First of its kind nuclear project all about creating a new energy solution in Canada

Canada’s hopes of reaching its commitments under the Paris Agreement by 2030, and its more ambitious goal of attaining net-zero emissions by the year 2050 are anticipated to get a boost from small modular reactors like the one pictured above. Shutterstock

CHALK RIVER—Canada’s SMR (small modular reactor) Action Plan provides concrete steps to help achieve its 2030 climate reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, and overall goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 using nuclear energy to get there. A joint venture between USNC-Power and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is well on its way to developing a commercial demonstration project, the first of its kind that will set the stage for future deployment of SMRs, said Ken Darlington, USNC-Power’s vice-president of corporate development.

The project, located at Chalk River, has been ongoing for a number of years and the 50-50 partnership was formed mid-2020. “This is not a pilot plan,” said Mr. Darlington. “It is really the design that is intended to be put into market.” The reactor can generate up to five megawatts (MW) of electricity so it is sized more for the remote and off-grid market such as mining projects and small communities. “Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) has a program to site this SMR at Chalk River and we’re at the third stage of their four-stage process,” he said. “We’re the only company at the stage. All the others are still at stage one.”

The company has signed a project hosting agreement with CNL and Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL) for the whole site of the project and is the only project in Canada right now with an actual site. “We’re also in the second stage of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Association’s (CNSA) safety process on the licencing,” he added. “That is very high level.”

“This project is about taking an idea, putting a lot of work and a lot of money into it and taking this to hardware to prove itself,” said Mark Mitchell, president of USNC-Power. He is responsible for the development of the company’s technology. There are about a dozen families of technologies and about 140 advanced reactor designs, of which a dozen are currently being discussed in Canada.

“The technology we are deploying is not actually that new,” said Mr. Mitchell. “The first nuclear reactor technologies used gas cooling graphite moderated reactors and in fact, this is that type. The technology we are deploying is not actually that new. The first nuclear reactor technologies used gas cooling graphite moderated reactors and in fact this is that type. The specific type is a high temperature gas cooled reactor and the first of those were built in the late 1950s so our philosophy is not to try to use the most advanced technology but to try technology that is to some extent proven, that has a track record that we understand, and deploy in a slightly new way that makes use of its advantages.”

“There are a lot of real advantages to nuclear technology,” he added. “Specifically, the fuel has a high-energy density. It generates power for a long time (there’s very little waste). It’s in the micro reactor size range which is the 5 MW Ken was talking about. Our reactor is specifically designed for Canadian climates. We can put it down for about 20 years. We don’t have to refuel it. We don’t have to replace it.” After 20 years, the reactor can be shut down, cleaned up, decommissioned and taken away. “That’s the kind of idea behind the use of this technology.”

“The fact that there’s reactors of a similar type out there operating gives us something to refer to,” he said. There’s a track record that can be referred to. “There’s no free pass from the regulatory agencies, but at least there’s not a lot of unknown unknowns and that’s going to help us. The good thing is there’s no surprises and there’s people we can call and talk to.”

The Chalk River project is really helping the Canadian regulatory framework to evolve for this new generation of nuclear technology evolve because right now the licencing process is very much predicated on large scale older nuclear technology, said Mr. Darlington. “Part of what we’re doing at Chalk River is really working with CNSC in their preparations to adapt to this type of technology and the fact that we’re looking at multiple deployments in remote areas. It triggers a number of things they need to think about to facilitate projects and that’s one of the goals of Chalk River.”

The CANDU reactors currently in operation in Ontario, across Canada and globally are clearly safe and set the industry standard, Mr. Mitchell said. “They have a really good performance and Canada is one of the leading providers of reactors in the world. What new technologies give you is potentially improved safety but with much, much simpler systems and much less expense, as well as different ways of scaling and different ways of operating. That’s the opportunity in this. CANDU is a great technology but they’re pretty big. There’s a lot of Canada that’s not grid connected that can’t use a thousand megawatts of power so it’s not really a fair apples to apples comparisons to compare safeties. I think our approach and our technologies are all, in USNC’s case, at achieving industry leading safety. That’s with industry leading economics and in a different way.”

One concern that has arisen about SMRs relates to their transportation. “It will be possible to fuel and transport the reactors but just because you can do it, should you do it is always the question, right?” asked Mr. Mitchell. “A reactor that hasn’t been used is essentially just a big pile of steel and materials. It’s not inherently risky. But again, it’s heavy and hard to transport, so we would probably not transport a whole reactor, not even if it’s technically possible. You can be assured of the safety of that.”

In terms of waste, packaging and transporting waste is something that’s technically quite achievable and done every day, he added. “We don’t think we’d change anything in terms of the industry and the trick with these micro reactors is the waste they generate is so small it’s almost vanishing, I’ll put it that way. In terms of numbers, I’ll say the generation of low level waste will be maybe a drum a year. That’s not a lot of waste. Over its lifetime that’s 20 drums. Can you safely store, transport and dispose of this type of material? Yes. Is it easier than larger volumes? Probably, yes.”

Part of planning for safety is mitigating how often you have to transport fuel or transport waste, added Mr. Darlington. “So our reactor design considers 20 years of fuel. Yes, transportation of fuel needs to happen but it’s not something that will happen every three or four years or even yearly so you don’t have an ongoing risk associated with fuel disposal.”

Engagement is part of their first priority at the Chalk River project, Mr. Darlington said. “We see the regulatory side, licencing in Canada as inevitable. The social licence is really where you need to invest that time. At Chalk River it started on day one. There’s multiple First Nations engaged in that process and there’s been various agreements reached with them. Our last community town hall featured 5,000 people. You can’t just walk in somewhere and say here’s a reactor off you go. It does need to start at an early stage and it requires trust and investing in those relations. It’s also about making First Nations and Indigenous peoples part of the process and offering them real opportunity beyond being a beneficiary of the project but potentially having economic benefits as well.”

“We’re not asking people to accept something based on trust,” added Mr. Mitchell. “We’re actively building an SMR in a very controlled environment. The laboratory at Chalk River is an excellent place for things like this. There’s good infrastructure that’s already had nuclear reactors there and a community that understands the technologies. I think that gives you a way of showing people, not just telling them.”

Nuclear energy and SMRs is an enormous opportunity for Canada, Mr. Darlington said. “The energy density of a nuclear energy reactor is phenomenal when you compare it to other types of energy. As an example, one 5 MW microreactor displaces 250 million years of diesel fuel over its 20-year life. That represents 600,000 tonnes of C02 emissions averted. If you look at a mining operation that requires 20 MW and you have four units to meet that need, you’re displacing a billion litres of diesel fuel and you’re displacing the supply risk and potential carbon taxes. There are absolutely climate change advantages to SMRs. With 2030 targets and 2050 targets, the resources industry is positioning to start to make a real change. Timing is very important for us and for them to start showing that reduction in those emissions and it’s tangible.”

The goal is for the reactor to be operational by 2026, which aligns with CNL program to site an SMR by that date, said Mr. Darlington. “We optimistically think it could be sooner but that is the date that is currently scheduled and that we’re working towards for commissioning and start up and operations.”