‘We need to move on’: Outgoing Rolls-Royce boss Warren East frustrated by lack of government support for small nuclear reactors
Warren East, chairman of Rolls-Royce, said he was disappointed by the lack of progress on plans to build a series of small nuclear plants.
He warned the government: “We need to move forward.”
The company aims to have a network of 16 small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK and hopes to bring the first of them online by the early 2030s.
Small reactors: Rolls-Royce boss Warren East (pictured) has suggested Whitehall has become distracted by short-term crises
It has received £210m from the government to develop the technology, but argues that a model of state- or billpayer-backed financing is necessary before it can move forward.
But formal talks on such a framework have yet to begin, and East, the outgoing chief executive of the FTSE 100 architect, noted that the government has become distracted by short-term crises.
He said, “We are going to claim that SMRs are part of the future energy transition over the next two decades and we need to get that going.”
The idea is that the plants can be ready in a factory and installed across the country with less time and risk than larger conventional nuclear plants.
Each will be the size of two football fields and power about a million homes, helping to meet energy demand as fossil fuels are phased out.
The first will cost £2.5 billion to build, dropping to £2 billion at a time as the order pipeline grows.
“I was hoping at the beginning of this year that we would secure some orders for SMRs so far,” said East.
‘But we didn’t. I kind of understand the challenges that people have had this year in government and so I can rationalize that.
But I’m disappointed — the energy transition is another huge thing for this government and for all governments.
East was speaking days before the end of his turbulent seven-and-a-half-year reign at the company, best known for its jet engines.
During his spell he faced crises including a £671m fine for a bribery scandal, a large damages bill for defective Trent 1000 aircraft engines and most importantly the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought the aviation sector to a standstill.
Small nuclear reactors: Rolls-Royce aims to build a network of 16 small modular reactors in the UK and hopes to have the first operational by the early 2030s.
The latter brought the company to its knees in 2020, forcing it to raise £2bn from shareholders and cut 9,000 jobs as it struggled to survive.
However, Rolls-Royce is also working on new nuclear technology, alternative fuels for aircraft, and penetrating into electric hydrogen-fueled engines. It sees its SMEs generating up to £50 billion in exports and creating 40,000 jobs.
East suggested that Whitehall could learn a lesson.
“Yes we’ve dealt with crises but we’ve also charted a course for the future and stuck to the mission around being fit for the long term, so governments have to do that too,” he said.
They must negotiate all short-term challenges but also think about the long-term.
The government has given us some funding for the stage we’re in at the moment, which is getting our design through regulatory approval.
“But we want to engage in commercial discussions.” Financing models could include so-called “contracts for difference” of the kind used in industries such as offshore wind, guaranteeing developers a set price for their output.
An alternative might be a “regulated asset base” model where money is added to consumers’ bills to help fund a project long before it goes live.
Rolls-Royce argues that the UK government’s commitment will help give confidence to potential foreign customers in places like the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Estonia.
Al Sharq said: “The government clearly has a role to play when we go after export clients.
“We have a very good range of export opportunities for small and medium-sized companies that should add to the volume of that business significantly.
“People want to know – what is the government doing about it?”
Rolls-Royce shares rose 1.7 percent, or 1.5 points, to 88.84 pence.
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