Non-traditional, smaller-scale reactors key to Canada’s energy future

Non-traditional, smaller-scale reactors key to Canada’s energy future
Rendering of Moltex Stable Salt Reactor – Wasteburner (SSR-W). Photo: moltexenergy.com

Even though nuclear power isn’t present in all provinces, it still provided 15 per cent of Canada’s energy supply in 2018 (including about 60 per cent of Ontario supply and 33 per cent of New Brunswick supply). Proponents say nuclear Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology will be a key component of the future energy mix, both nationally and globally.

Per the name, SMRs are basically smaller and cheaper than traditional nuclear plants. The “modular” is where things get really interesting—with easier transport, fewer all-in-one components and many parts designed for standard manufacturing processes and scalable to existing factories.

“The reason there’s opportunity for Atlantic Canada here is we’re not talking about megaprojects that need very specialized manufacturing facilities,” said Rory O’Sullivan, Moltex Energy CEO for North America, contrasting SMRs with the expensive traditional plants.

Moltex has estimated about half of the components for its own SMR designs could be produced in New Brunswick. O’Sullivan said ARC Nuclear Canada, also working in New Brunswick on SMRs, has come to a similar conclusion, with both companies agreeing to work together to build the local supply chain going forward.

New Brunswick and utility NB Power are working to add SMRs to the system, including at the site of New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station.

Throughout Canada, there are multiple companies with SMR concepts in development, from something closer to conventional reactors in size and function, all the way to micro-reactors capable of serving small, isolated communities or mining camps.

And there are specific features. For example, Moltex has been working on technology allowing for the recycling and reduction of nuclear waste from Canada’s CANDU reactors. “We take nuclear waste and we recycle that. We can re-use that recycled waste as fuel. So that’s very innovative, but it means there’s more challenges up front and more regulatory hurdles to go through,” O’Sullivan said.
He also said a large part of what drew the company to locate in Canada and focus their energy here is a set regulatory process and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s established pathway for companies to bring new technology to market.

“We believe that once we’ve demonstrated it in New Brunswick, it’s going to be really compelling for people to want to recycle the (nuclear) waste, instead of burying it underground and being radioactive for 300,000 years,” O’Sullivan said.

The regulator is running a lengthy “vendor design revue” process, whereby it evaluates the proposals for new reactor models in detail, providing companies with early feedback on their designs and continuing in development. That work determines if there are any fundamental barriers to approval, before companies go through a formal licensing process and then site-specific permitting involving provinces and local utilities.

It’s a long process, but there are predictions Canada’s first SMRs could be online in the latter half of the 2020s.

The process of introducing nuclear technology isn’t cheap, as the Nuclear Energy Institute in the U.S. has pointed out: “Development of an advanced reactor design can cost US$1 billion or more, and take several years to complete.”

Existing nuclear power in Canada and new SMRs are expected to help the country reach its “net zero” target on greenhouse gas emissions. And, with the release in December 2020 of its “SMR Action Plan,” the Canadian government encouraged development of SMR technology, estimating the global market for the technology is expected to exceed $150 billion to $300 billion by 2040.

Continued public and private support, including follow-through on Canada’s SMR Action Plan, will be essential. •

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