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Nuclear industry eyes more federal support of ‘small modular reactors,’ as advocates push for Ottawa to hit pause

By Jolson Lim
Originally published in The Hill Times, December 3, 2018

The Canadian nuclear industry is looking for more federal government involvement in supporting the development of a new generation of reactors, after Natural Resources Canada put out a “roadmap” report earlier this month, spelling out steps different players in the sector could take.

The small modular reactor (SMR) roadmap was published on Nov. 7, and was co-developed between different public and private sector stakeholders. It recommends that federal, provincial, and territorial governments, along with utilities, industry, and the federally-funded national laboratory support demonstration of the use of SMR technology.

It also proposed: financial risk-sharing between the different players to support early deployment; the modernization of legislative and regulatory requirements to make development economically viable and timely; the development of a “robust knowledge base” for SMR technology; and for commitment to proactively engage with Indigenous communities.

SMRs are typically defined as nuclear reactors generating less than 300 megawatts of energy, and proponents see it as a promising source as the world struggles to fight climate change.

In Canada, backers see SMRs as a way to phase out diesel power for remote and Northern communities. However, to make it economically feasible within a small window of time for it to become a tool in reducing emissions, it would require demonstration soon, and eventually would require a fleet of reactors so manufacturers could benefit from more efficient and financially stable production.

But there is strong opposition to new nuclear energy development based on both environmental and safety concerns.

Nevertheless, any future development would likely have to involve government funding to support demonstration, on top of a regulatory review and placing a stronger emphasis on such technology in climate change plans.

“What would be so important now is for the government to show its policy support,” said John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA). “But that kind of holistic policy statement is not available yet.”

Mr. Barrett’s association submitted a letter addressed to Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) following the release of his fall economic update in November.

The letter calls for the extension of clean technology and clean infrastructure funding and support programs, such as the ability to expense of 100 per cent of capital investments and loan guarantees, to nuclear technology in the next budget.

It also asks the federal government to recognize nuclear as part of Canada’s suite of clean energy technologies and to create a funding mechanism for applied research and development of the next generation of reactors.

“Such measures would go a long way in creating the supportive business innovation climate needed in Canada today to encourage clean technology developers and start-ups in the nuclear sector,” it reads. “Only with a significant scale-up of such sources can Canada meet its Paris climate targets.”

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is currently partnering with small-reactor proponents to get a prototype built at one of its sites by 2026 for future demonstration. The company wants to prove the commercial viability of such reactors, and position Canada as a global hub for testing and development.

The company is aiming for it to occur at its Chalk River research facility, which sits about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. CNL manages and operates the two research laboratories in Canada for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the crown corporation that owns such facilities.

Interest in SMRs is particularly strong in New Brunswick, where the local utility, NB Power, has partnered with an American firm to develop a small reactor in the province.

Mr. Barrett said Canada is in a commanding place with the development of SMRs, given its good regulatory and research environment and interest from different players. Globally, it makes the country an attractive place for development.

However, he said more federal focus is needed on nuclear energy.

“Nuclear is one of the tools that is sitting in the box and government hasn’t really pulled it out and taken a good look at what it can do,” said Mr. Barrett, adding it has a lot of export potential as well.

Concerns with SMRs

There are concerns that nuclear’s advantage as a low-carbon energy source is offset by serious safety and other environmental concerns.

Ole Hendrickson, a researcher for the advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area—where the Chalk River facility is located—said proponents of nuclear energy ignore other emissions, including various noble gases, iodine, and radioactive waste that has to be expensively and carefully managed. Such waste remains dangerous long after its use, and disposal remains a major concern and question.

“We don’t see small modular reactors as any different,” he said.

Earlier this month, the group appeared on Parliament Hill alongside Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) to voice their concern over SMRs ahead of the release of the roadmap report.

Lynn Jones, a member of the citizens’ group, also questioned whether federal government funding is worth it, given there are concerns about its economic viability that has recently seen nuclear power struggle to grow globally.

“They can’t possibly succeed without significant government subsidies, the private sector has backed away from them all over the world,” she said. “They’ve come to Canada to try and get the government to subsidize them.”

Her group recently submitted two petitions to the Auditor General of Canada, with the first voicing concerns that any investment in future nuclear power would tie-up funds that would otherwise go to other proven renewables that could more quickly and effectively reduce carbon emissions. The second petition asks federal ministers to provide a justification for considering nuclear power to be a form of clean energy.

“It would take way too long to develop SMRs, apart from the fact there’s lots of other concerns about them,” she said.

The road ahead

John Stewart, director of policy and research at the CNA—speaking as the project manager of the SMR roadmap—said the report makes recommendations to a wide range of players, including governments, waste management organizations, industry, researchers, and the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

He said the “logical next step” is for one facilitating player to survey all those players to see what commitments they’re willing to make to further SMRs development.

“You need someone to do all that and elicit offers from the different players, get them to make specific commitments and eventually translate that into sort of national action plan,” he said.

He said he was pleased to see Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) attend the roadmap launch last month, despite not seeing a “lot in the way of signals” for nuclear power from the federal Liberal government.

Mr. Stewart said if the federal government offers a strong signal that SMRs can be a serious energy source, other players will follow up with tangible commitments.

“That would be a positive signal for other players to step up,” he said.

Nuclear energy accounts for almost 15 per cent of all electricity generated in Canada, particularly from two massive power plants in Ontario providing power to the Toronto region.

Mr. Stewart said nuclear power’s outlook has improved, but attitudes toward the severity of climate change haven’t matured fast enough that would see countries move quickly on SMRs.

“It looks better than it has in the past. Good would be going too far,” he said.

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Hill Times ads promote the benefits of nuclear in Canada

Ad #1 published in the “Energy” brief on August 13, 2018.

Ad #2 published in the “Innovation” brief on October 1, 2018.

Ad #3 published in the “Energy” brief on December 3, 2018.

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Small Nuclear Reactors to Power Canada’s Low-Carbon Future

By John Barrett, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association
Originally published in the Hill Times, August 13, 2018

Canada has a lot going for it as it seeks to establish itself as a leader in the nuclear energy space. It has world-class research and development capability, including the renowned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and other industry-run, specialized labs, writes the CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Imagine a Canada with a clean, affordable and diversified energy system that is a world leader in deep decarbonization and GHG emissions reduction. Imagine, too, an end to energy poverty in many small and remote Canadian communities that now struggle on diesel fuel.

Imagine a promising, innovative and cutting-edge technology that opens doors to economic competitiveness and puts Canada at the forefront of international supply markets hungry for clean energy solutions.

That imagined future is on the verge of becoming tomorrow’s reality. That is, if we seize the opportunity before us.

The opportunity lies in SMRs – small modular reactors.

SMRs are smaller, simpler and more portable than conventional nuclear power reactors. Many designs utilize advanced technologies to ensure intrinsic and inherent (passive) safety. Should they overheat, they automatically shut down without any human involvement or active cooling systems. Being self-contained, their environmental footprint and impact is next to nil.

These micro-energy systems will be made and fueled at the factory, transported to location, operated safely and affordably for the next five-to-ten years, then returned and replaced by another unit. Most importantly, they provide substantial quantities of clean electricity and heat on a 24/7 basis, independent of changes in wind, water or sunshine, and are designed to operate in harmony with renewable energy and storage technologies.

Canada is seen internationally as leading the way on SMRs. There are several reasons why.

First, nuclear is already a big part of Canada’s low-carbon energy supply, producing 20% of our country’s clean electricity. Nuclear power allowed Ontario to shut down its coal-fired generation for good; it supplies daily around 60% of Ontario’s electricity needs and over one-third of New Brunswick’s. That’s a fact, not an aspiration.

Second, there are distinct areas of the Canadian economy where SMRs are a natural fit. For example, SMRs can be added to existing grids, especially in jurisdictions aiming to reduce use of fossil fuels for power generation; they can be added in increments for the greater electrification needed to transition to a low-carbon economy. In addition, SMRs can be used off-grid in mining and oilsands production, providing large quantities of clean power for mine sites and bitumen extraction processes – thereby reducing GHG emissions significantly. And very small SMRs – essentially large batteries – can power remote settlements that today have no clean, reliable alternatives to diesel fuel.

Third, parliamentarians are recognizing that SMRs offer an opportunity too important to ignore. An all-party study by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources in June 2017 recommended that work be undertaken to examine and promote the beneficial contribution and impact that SMR development promises for Canada.

Fourth, in response to the Committee’s report, key public and private stakeholders have launched the SMR Roadmap Project – a series of policy discussions and workshops with Indigenous people, utilities, provincial representatives, major potential users in the resource extraction and industrial sectors, as well as communities in northern Canada. These consultations are exploring the human and environmental needs that SMRs can fulfill and mapping out the steps needed for SMRs to advance from development, to licensing, to deployment.

Fifth, Canada has an internationally recognized brand in nuclear. We have world-class research and development capability, including the renowned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and other industry-run specialized labs. We have utilities and operators recognized internationally for their expertise and established record of safe reactor operations. We have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, one of the world’s foremost nuclear regulators, to ensure that SMRs must demonstrate the highest safety standards before a license to operate is issued.

Sixth, the potential for exports of Canadian-made and Canadian-licensed SMRs to international markets is enormous, with considerable job creation and supply chain impact. There is a real appetite for clean energy in many parts of the world: SMRs are a solution to those human needs, which connect directly to better health and longer lives.

If these reasons aren’t compelling enough, then consider: nuclear technology contributes to nine of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. With CANDU reactors, SMRs and our uranium fuel, Canada can help the world to de-carbonize, bringing our energy and environmental leadership together to provide real benefit to an energy-hungry humanity.

Dr. John Barrett is President & CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association and served as Canada’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

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Hill Times Ad Shows Nuclear is Clean Energy

Here is the half-page ad that appeared in the August 11 edition of The Hill Times. It is the last a series of three ads that were selected to run during  the paper’s policy briefing on Canada’s energy sector. 

Hill Times Ad - Renewables

Have a look at the first and second ads! 

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Hill Times Ad Targets the Oil Sands

This is the half-page ad that appeared in the July 28 edition of The Hill Times. It is the second in a series of three ads that were selected to run during  the paper’s policy briefing on Canada’s energy sector.

Hill Times Ad - Oil Sands

Check out the first ad here!

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Hill Times Ad Speaks to Parliamentarians

Check out the half-page ad that appeared in the July 14 edition of The Hill Times! It is the first in a series of three ads that were selected to run during the paper’s policy briefing on Canada’s energy sector.

Hill Times Ad - Parliament Hill