Canada thinks big about small5 December 2018
Canada’s SMR Roadmap, released in early November 2018, charts a path forward for demonstration and deployment of small modular reactors. John Stewart provides a preview...
CANADIANS ARE THINKING ABOUT HOW to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions without destroying economic activity and living standards.
According to those who have seriously studied this problem, like the Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP), there are two steps. First, you convert energy applications – lawn mowers, boat motors, building heat, and other fossil fuel burners – to electricity. Then you generate electricity in a way that minimises greenhouse gas emissions.
Generating low-carbon electricity in a reliable and economical way, without setting back incomes, living standards and lifespans, requires much more nuclear energy. TEFP scenarios, for example, see nuclear power generation growing by more than 200% in Canada.
Demand for low-emission power is likely to be concentrated in certain types of locations:
- where fossil-fuel-burning power plants reach the end of their lives (notably coal plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and perhaps Nova Scotia) and have to be replaced with something cleaner.
- at energy-intensive industrial sites, particularly oil sands operations, which often burn natural gas in large quantities, and remote mining sites, which generally use diesel fuel for heating, vehicles, and power generation.
- in communities that currently use diesel generators – of which there are hundreds across Canada’s provinces and territories.
Wind and solar won’t do it here. Biofuels are not as useful as they are made out to be, partly because they can’t be scaled up to the extent that would be required (we need land to grow food and other crops), and partly because, on a full life-cycle basis, they’re really not very low-carbon.
Hydropower is wonderful, where dams can be built. It is clean (at least once the dam is constructed), and stations can be run on a schedule that fits demand. But undeveloped hydro sites are limited, and the public and Indigenous acceptance challenges are usually large.
Other renewables have severe limitations. In remote communities there is accumulating experience suggesting that, even when generously subsidised, wind and solar only dent the use of diesel by 20% or so, and then only at the expense of building triple infrastructure (diesel, renewables and storage) in one place to carry the same small load.
Similar conclusions apply to large power grids, due to the variability of wind and solar over time. When their contribution gets above 20-25% of the power supply, grid stability becomes a serious problem – one that is hard to mitigate, even with large-scale storage.
So even with contributions from each of these options, another low-carbon energy source is needed that can be sited close to demand – including urban areas, where a small footprint will be essential, and very remote locations, where the unit should be modular and transportable at the beginning and end of its life.
In many cases in Canada, the source should supply heat (such as piped steam) in addition to electricity, so it can help heat a building complex, smelt metal from ore, cook wood pulp, or melt bitumen out of oil sands.
Nuclear reactors – smaller in size but covering a wider area than today – could deliver low-carbon power to homes, offices and businesses. They could also deliver process heat to industry and heat to buildings, and support clean fuels through battery charging or hydrogen generation for vehicles.
The industry making small nuclear reactors could:
- streamline servicing and refuelling;
- achieve economies of scale in design, construction, and operation (with small, standard units);
- simplify designs and add integral and passive safety systems;
- move the reactor location to meet customer needs;
- locate reactors underground, increasing security;
- supply fleets of many identical modules, with units that need refuelling or servicing swapped out and returned to the factory.
Most nuclear power reactors are built at large scale (600-1400MWe) to achieve economies of scale in power production. But nuclear reactors can be orders of magnitude smaller than this.
Reactors that currently drive marine vessels are much smaller than most power plant reactors. These propulsion reactors have a 60-year record of operating in vessels that spend long periods in remote places. Canadians have designed small or very small reactors for research, electricity generation, and district heating. Demonstration units (Canada’s early NPD and Douglas Point reactors) and research units (currently operating at six Canadian universities and at research institutes around the world) are also small, extremely low-power, very safe, easy to regulate and operate, and easily secured.
So there is plenty of precedent for small modular reactors (SMRs) in Canada.
A pan-Canadian team recently roadmapped the path through a 10-month multi-stakeholder process on SMRs. More than 180 individuals representing 55 organisations across 10 sectors were engaged in workshops and Indigenous engagement sessions. Five expert groups looked at issues related to technology, economics and finance, indigenous and public engagement, waste management and regulatory readiness.
Canada’s SMR Roadmap, released in early November 2018, charts a path in four areas:
- Demonstration and deployment. The government of Canada and provincial governments interested in SMRs would help pay for demonstration projects alongside industry. These governments would share the risk with private investors, as incentive for the first commercial deployment of SMRs in Canada, with the potential of exporting SMR technologies and related innovations.
- Indigenous engagement. Building on the dialogues launched under the Roadmap, the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, together with utilities interested in SMRs, would have meaningful, two-way engagement with indigenous communities about SMRs, well in advance of specific project proposals.
- Legislation, regulation, and policy. The Roadmap includes recommendations on federal impact assessment, nuclear liability, regulatory efficiency and waste management. For example, the Government of Canada is asked to make sure that changes to its federal impact assessment process do not obstruct initiatives to develop and deploy decarbonisation infrastructure like SMRs. Another recommendation is asking key players to make sure future waste streams from SMRs are part of waste plans.
- International partnerships and markets. The federal government, with support from industry, laboratories, and academia, would continue strong and effective international engagement on SMRs, in particular to influence international frameworks.
The CNA, as one of the organisations involved in the Roadmap, has this view:
- SMRs are real and they are happening now. Utilities in Canada have begun to consider SMRs as a low-emissions replacement for fossil-fuelled generation.
- Decisions made in 2018/19 could lead to SMRs supplying power to Canadian electricity grids by around 2030, particularly where coal plants need to be replaced.
- Mines and oil sands operations could be using SMRs for heat and power by 2030 or soon after, if technology decisions were made soon. These reactors would be different in scale and technology from those deployed on public electricity grids.
- Application of SMRs in small, remote communities has great potential to improve energy supply, local air quality, and emissions by replacing diesel fuel. While we too are excited by this opportunity, a strong stakeholder engagement processes (including capacity-building in many cases) is needed to build understanding. Many of these communities are small, so the commercial business case is very constrained. These factors could put these applications on longer time-lines, depending on the extent of policy-level support.
- Canada is one of only a few countries that have built up their investments in the full spectrum of civilian nuclear capabilities from uranium mining to nuclear medicine. There is an opportunity for Canada to lead on SMRs.
In summary, small modular reactors are not another over-hyped or far-away technology – some are based on reactors that have been operating for decades. SMRs are under construction now in at least three countries. In Canada and worldwide, these reactors have the potential to meet real, growing needs. What’s more, SMRs draw on skills that Canadians excel in. Because strategic partnerships are key, Canada’s SMR Roadmap has a plan of action that will engage many players. The CNA will continue reaching out to share information and help the players work together.
Author information: John Stewart is Director of Policy and Research at the Canadian Nuclear Association