Darlington Nuclear Plant Will Get a BWRX-300 SMR as GE Hitachi Bags Lucrative OPG Selection

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) will build a GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) at its Darlington Nuclear Station in Clarington, Ontario, marking a major triumph for the nuclear vendor in a stiff competition for the much-watched utility-scale project.

OPG announced the selection of the GE Hitachi BWRX-300 SMR over competitors X-energy and Terrestrial Energy in a live stream on Dec. 2. The utility said it will now work with GE Hitachi on the SMR engineering, design, planning, preparing the licensing and permitting materials, and performing site preparation activities. The companies are targeting a “mutual goal of constructing Canada’s first commercial, grid-scale SMR, projected to be completed as early as 2028.”

Site preparation, which will include “installation of the necessary construction services,” is slated to begin in the spring of 2022, pending appropriate approvals. OPG additionally said it will apply to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) for a License to Construct the SMR by the end of 2022.

A Triumph for the BWRX-300

OPG’s formal selection of GEH on Thursday kicks off GEH’s first official construction project for the BWRX-300, a 300-MW boiling water reactor (BWR) that the Wilmington, N.C.–based firm, a 2007–established alliance between U.S. conglomerate GE and Japanese technology giant Hitachi, launched in 2017.

The BWRX-300 is the 10th evolution of GE’s BWR technology, and GEH says it represents “the simplest, yet most innovative BWR design since GE began developing nuclear reactors in 1955.” On its website, GEH also notes that the design is based on the Gen III+ 1,520-MW ESBWR, which the NRC certified in 2014.

A brief history of GE’s development of BWR nuclear technology. Courtesy: GEH

GEH, whose core business today comprises fuel technology and nuclear services, has told POWER it is fielding interest in the SMR technology across the world. “In addition to Canada, GEH has agreements in place with utilities and companies in the U.S., Poland, Estonia, and the Czech Republic to explore deployment of the technology,” it noted on Thursday. GEH, notably, is also part of a core team, along with TerraPower, that is spearheading the demonstration of a 500-MW Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor plant at PacifiCorp’s Naughton Power Plant site in Wyoming. That project is expected to be operational within the next seven years—by 2028—aligning with the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) schedule, as mandated by Congress.

GEH expressed jubilation at OPG’s selection for the Darlington project on Thursday. “We are thrilled to be selected by OPG as a technology partner,” said Jay Wileman, president and CEO of GEH. “OPG is Ontario’s climate change leader and is positioned to become a world leader in SMRs. Together, this partnership will bring jobs and economic benefits to Durham Region, Ontario and Canada, and potential global export of this technology.”

OPG has conducted repeated public briefings on its planning for a new reactor at the Darlington site, a project it resumed in 2019. The four-unit 3.5-GW Darlington Station, a 2020 POWER Top Plant, currently houses four CANDU units, and OPG is in the midst of a C$12.8 billion project to overhaul all four units and extend their lives to 2055. But Darlington is notably Canada’s only site that holds a preparation license for future new nuclear development, with a completed and accepted Environmental Assessment (EA).

Timing Is Essential

OPG has said timing to complete the SMR project will be essential. Bringing the project online on budget is also a key priority for the public power company, which is a Crown corporation wholly owned by Ontario’s provincial government.

OPG’s indicative schedule assumes that the CNSC may issue a license to build by 2024, and a license to operate by 2027. To make headway on project development, OPG in October 2020 kicked off advanced engineering and design work for that project by choosing three SMR developers: GEH, Terrestrial Energy, and X-energy. 

Earlier this year, OPG said the 2028 operational timeframe for an SMR—a first-of-its-kind deployment—is achievable, given the utility’s recent refurbishment of CANDU units at Darlington. “With one refurbished Darlington unit complete on-time and on-budget, we know we can execute complex projects with safety and quality,” it said.

The provincial utility in May this year emphasized the most important criteria it is considering to pick an SMR design (which will likely have a 60-year lifetime) is safety. “The SMR needs to have world-class safety features built directly into the design,” it said. “Additionally, we’re looking for a design that is low-cost and easier to operate—lowering electricity rates for Ontarians. Finally, we want a technology that we’re confident fits within the parameters of our [environmental assessment] (EA).”

However, the utility has acknowledged challenges: “When the EA was conducted, no technology was selected. Therefore, our environmental impact statement was prepared covering a range of potential reactor technologies available at the time. If we move forward with the construction of [Darlington], we will need to apply to the CNSC for a license to construct a specific technology. During this process, we will need to demonstrate the selected technology would not fundamentally alter the conclusions of the EA,” it said.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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