The nuclear power industry is brimming with technological innovation, particularly when it comes to small reactors that can provide power for several different applications. This is especially true in Canada, where a number of groups are working to develop and deploy small modular reactors (SMRs) and other nuclear technologies that could be safer and more cost-effective for users.
Canada late last year released its Small Modular Reactor Roadmap, with input from several groups, along with industry and indigenous partners, with an action plan outlining the country’s next steps to leverage nuclear energy in the fight against climate change. “The future of nuclear is tied to dealing with climate change, and taking on this massive challenge we have of decarbonizing economies around the world,” said John Gorman, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA), and former president and CEO of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, in an interview with POWER. “I spent two decades working in the renewable energy world, and it’s dawning on people that we don’t have another 20 years to make a serious dent in decarbonizing energy grids. There is really only one solution to complement renewables, and that’s nuclear. Nuclear power is indispensable.”
The POWER Interview: Leader of X-energy Canada discusses company’s technology and its role in the country’s nuclear power program.
Energy majors are making their presence felt. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) in February announced the formation of GEH SMR Technologies Canada Ltd., a company that will support deployment of the group’s BWRX-300 SMR in Canada. GEH officials have said they want to bring a grid-scale SMR to market by 2028.
“GE has been a pioneer in Canada’s commercial nuclear energy industry since the 1950s and was part of a consortium that developed the country’s first nuclear plant, the Nuclear Power Demonstration unit in 1962,” said Jon Ball, executive vice president of Nuclear Products for GEH, in a news release. “With the establishment of our Canadian SMR business we look forward to building on this legacy and bringing the world’s first grid-scale SMR to Canada, positioning Ontario as a hub for SMR technology.”
The BWRX-300 is a 300-MWe water-cooled, natural circulation SMR with passive safety systems that leverages the design and licensing basis of GEH’s ESBWR, or Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor, which already is certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the U.S. GEH has said that through “dramatic and innovative design simplification, GEH projects the BWRX-300 will require significantly less capital cost per MW when compared to other SMR designs.”
1. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ Chalk River site, located in Deep River, Ontario, on the Ottawa River, is home to the Chalk River project, which involves a demonstration of a micro modular reactor. Chalk River is a joint venture between Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. and Ontario Power Generation. Courtesy: CNW Group/Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Much of the work in Canada has focused on the Chalk River project, an installation being developed by Seattle, Washington-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp. (USNC) and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) at Chalk River Laboratories, a site managed by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) in Deep River, Ontario (Figure 1). Chalk River is a joint venture (JV) between USNC and OPG—the JV is known as Global First Power Limited Partnership, and owned equally by OPG and USNC-Power, the Canadian subsidiary of USNC—to build, own, and operate the proposed micro modular reactor (MMR).
2. This rendering of the Chalk River MMR shows the reactor pressure vessel on the left side of the image, with helium circulator to its right. According to Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp.’s website, “The buried reactor core consists of hexagonal graphite blocks containing stacks of Ultra Safe’s FCM [Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated] fuel pellets.” Helium gas is the MMR’s primary coolant; the helium passes through the nuclear core and is heated by the controlled nuclear fission process. The helium then transports the heat away from the core to the molten salt system. Courtesy: Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp.
USNC has designed a 5-MWe (15-MWth) MMR (Figure 2), which is a novel nuclear energy system for multipurpose applications, including electrical generation and process heat. USNC has said the MMR’s high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) design is able to operate for 20 years without refueling. USNC is looking to supply power to remote mines and communities in northern Canada.
“Our company is specifically looking at remote and off-grid installations,” said Ken Darlington, vice president of corporate development with USNC, in an interview with POWER. Darlington said the company wants to provide a “nuclear energy solution” to mining companies, which have often powered their sites with diesel and propane fuel.
“It’s fully aligned with Canada’s SMR Action Plan,” said Darlington. “It will be a springboard for the SMR market, initially here in Canada, and eventually in other countries seeking to reduce their carbon footprint. Everyone wants to know, when can I get one, and how much is it going to cost?”
Darlington said Chalk River is in the third phase of a four-stage process set forth by CNL; the final stage is the SMR project execution. “The project hosting agreement has recently been signed with CNL,” said Darlington. “We’re entering the second stage of vendor design review with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Chalk River is a commercial demonstration, and once it’s approved, that’s the standard design that will lead to more rapid commercial deployments.”
John Chrobak, president and CEO of EACL Consulting Services, which is providing advisory work for USNC, told POWER the Chalk River MMR “uses innovative features that set it apart from other HTGR designs.” Chrobak said the MMR uses USNC’s proprietary Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCM) fuel, which enhances the already very high fission product retention of tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel.
TRISO fuel particles have a layered shell, which can protect the uranium inside from melting under even the most extreme conditions that could occur in a reactor. The use of TRISO fuel allows for the design of reactors with extremely low release of fission products both during normal operation, and in the event of failure. FCM fuel coupled with the intrinsic characteristics of the MMR reactor design allows for an extremely simplified design of the plant while maintaining a robust safety case, according to Chrobak.
The Chalk River MMR plant is designed to use an intermediate heat transfer loop, based on the molten salt technology developed and deployed in concentrating solar plants, to transfer the heat from the reactor to the adjacent plant. Chrobak said this allows the reactor to be decoupled from the client application, and makes the reactor “very good for both generating electricity and process heat.”
He said an MMR plant can generate from 0% to 100% process heat, and 0% to 100% electrical power with the same flexibility as a gas boiler or gas turbine. The MMR, as a small plant, is designed for mass production and modular construction. It is factory sealed, delivered, and retrieved after complete fuel depletion, resulting in a highly proliferation-resistant design.
Chrobak said the Chalk River project will serve as a blueprint for future USNC SMR projects; he said the SMR unit could produce first power at Chalk River in late 2024 or early 2025, well ahead of the scheduled completion date of 2026. Chrobak noted the reactor’s molten salt loop process also can enable production of hydrogen. “Right now, the cheapest way to produce hydrogen is with natural gas,” Chrobak said, but “the thermo-chemical process can produce hydrogen at a much-higher efficiency, and the MMR delivers heat at an ideal temperature for that process.”
SMR technology has received support from Canadian energy providers including OPG, Bruce Power, NB Power, and SaskPower, along with several other energy companies including Quebec Hydro, First Nations Power Authority, and Suncor Energy. Mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Newmont also are looking at SMR and MMR technology.
Chrobak noted companies are cognizant of Canada’s goal to meet a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and the country’s goal of zero emissions from the energy sector by 2050. Gorman agreed, telling POWER: “I think that small modular reactors have a very important role to play in decarbonizing industry and also extraction processes. These small nuclear reactors can provide heat and power and hydrogen. In Canada they’ll be put into the oil sands to power field operations. Small modular reactors are really important to reach into these really difficult-to-decarbonize areas. We have this mounting climate anxiety, and the feeling [that] we’re not making progress quickly enough, and small modular reactors have created renewed interest in nuclear technology. It’s allowed all types of people, including policymakers, to take a new look at nuclear power.”
Gorman’s group has said nuclear is a win-win scenario, with the technology providing both environmental and economic benefits in a clean energy mix. “I also recognize that it’s just another tool in a toolkit of things that we need. One of the important things about SMRs, they appealed to me in the first place because they can act as a partner to renewables,” said Gorman. “We haven’t made progress because we keep building coal and gas plants to fit with renewables.”
Gorman said Chalk River has “a really important role to play. We’ve got massive investments going into those national laboratories, these sites where they can pilot parts or all of these SMR technologies. We need to down-select and focus on a handful of technologies that can really suit the niche opportunities that we have here, focus on the particular technologies for the industries we want to decarbonize. These demonstration projects can be useful by addressing some of the questions or concerns people have about the technology themselves. We can use these small modular reactors to clear up misunderstandings about nuclear.” He specifically noted Canada’s rural areas, looking for a way to use a cleaner alternative to diesel fuel to power their regions.
“We have a lot of northern communities, a lot of indigenous communities that are off-grid, [with a] precarious supply of vital heat and electricity,” Gorman said. “They take delivery of diesel at great expense, with a lot of emissions and pollution. We’ve got some very small modular reactors, and they are ideally suited to supply power to these northern communities. But it takes a lot of care and understanding for these communities to embrace this. They’re beginning to understand this, but it’s going to take a longer cycle for them, because it’s new. There’s not a single community that’s going to be forced to take on this new technology, it’s going to have to be something they embrace.”
Gorman said the culture of Canada’s diverse regions and populations also must be addressed. “What we’re seeing with the indigenous communities, [this technology is] going to be very applicable to some regions, not of interest to other regions. Four of 10 provinces have signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] around SMRs for decarbonization. Then we have the provinces who have 100% hydropower, and they have expressed no interest in developing nuclear.”
Gorman said his previous experience in the solar sector has served him well as he oversees the country’s nuclear power industry. “It drives me to distraction, thinking about the detractors of small modular reactors, what they’re saying in the Canadian context,” Gorman said. “They say we have all the answers with wind and solar… 10 years ago, people were detractors to solar, they were calling it an expensive science investment, it took a lot of perseverance by the international community so we could produce it in scale and bring down the cost. We’re going to see SMRs in the Canadian market as soon as 2026. OPG has said they will connect to the grid in 2028. That’s like the blink of an eye. We desperately need to ensure we’re investing in these technologies, developing the technology, and deploying it at scale to get those cost efficiencies.”
—Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).