New Nuclear


A modular approach to a nuclear future

Volume 23, Issue 3 - November 2022

Sophie MacFarlane-Smith

Sophie MacFarlane-Smith

Sophie MacFarlane-Smith is the Head of Customer Engagement for Rolls-Royce SMR, with responsibility for the development of global customer opportunities and associated Government relationships. After completing a Master’s Degree in the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors at Birmingham University, Sophie joined the reactor physics team of Rolls-Royce in 1996. Her career in Rolls-Royce included a range of technical and project delivery roles covering multiple sectors including submarines, Naval and commercial marine and civil nuclear


  • Most decarbonisation strategies require huge amounts of low carbon electricity
  • Nuclear plants generate large quantities of low carbon power very efficiently
  • Light water Small Modular Reactors, such as the Rolls-Royce SMR, employ proven technology but in a manufactured modular fashion rather than as bespoke, one-off constructions
  • The modular approach delivers repeatability
  • The length of time taken for licensing and permitting is too long.

Rolls Royce has been involved in the design, manufacture and operation of small nuclear plants for over 60 years as part of the UK submarine programme. It is now taking that expertise about nuclear plant design and manufacture and translating it for the civilian world.

The world has a very significant challenge with respect to decarbonisation and most solutions require electricity at vast scale. Nuclear power generates large quantities of low carbon power very efficiently. So the question is how to source more nuclear power as quickly and affordably as possible?

Rolls-Royce SMR is looking at a new way of bringing nuclear power to the market. The company believes the best way to achieve this is to use proven nuclear technology – in this case Pressurised Water Reactors – but deliver it in a different way, as a standardised manufactured product, turning it into a commodity rather than a bespoke infrastructure project.

The company is not a traditional technology vendor: it will deliver the complete power station rather than just the nuclear reactor. This will be accomplished in a modularised way. That involves separating the complete package into around 1600 modules. Each of these modules has a different function and each can be transported via the road network. Importantly, this modular approach will ensure repeatability.

The company is establishing new facilities to manufacture these modules. Then they will be taken to the site where the modules will be put together to build the complete power station. This is about taking proven technology but delivering it in a new way. This makes the whole project economically viable.

Nuclear power is not just for producing electricity. Many industrial sectors need to decarbonise, not just the energy sector. The aviation industry, something that Rolls-Royce is very interested in, will need vast quantities of synthetic fuels. The marine industry will need hydrogen for all sorts of different applications. Then there is district heating and cooling, as well as technologies like direct air capture. There are many different uses for the heat and electricity that nuclear power stations can deliver reliably in vast quantities.

When talking about grid electricity, the Government and the national infrastructure operators are really important. Yet many commercial players are also looking for ways to decarbonise the industrial landscape. They have done the sums for themselves and have realised that they can only go so far with wind and solar. If they really want to decarbonise their sector, they will have to go nuclear.


This is where Small Modular Reactors – SMRs – can step in. They are smaller in size, with lower power output, and can be sited in places where large nuclear cannot fit. They can support a range of industrial sectors in their decarbonisation programmes or they can replace existing coal and gas infrastructure.

There are still challenges on the way to implementation. They are not though, about licensing. Almost every regulator in the world knows, understands and already approves PWRs. If standard fuel is used, licensing risk is particularly low. Rolls Royce is fortunate in being a UK company with experience of designing nuclear plant in the UK. It understands the UK regulatory regime very well. However, it is not designing this plant just for the UK but for the world.

In regard to manufacturing, Rolls Royce have more than 60 years’ experience of making nuclear plants for the submarines programme. In addition, the company has over 100 years of manufacturing complex products for industry, not just in the UK but around the world. So we would not consider manufacturing or construction a risk, after all the plant is designed for ease of assembly. In essence, we are taking technology that is used in other sectors and bringing it to the nuclear sector. Financing, too, is not a critical issue. While £2 billion is a large sum of money, we believe it will attract investment on the open market.

So where are the major challenges? Other nuclear technologies also want to build, so we need to know very quickly which sites are available so we can get on and develop projects. We also need more sites. This is not just an issue in the UK, of course. Prospective customers – and for Rolls Royce that includes industrial businesses – want SMRs near their own facilities, so they need more sites to be allocated.


One other factor is the need for faster site permitting. Even though a developer may have a site, and the generic licensing has been completed, there is still the obligation to go through site-specific licensing and permitting. That process takes years and does not match the speed at which the manufactured product can be deployed.

To deliver in a timely fashion, there must be a way to facilitate site permitting as fast as we can manufacture. This is not about cutting corners. In the manufacturing process, there is no cutting of corners (because the result would be a product that does not work), instead it is a matter of finding the most efficient way to achieve the required result. The industry is therefore discussing with Government how to move forward with site permitting.

Then the final challenge is scale. The potential demand, within and outside the UK, to support decarbonisation and energy security around the world, is vast. The question for us is how fast can we scale up our manufacturing facilities to be able to deliver and support that demand? That is something Rolls Royce is already starting to tackle, even as we set up our first facilities.