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Powering Tomorrow #3: Modular reactors mark renaissance for nuclear patent filings


This is the third article of our mini-series ‘Powering Tomorrow: Intellectual Property & Nuclear in the Age of Net Zero’ where our specialists delve into the role of intellectual property within the nuclear sphere, looking at developments in traditional nuclear power as the industry strives to adapt to the sustainable energy landscape of the future, and at the potentially revolutionary impact of nuclear fusion.

Modular reactors mark renaissance for nuclear patent filings

Companies active in nuclear fission-based power have historically filed relatively few patents. It is likely that this was because problems encountered in their nuclear power plant development were specific to individual power plants. Why protect the resulting inventions if they were unlikely to be used elsewhere? However, the development of modular reactors such as small modular reactors (SMRs) and advanced modular reactors (AMRs) could change this mindset. Suddenly, the product becomes scalable, capable of being built in factories and exported around the world. There is more potential to licence technology, or sell modular units, and therefore patents for this technology may become more valuable.

UK patenting activity related to nuclear fission and modular reactors

Figure 1: Number of nuclear fission patent applications compared to number of SMR and AMR UK patent applications grouped by priority (first filing) year, 2001-2021.

Looking at UK patent application filings across the last 20 years, it can be seen that the general trend for nuclear fission patent filings in the UK was relatively low from 2001-2011 and then increased to a peak in 2014.

Since 2014, the number of patent applications filed per year relating to nuclear fission inventions has generally been decreasing. In contrast, the number of patent applications filed that specifically relate to SMRs or AMRs is increasing, with the number of patent applications in these fields peaking in 2020. 

A review of the most recent patent application filings (publications from 2022 and 2023) show companies are keen to protect a range of different areas of SMR and AMR technologies. For example, there is a patent application directed towards depressurisation valves (GB2602376A), as well as an application for stackable nuclear reactors for installation in boreholes (GB2609628A). There are also applications that directly relate to the modularity of these systems, including GB2550183A which describes the assembly of modules to form a power plant. It is clear that there are many aspects of SMR and AMR systems that are both patentable due to their technical advancements and commercially important to protect, leading to an increased number of patent filings in this area.

Development of modular reactors from 2020 onwards

The increase in UK patent applications filed in 2020, directed towards AMR or SMR technologies, coincided with the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. The Ten Point Plan specifically included £210 million for Small Modular Reactors, to develop a domestic, smaller-scale, power plant technology design. The Government also committed up to £170 million for a research and development programme on Advanced Modular Reactors.

The overall percentage of nuclear fission patents that relate to SMRs or AMRs is increasing. In 2020 and 2021, around 50% of the total nuclear fission-related patent filings related to these technologies. A big contributing factor for this was the number of filings by Rolls-Royce in 2020. Rolls-Royce, as part of a UK-based consortium, was awarded £18 million of funding from the UK Government for SMR technology, in November 2019. This was followed, in 2021, after private funding of £195 million, by grant funding of £210 million from UK Research and Innovation as part of the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan.  Clearly a large amount of money is being spent to develop this technology, and Rolls Royce are ensuring that their innovations are protected with patent filings.

There is no reason to suggest that the number of patent application filing relating to SMR and AMR technologies will slow down. In July 2023, the UK Government announced the “Great British Nuclear” scheme (GBN), which includes a competition for companies to secure funding support to develop their products. On top of the GBN competition launch, the government announced a grant funding package totalling up to £157 million. On 2 October, the UK Government announced six companies selected to advance to next phase of the GBN (SMR) competition for innovative nuclear technologies. The companies are EDF, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy International LLC, Holtec Britain Limited, NuScale Power, Rolls Royce SMR and Westinghouse Electric Company UK Limited. Their designs for the modular reactors have been selected to progress in the competition because the UK Government considers them companies most able to be operational by the mid-2030s.

With just over a decade to reach the UK Government’s ambitious target, we expect to see more patent filings in from these companies, and others, as they develop their modular reactor technology.

Read the next article of Powering Tomorrow: Nothing new under the sun – a history of nuclear innovations

Read the previous article of Powering Tomorrow: Powering Towards the Fusion Era

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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