Small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs as they are known, can support the clean energy ambitions of Middle East countries and help power-hungry industrial units to decarbonise production amid rising demand for cleaner metals and other products, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce SMR said.
The British company is bringing its SMR technology to the World Future Energy Summit – the global conference showcasing green energy technology – and hopes to start talks with government representatives and large industrial companies to explore the potential of deals in the region, Tom Samson told The National in an interview.
Nuclear energy has a major role to play in “addressing the clean energy needs of any country” and “we are looking to have those conversations when we come down to Abu Dhabi”, he said.
“We are just beginning that journey and that is part of the reason to come to [WFES].”
The company is already exploring opportunities to sell its technology to potential customers in the UK.
However, the first SMR units are not expected to come online before the early part of the next decade as the company goes through the regulatory processes in the UK, builds factories, certifies its designs and moves on to the production process, said Mr Samson, who was previously chief operating officer of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation in the UAE.
“Those first units have the longer timeline. Once the factories are built, we can build two units a year and, as demand increases, we just simply build more factories,” he said.
Governments in the hydrocarbon-rich GCC economic bloc are increasingly pivoting to green energy and reducing the use of gas for power generation.
They have heavily invested in solar and wind projects and are looking to explore more options to decarbonise their power grids and reduce emissions to meet their ambitious net zero targets.
The UAE, the second-largest Arab economy, is currently the only Arab nation that has a full-size operational nuclear power plant.
The Emirates recently completed the construction of Unit 3 at Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant. Unit 1 is already fully operational and Unit 2 was recently connected to the main grid and continues to undergo testing.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, also plans to build nuclear power plants. The kingdom is exploring options of investing $100 billion in several plants with a combined capacity of 22 gigawatts.
Although smaller, SMRs are “complementary” to the nuclear and clean energy aspirations of nations and offer “a lot of different ways of adding to your flexibility”, he said.
“If you are already on a nuclear journey and you are considering large [units], then SMR is an additional option for your country.”
Unlike full-size nuclear plants that require tens of billions of dollars in investment, SMRs can be produced in factories, with modules small enough to be transported and produced in a cost-effective manner.
About the same size as two football fields, Rolls-Royce SMRs are capable of generating enough power for 450,000 homes or industries that require a lot of energy. They can serve customers from power-intensive data centres to those looking to produce synthetic fuels and hydrogen.
“We have opened up a whole spectrum of customers," Mr Samson said.
The units have a build cost of about £2bn ($2.72bn) and Rolls-Royce SMR is looking to provide power generation options for “60 years on a cost-competitive basis”.
The Middle East is also home to some of the biggest industrial companies and big power consumers such as Emirates Global Aluminium and Emirates Steel in the UAE, and Aluminium Bahrain.
Industries around the globe face mounting pressure to reduce their carbon footprint as demand for green metals and other products with lighter carbon footprint continues to rise.
“We are bringing to market a solution that is targeting not only grid electricity, but also industrial customers by bringing forward something which is low-cost, competitive [and uses] proven technology,” Mr Samson said.
He said his company was bringing forward a product that is "completely revolutionising how nuclear power can be delivered” through a factory-built solution.
SMRs are a much more “investable proposition” for companies that, otherwise, cannot find an energy project large enough to solve their clean energy challenges, Mr Samson said.
However, the customers will have to invest in the construction of the units.
“Think of SMRs as being structured as a nuclear IPP [independent power project], where we bring in private capital and secure financing to build a project based on turn-key contract [basis],” he said.
Rolls-Royce SMR raised about £500 million last year and is currently looking for sites to set up factories in the UK, Mr Samson said.
It will build and deliver units to customers from its UK manufacturing centre and if demand exists in a particular region, it can set up factories there to start building the product locally.
“Both of these options are a possibility,” he said.