Small nuclear plants add to the energy mix

  • Small modular reactor (SMR) plants to boost power generation
  • UK’s industrial future relies on a diversity of power sources
  • Research programme investigates fast, safe and cost-effective ways to build them
  • Modular and offsite manufacturing techniques to significantly cut construction time

We’re playing a key role in a consortium developing innovative, small nuclear power plants to boost energy generation at home and abroad. Critical to achieve the aim of low cost, low carbon, local energy provision is a “fleet” approach with some 14+ power stations based on a repeatable, standard design.

The Rolls Royce-led venture supports the UK Government’s interest in creating small modular reactor (SMR) plants that can be built quickly, using the sort of modular and offsite manufacturing techniques we’re renowned for. Laing O’Rourke believe that SMR plants can add to the UK’s energy mix, delivering a diversity of power sources.

Each plant would be roughly the size of London’s O2 arena, capable of powering a city the size of Leeds.

The UK SMR consortium is targeting a potential global export market worth £400bn and estimates it could create 40,000 skilled jobs in this country and add £180bn to the economy.

Rolls-Royce came to Laing O’Rourke as the first choice partner for this challenge due to our track record in complex Nuclear engineering and construction such as Hinkley Point C and also because we had just finished some ground breaking research into application of design for manufacture and assembly 70:60:30 (DfMA 70:60:30) to nuclear structures.

This research, a three-year, £2m programme looked at applying DfMA 70:60:30 techniques to both standard and complex structures and was a collaboration between Laing O’Rourke, Arup, the Building Research Establishment and Imperial College London.

It also explored creating innovative, robust, reliable connections for concrete components; developing smarter manufacturing methods and technology; and creating an optimal manufacture-transport-and-assembly system.

The research programme involved casting nearly 200 tonnes of reinforced concrete, running 20 laboratory strength tests and analysing four full-scale trials. The findings proved highly positive, and the project won a most “innovative” award from Innovate UK in 2016, and the NIA Pinkerton Prize for best research article in Nuclear Future journal in 2017.

With Rolls-Royce, Laing O’Rourke and Arup have been looking at the application of this approach to SMRs. Engaging with the design over 10 years earlier than normal has allowed us to shape the concept and design-in delivery certainty and productivity through a modular approach right from the outset.

Adam Locke, Laing O’Rourke Partnership and Innovation Leader, explains: “Construction schedule is a critical factor for economic viability: so the team has set itself “Target 500” [days] as a build programme for the standard, repeatable (above ground) elements of the power station. So it’s crucial to take as much effort and complexity off site as possible and engineer the design to achieve this.

“Our research findings show modularising repeatable ‘standard’ structures delivered a huge reduction in time, effort and costs, along with better construction safety, quality and efficiency compared to traditional in situ methods.

He adds: “Even with complex ‘non-standard’ concrete structures, we found DfMA 70:60:30 principles can still be applied to the majority of them, reducing on-site duration from five days to one – a reduction of 80%.

“An advanced manufacturing and smart construction approach – introducing semi-automated processes for example – can also reduce off-site manufacturing times by up to 75%.”

However, Adam points out that civil engineering concepts need to be developed further to translate them into reduced construction times, while delivering cost benefits, certainty, quality and compliance.

Concluding, he says: “The research shows that by developing and using advanced, modular civil engineering techniques we have the opportunity to help deliver economic safe and reliable SMR power stations.”

More information:

Modular Nuclear Reactors
UK SMR: A National Endeavour Report
UK SMR: Resources

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