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