They’re small. They’re powerful. They’re greenhouse gas emissions-free!
They’re small modular reactors (SMRs) and they’re potentially the next source of baseload electricity in Saskatchewan when conventional coal-fired power plants are phased out in 2030.
Not only that, SMRs could help Saskatchewan—which has the highest per capita GHG emissions in the country—achieve its climate-change target of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Despite having the world’s largest high-grade uranium deposits and 20 per cent of global uranium production, Saskatchewan produces no nuclear power. But it’s not been for lack of trying.
In the early 1970s, SaskPower commissioned a study on the feasibility of building a 600-megawatt (MW) nuclear power plant in the province. The study concluded that the provincial power grid would not be able to support a nuclear power plant of that size until the late-1980s or late-1990s.
About 20 years later, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) proposed building a CANDU 3, a 450-MW nuclear power plant in Saskatchewan, a scaled-down version of AECL’s larger CANDU plants operating in Ontario, New Brunswick and elsewhere. While 25 per cent smaller than the 600-MW plant proposed in the 1970s, the CANDU 3 was deemed to be too large for the province’s small electrical grid of about 3,000 MW.
Here we are
Fast forward to 2017 when SaskPower signed a two-year agreement with Ontario Power Generation to study the feasibility of developing and deploying SMRs in Saskatchewan and Ontario. The following year, the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Steering Committee, chaired by Natural Resources Canada, with participation from the governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick, concluded that SMRs “provide a source of safe, clean, affordable energy, with the ability to contribute towards a resilient, low-carbon future.”
In 2019, the same three provinces and their provincial power utilities signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that “establishes a framework for deployment of SMRs in each respective jurisdiction.’’ The three provincial partners were joined by Alberta in 2021.
A feasibility report, released in conjunction with the MOU, concluded that “SMRs have the potential to be an economically competitive source of energy.”
Then, on March 28, 2022, the four provinces announced they were proceeding with a “joint strategic plan” on three separate streams of SMR development, including on-grid and off-grid applications. Don Morgan, minister responsible for SaskPower, said SaskPower’s four-year collaboration with OPG to assess SMR designs for deployment in both Ontario and Saskatchewan “has laid a strong foundation for nuclear power and to support deep reductions in Canada’s GHG emissions to ultimately achieve net zero by 2050.”
“I think this is one of the best options that we have for electrical generation in our province,” Morgan told reporters.
The first stream of the strategic plan would see a “gridscale” SMR project of 300 MW constructed at OPG’s Darlington nuclear site in Ontario by 2028. Subsequent units would be built in Saskatchewan, with the first SMR to be operational by 2034. The remaining three units would come on stream by 2042.
SaskPower is proposing a seven-year planning phase, with potential sites selected by 2023 and initial plans to be submitted to regulators by 2024. By 2027, the province would submit an impact assessment to the federal Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, leading to a construction decision by 2030.
Construction would take four years, with commissioning of the first plant by 2034. Morgan said the first reactor could cost in the range of $5 billion, adding that support from provincial and federal governments would be required.
“We’ve indicated to Ottawa that we will require significant support from them, as well as look at potential equity stakes from Indigenous groups,” Morgan said, noting that SMRs are “certainly not inexpensive.”
In September 2021, SaskPower contracted First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) to facilitate consultations with Indigenous peoples and communities on its SMR strategy. FNPA is also “committed to developing clean energy projects, renewable and SMR technologies that maximize Indigenous participation” at no less than 25 per cent ownership.
The SMR Feasibility study estimated the economic benefits of building the four plants in Saskatchewan would total of $8.8 billion over the 85-year lifespan of the project. So, from zero nuclear power today, Saskatchewan is proposing to have up to four nuclear power plants generating 1,200 MW in 20 years. If that seems like an ambitious target, it is.
And, considering there are no SMRs currently operating as a baseload power source anywhere in the world, and it could take 10 to 12 years to produce a functioning, safe and reliable SMR, it would appear to be a daunting task.
What does it all mean?
So, what are the pros and cons of SMRs? What exactly is a small modular reactor anyway?
Well, compared to existing nuclear power plants in Canada and elsewhere, they’re smaller in both power output and physical size. In this case, SMRs would be 300 MW or less and small enough to be located at remote sites, such as isolated communities, mines or industrial facilities.
They’re modular, which means they can be built in factories and shipped to construction sites for assembly. They’re also portable and scalable, which means they can be moved to remote locations and connected to form larger power plants.
Compared with large nuclear plants of 1,000 MW and up, SMRs are “cheaper to mass produce and easier to deploy” in “large established grids, small grids, remote off-grid communities and as an energy source for resource projects,” according to the feasibility report on SMRs.
And they’re reactors in that they use nuclear fission to produce energy for electricity generation and other uses.
SaskPower spokesperson Scott McGregor concedes the Crown corporation has looked at the nuclear power option several times over the last 50 years. “But the math didn’t work out, in terms of the size of those reactors.”
McGregor said SMRs represent one potential solution for SaskPower, which needs to replace its coal-fired generating stations in the 2030s with a baseload power source that is non-GHG emitting.
“With conventional coal (power plants) scheduled to be retired by 2030, it does pose some unique challenges for us,” McGregor says. “So, we’re currently evaluating a number of options. That includes expanded renewables, natural gas, imports from neighbouring jurisdictions, and nuclear power from small modular reactors.”
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which is being used at SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Power Station, is another option, he adds.
“SMRs are very promising but they’re just one of the options we’re looking at. There’s not one magic bullet that will satisfy all of our needs and requirements.’’
OPG announced in December it had selected GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and its BWRX-300 SMR design for its Darlington site. Unlike OPG’s CANDU reactors, which are heavy-water reactors that use natural uranium fuel, the BWRX-300 uses boiling water reactor technology and enriched uranium fuel.
“We haven’t made our decision yet in terms of which (SMR) technology we’re going to be using yet,” McGregor says. “That said, if we happen to choose the same technology as OPG, there will be even more information to share.”
Last July, Cameco, one of the largest uranium producers in the world, also chose to partner with GE Hitachi and Global Nuclear Fuel to provide fuel for BWRX-300 SMR. “Since uranium would be the fuel used in GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 SMR design, we see a lot of positive potential here,” said Jeff Hryhoriw, director of government relations and communications for the Saskatoon-based company.
Hryhoriw said regardless of which SMR design is ultimately chosen, Cameco wants to supply the uranium fuel for the SMR market.
“If uranium is the fuel stock that powers a specific reactor model—whether it be large or small, light-water or heavy-water—Cameco is well positioned to play a role in its fuel supply chain.”
In fact, Cameco is bullish about the prospects for nuclear energy in general, and SMRs in particular. “Cameco believes nuclear energy will play a major role in helping countries and companies around the world achieve their net-zero emission targets,” he says.
Nuclear power currently accounts for about 10 per cent of global electricity supply and 15 per cent in Canada. There are 440 operable nuclear power plants in the world today, with another 52 under construction.
“However, we’re presently seeing very robust growth—the best in decades—and significant interest as more and more governments commit to decarbonize their electricity grids,” Hryhoriw says.
SMRs will expand and accelerate that growth by creating increased demand for uranium fuel, either in existing nuclear energy nations or by opening up new markets.
“Saskatchewan is a prime example of that potential. It’s a province whose electricity demand profile is perhaps not well suited to the large-scale reactors capable of producing 800-1,200 MW of power from a single unit,” Hryhoriw says. “We feel nuclear energy will be essential to achieving net-zero emission targets in Canada and around the world, and we think SMRs could be a big part of that.”
One expert who believes SMRs could play a role in providing GHG-free baseload electricity generation in Saskatchewan is Esam Hussein, dean of the faculty of engineering and applied science at the University of Regina.
Hussein, a nuclear physicist and engineer, notes that nuclear power plants are available “90 per cent of the time or more,” compared with renewable energy sources, like wind, solar or hydro, which are “typically running 25 to 30 per cent of the time.”
“So, for one megawatt of nuclear or any baseload power, for that matter, you would need triple the amount of power from renewables to maintain the same level of power,” Hussein says. In addition, Hussein says the small size of the SMR makes it better suited to smaller power grids, like SaskPower’s, which has 4,100 MW of installed capacity.
“Small reactors tend to be more simple and robust than larger ones,” Hussein said in a paper, entitled “Emerging small modular nuclear power reactors: A critical review,” published in 2020. Smallness also reduces the capital cost of each unit, reducing financial risk for utilities, while increasing the flexibility in locating and operating SMRs. It also makes SMRs more suitable to provide power to small, remote communities, mines, industrial facilities, etc.
As for “economies of scale,” Hussein noted that “this is where modular comes in. This is the economy of multiples. You don’t commit a lot of capital (with SMRs), which means you reduce financial risk. Then you add on (units) as needed. That’s one definition of modularity: you build a plant from small units.”
In addition, SMRs can be built in manufacturing plants then assembled on-site. “This has the advantage of shortening construction time and reducing cost, as well as providing flexibility, improving safety, reducing waste, decreasing disruptions during construction… enabling construction during cold winter months and at remote sites, and facilitating relocation when needed,” Hussein said in his 2020 paper.
Another advantage of SMRs is simplicity of design, which also reduces the capital and construction costs and the complexity of the regulatory process. “Simplicity in nuclear plant design leads to reduced operation and maintenance work, competitive capital and operational costs, enhanced safety and reliability, reduced off-site emergency measures and decreased machine-human interactions,” the paper said.
Having said that, SMRs have their challenges. “Modularity discourages innovation” because you’re trying to build the same units over and over again, Hussein says. “So, innovation can be limited.”
Also, modular units may not perform the same way when they’re connected together. “You can design each unit to spec and it works perfectly. You connect them and you have a problem. So, the interconnectivity between the modules… can be a challenge.”
SMRs are new and, along with their advantages, there are some disadvantages. “It’s a different way of doing things. And, like every new thing, it has pros and cons,” Hussein says. One of the advantages of SMRs or any nuclear power plant is zero GHG-emissions, but one of the disadvantages is spent fuel or nuclear waste. “Of course, the issue of nuclear waste is a challenge, but (with SMRs) you have a small volume (of waste).”
While Canada does not yet have permanent long-term geological storage for nuclear waste, spent fuel has been safely stored on site at seven locations at near nuclear power plants or research facilities for more than 50 years.
“We don’t have a long-term storage for nuclear waste, true. But we have a way of dispensing and getting rid of the waste of conventional power. What is that? Greenhouse gas emissions.”
But Ann Coxworth, a board member and researcher with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, isn’t convinced SMRs are any safer, economically viable or environmentally sustainable than large nuclear plants.
“Some of the problems associated with the larger reactors are still of concern with smaller ones,” Coxworth says. “There are additional issues; the economics of the small reactors for one.” Coxworth argued there’s a “lost economy of scale” when larger nuclear power plants of 1,000 MW or more are reduced in size to units of 300 MW or less. And, unlike large nuclear plants, there are no commercial-grade SMRs operating in the world.
“There are over 100 potential designs world-wide that are all competing for a market that doesn’t yet exist. The notion that these (SMRs) could become competitive with other potential energy sources is a very risky assumption.”
Coxworth added that SMRs would have the same environmental disadvantages as large reactors, including the production of nuclear waste, which poses huge, long-term environmental and human health and safety risks.
“All of these (SMR) promoters are assuming that Canada is going to look after the waste disposal. Realistically, it’s going to be 30 years at least before a waste disposal facility is operating.”
Coxworth noted Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (MWMO) has been in operation for 20 years and still has not found a site for a proposed long-term, deep-geological nuclear disposal facility.
“I would suggest we should not be building any new reactors until or unless we have an operating waste management system in place,” says Coxworth, who has a master’s degree in nuclear chemistry. SMRs would not only add more nuclear waste to the current stockpile but spread it to remote locations across the country. “I really don’t like the idea of just piling up more nuclear waste at reactor sites on the surface.”
Coxworth notes that SaskPower’s plan to make decision in seven years on whether to proceed with building the first SMR in Saskatchewan doesn’t leave much time for NWMO to find a suitable site to construct a long-term disposal facility. “2029 is not very far away.”
Finally, she said SMRs are not the safest, most economical and most reliable method of reducing GHG emissions from baseload power generation. Energy conservation programs and improved storage for renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, would a better place to invest the billions that will be spent developing SMRs.
“We’ve got really huge potential in this province for renewable energy development,” Coxworth says. “Instead of investing money into SMRs that are probably going to be a lot more expensive than renewable energy, I would like to see money invested in making renewable energy more useable as baseload (power).”