Small Modular Reactors Reenergize Nuclear Power Conversation

Orano McClean Lake.
Orano McClean Lake.

As climate change creates ever-greater pressure to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear power is enjoying a new burst of support from the highest levels of government and with it, the promise of opportunities surrounding the development of small modular reactors (SMRs)

“We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear,” said Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan in a presentation to the Canadian Nuclear Association and later in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House in September. Canada now gets about 15 per cent of its electricity from its reactors; the grids of Ontario and New Brunswick are 60 per cent nuclear.

O’Regan’s clear endorsement follows more quiet support over the past few years, including leadership of the SMR Roadmap, announced with little fanfare in 2018. The feds put more muscle behind their position by coordinating Canada’s SMR Action Plan, to be released this year by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

“The federal government certainly has been quietly supportive in the past, but they’re coming out much more vocally now,” says Jim Corman, CEO of uranium mining company Orano Canada. “That’s great to see, to get the conversation out in the public domain again, to get nuclear back on the discussion in terms of how we battle the climate challenges ahead of us.”

On the provincial front, in late 2019 the governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick signed a memorandum of understanding on SMR development, followed by Alberta in August of this year.

Yellow cake uranium, Orano Canada.

Saskatchewan, home of some of the world’s richest deposits of uranium, has long toyed with the idea of moving beyond mining ore and shipping yellowcake by contributing more value-adding activities around the nuclear fuel cycle.

In the late 1970s, there was talk of building a uranium refinery at Warman, but opposition scuttled the project in 1980 and it was eventually built in Blind River, Ontario. In the early 1990s the Meadow Lake Tribal Council considered storage of used nuclear fuel in Saskatchewan, but these efforts never progressed beyond initial public consultations. Also, in the 1990s, an Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) research and development unit came to Saskatoon, but it closed after four years due to shifting political priorities and funding cuts.

Eschewing spinoff nuclear industries in the province has come at a cost. An analysis of the Warman decision released by the Saskatoon and District Chamber of Commerce in 2004 identified hundreds of millions in capital expenditures and wages, all of which now generate taxes for the province of Ontario.

John Root is executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation in Saskatoon. He explains that nuclear power is one of the few ways to generate stable, reliable electric power.

“You would like to reduce carbon emissions without putting at risk the stability of your electricity and so what are your options for a reliable power base?” he says. “Well, you can make steady power as hydroelectricity if you have plentiful water falls and you can make steady electricity by nuclear power if you don’t.”

“Once you have that stable base, then you can add things like wind and solar and have a stable electricity supply, even though wind and sun come and go.”

What’s so different about SMRs? Well the first thing is size. Saskatchewan’s grid currently has about 4,500MW of generating capacity. Eighty per cent of this is coal and natural gas, with the balance made up mostly with hydroelectricity and a little wind. An agreement with the federal government commits the province to phasing out all coal generation by 2030.

In theory, three or four traditional 1,000MW nuclear reactors could meet the province’s low-carbon needs. Not quite, Root explains.

“If we only had four or five big, chunky power sources for the whole province, it would be challenging to replace the electricity if one needs to be taken offline, or to adjust smoothly for variations in demand through the day,” he says. “Smaller units can help to maintain steadiness of the electricity supply on a Saskatchewan-sized grid.”

SMRs can still be fairly big—300MW—but can range down to 10MW or even smaller. This opens some intriguing possibilities. Keeping the lights on in many of Canada’s remote communities means shipping diesel via barge in the summer or ice road in the winter—both expensive and carbon-intensive options. SMRs could ease these problems while providing plentiful electricity for local economic development.

“When we live in the climates we live in, we need the furnaces to come on when it’s 40 below, three o’clock in the morning on a January night,” Corman says. “Solar and wind isn’t going to do that for us, so nuclear is certainly very important in that baseload supply.”

It is the modular aspect of SMRs that really sets them apart. Unlike traditional reactors, which are built on-site, SMRs are mass-produced, identical units that can even be “stacked,” much like batteries, to give the desired power output.

“A key idea with small modular reactors is you build them in a factory, in a controlled environment,” Root says. “Every unit you make is similar, but you learn how to be more reliable and efficient, through the experience of multiple units. Standardized units are produced in the factory and shipped to the site where the power is needed, adding more modules if more power is required.”

So, where does Saskatchewan fit in all of this? SMRs have been in use for decades in marine applications such as submarines and icebreakers. There are more than one hundred designs for domestic electricity production already vying for a piece of the market. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is conducting pre-licensing reviews of designs from a dozen vendors.

Of the four MOU signatories, Ontario and New Brunswick have traditional nuclear reactors, together with the expertise and infrastructure to pursue actual construction of SMRs.

For Saskatchewan, Corman is encouraged by the provincial government’s creation of a Nuclear Secretariat within the Climate Change & Adaptation Division in the provincial Ministry of Environment. The body is charged with exploring possible benefits of SMRs in terms of jobs, enhanced value chains for Saskatchewan’s uranium, and climate policy.

Orano isn’t in the SMR design and build business, but they do produce and transport reactor fuel and supply waste management services, notably in Ontario and the United States.

“We could be involved on the fuel side of things, the fuel fabrication side,” Corman says. “The fuel for SMRs is a little bit different than for a conventional reactor and certainly Orano has expertise in that field. We would be very interested in being involved with SMRs.”

There are also possibilities in the social arena. Root explains that the Fedoruk Centre funds research such as the 2014 Saskatchewan Nuclear Attitudes Survey conducted by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan. This study found that many nuclear technologies enjoy broad public support.

The uranium mining industry can also contribute its expertise in working with communities to sustainably develop the resource. These includes some of the richest ores in the world, and they underly Indigenous lands. This offers more opportunities.

Corman says more than half the employees at Orano’s mines are local to the area and the company works in partnership with local communities to create employment while preserving traditional food and water resources. These successful models could inform similar resource developments across the country.