Canadian Small Modular Reactors

As countries race against the clock to find ways to become carbon neutral by 2050, all possible solutions are on the table. One piece of the puzzle is the development of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors which are described in Canada as the “next wave of innovation in nuclear energy technology.” SMRs can help Canada meet its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

In Canada these SMRs can have many roles. They can replace larger nuclear reactors as they are decommissioned (since they are modular, and can be combined), can replace coal plants, can provide energy and heat to remote Indigenous communities, can be used to desalinate water, can play a role in the production of hydrogen, and in industry can provide energy for projects that rely on diesel such as heat for oil sands production. The technology is still in the early phases in Canada. 

“SMRs are basically smaller-than-usual nuclear reactors that are sometimes considered safer due to their size. They generate less than 300 megawatts of electricity (MWe) per reactor, and can be small enough to fit in a gymnasium, so they can operate in areas where less power is required. An SMR could even provide power to off-grid locations where power needs are only between two and 30 MWe. Canada’s current nuclear reactors supply between 515 and 881 MWe. SMRs are called “modular” because they can operate individually, or collectively as part of a larger nuclear complex. Multiple SMRs can be set up at a single nuclear plant to supply a similar level of power as larger generators, which means a nuclear power plant could be expanded gradually, as demand increases.”

“SMRs are intended to be constructed in part or in whole in a factory and then shipped to the site. This could allow for cheaper construction and shorter construction times, according to the World Nuclear Association. Many of them are also designed to reside underground, making them less susceptible to natural disasters or terrorist attacks. They are also inherently safer, according to the World Nuclear Association, thanks to their higher surface area to volume ratio, when compared to larger reactors. Basically, they don’t get as hot, so there is less need to manufacture a heat-removal system and other advanced safety features. They also require a smaller emergency planning zone.”

There are two main concerns about these SMRs. First is cost, as it is yet to be determined if they will be cost effective.  Secondly, as with reactors of any size, nuclear waste can remain radioactive for as long as 100,000 years.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that there are around 50 SMR designs at different stages of development around the world, with Argentina, China and Russia ahead of other countries.”

“The provinces hope that the technology can be developed and built within seven years. The Canadian Nuclear Safety commission is reviewing the designs of about a dozen companies, as part of the pre-licensing process, but none are actually close to being able to build an SMR. Still, the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap published by the federal government last year predicted that the country’s nuclear industry is poised to capture a significant share of the emerging global market by 2040.”

In December 2020 Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan unveiled the federal government’s action plan for the development of small modular nuclear reactors that he said have the potential to produce enough reliable electricity to help Canada achieve its transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Nuclear power is essential to meeting Canada’s climate-change goals, and developing portable mini nuclear reactors is a key part of that strategy”, the federal energy minister said on Friday. In announcing an “action plan” for developing small modular reactors, Seamus O’Regan said  “I believe in the development of this technology. You’ve got to lay the groundwork for that now.”  First steps in the plan is developing prototypes and demonstration models. O’Regan insisted Canada, as a leader in nuclear technology, can’t afford to ignore the potential benefits of the new reactors. 

Proponents, such as the Provinces of Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, see SMRs as potentially part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. As well, the federal government estimates the global market for SMRs will be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040 but critics question the validity of the estimate as they wonder who exactly might want one. 

Dozens of groups, including opposition parties, some Indigenous organizations and environmentalists, want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency rather than in the new reactors. They argue nuclear energy costs far too much money and is far from clean given the growing mound of radioactive waste it generates.

The more Lucy reads about the best strategies in the race against time to reach carbon neutrality in the world, the more she recognizes that there is a need to use all of the available strategies together, including less ideal ones such as nuclear energy. She never in a million years thought she would support nuclear energy!

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