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Canada thinks big about small

By John Stewart, Director of Policy and Research, Canadian Nuclear Association
Originally published in Nuclear Engineering International, December 2018

Canadians are thinking about how to dramatically reduce greenhouse emissions from a modern economy like Canada’s, 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 many energy applications – lawn mowers, boat motors, building heat, and other fossil fuel burners – to electricity. Then, you generate electricity for that while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

In this article, we’ll see that generating electricity in a reliable and economical way, without setbacks in incomes and living standards (and therefore lifespans), requires much more nuclear energy. TEFP scenarios, for example, see nuclear power generation growing by more than 200% in Canada.

Where in Canada do we need to build all this electrical generating capacity?

The answer is, pretty well everywhere. Particularly as long as power transmission lines remain as unpopular and as hard to build as they are today, generation will have to be physically close to the demand, and power demand will grow just about everywhere.

That being said, growth in demand for low-emissions power looks 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 need replacing 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); and
  • in communities that currently use diesel-fuel-burning generators – of which there are hundreds across Canada’s provinces and territories.

No, wind and solar won’t do it here.

So what clean energy source can help meet this demand?

Biofuels aren’t the option they’re 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.

Hydro power is wonderful, where dams can be built. It’s clean (at least once the dam is constructed), and stations can be run on a schedule that fits demand. But only so many places have undeveloped hydro sites, and the public and Indigenous acceptance challenges are usually large.

Other renewables have severe limitations. In remote communities, for example, accumulating experience is suggesting that, even when generously subsidized, 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 larger power grids, due to the variability of wind and solar over time. When their contribution gets above something like 20-25% of the power supply, grid stability becomes a serious problem – one that’s hard to mitigate, even with large-scale storage.

So, even with contributions from each of these options, there’s a large need for another low-carbon energy source that can be sited close to demand. That includes urban areas, where a small land footprint will be essential, and also very remote locations, where the unit should be modular, transportable when new, and re-locatable later.

And in many cases, particularly 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 – on a much smaller scale 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 the nuclear reactors could:

  • streamlinethe servicing and refuelling;
  • achieve economies of scale in design, construction, and operation (the reactors may be smaller, but could be more standardized);
  • simplify designs and add many inherent safety systems;
  • ideally, move the reactor location if customer needs require it;
  • locate reactors underground, increasing security; and
  • supply fleets of many identical modules, with units that need refuelling or servicing being swapped out and returned to the factory.

Most nuclear power reactors are built to a certain scale (600-1400 megawatts of electricity, or MWe) mainly 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 (submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers) are much smaller than most power plant reactors.

These propulsion reactors have a 60-year record of operating in hundreds of moving 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.

There’s plenty of precedent for small modular reactors (SMRs) in Canada.

How close is the vision of widespread, commercial SMR deployment in Canada, and what does the path forward look like?

A pan-Canadian team recently roadmapped the path through a 10-month multi-stakeholder process. More than 180 individuals representing 55 organizations across 10 sectors and sub-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 forward across four thematic areas:

  • Demonstration and deployment – The Government of Canada and provincial governments interested in SMRs would help pay for demonstration projects with 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 developed in Canada to international markets.
  • Indigenous engagement – Building on the helpful 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 don’t get in the way of initiatives to develop and deploy infrastructure like SMRs that can help deep de- 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

What’s the SMR Roadmap’s vision?

SMRs are a source of safe, clean, affordable energy – opening opportunities for a resilient, low-carbon future and capturing benefits for Canada and Canadians.

What’s the CNA’s take on all this?

The CNA, as just one of the organizations 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 electricity 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 around the same time (2030) or soon thereafter, 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 the burning of diesel fuel – potential that has attracted attention from Canadian governments and others. While we too are excited by this opportunity, strong stakeholder engagement processes (including capacity-building in many cases) are needed to build understanding. Also, 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 fuel design, to manufacturing, to power generation, to life sciences and nuclear medicine, and to world-class excellence in regulation and governance. These strategic assets matter.There is an opportunity for Canada to lead the world on SMRs.

In summary, small modular reactors aren’t 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.

More on the SMR Roadmap can be found through www.cna.ca or www.smrroadmap.ca.