SaskPower Picks SMR Technology for First Two Potential Nuclear Units

SaskPower has chosen GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s (GEH’s) BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) technology for Saskatchewan’s first two nuclear units, which the provincial utility plans to deploy by the mid-2030s.

The announcement on June 27 wraps up a four-year process to evaluate specific SMR designs and furthers planning for SaskPower, a Crown corporation, which has explored building as many as four new nuclear units.

The technology selection assessment focused on several key factors, including “safety, technology readiness, generation size, fuel type and expected cost of electricity,” SaskPower said on Monday. GEH’s BWRX-300, a 300-MW boiling-water reactor, won the selection in the contest with X-energy’s Xe-100, and Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR).

The selection “follows an independent and comprehensive assessment process that also included close collaboration with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and a review by Calian, an independent engineering firm with extensive experience in Canada’s nuclear industry,” SaskPower added.

Following OPG’s Lead

OPG, notably, in December 2021 picked the BWRX-300 for its first SMR deployment at the Darlington Nuclear Facility in Ontario, which could be completed as early as 2028. The Ontario Crown corporation is now poised to submit a construction license application later this year, potentially blazing a regulatory pathway for Canada’s first SMRs.

While Ontario already has 15 nuclear units in operation (and three units under refurbishment) at three sites, the Darlington SMR is slated to be the province’s first new reactor since 1993. If built, the two proposed SMRs will be SaskPower’s first commercial nuclear projects.

Saskatchewan, for its part, has emphasized multiple benefits stemming from the new industry, including a possible increase in demand for uranium produced in the province, which is a leading global uranium producer. The SaskPower project will leverage Saskatchewan-produced uranium and link it to Ontario’s lead, nuclear knowledge, and expertise, Ontario’s government noted on Monday.

For SaskPower, future reliability is a key driver, however. A July 2021–released annual report suggests new SMRs could provide more lift to the utility’s efforts to achieve a 50% reduction in GHG emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and a potential goal of net zero by 2050. The transition, it notes, will require shuttering three coal-fired power plants. Coal generation made up an estimated 31% of its total generating capacity of 5 GW in 2021. The province lacks the resources and geography for widespread hydropower. Though it has good conditions for wind and solar generation, it requires cost-effective long-term and low-carbon baseload power options, it has said.

“This is an important milestone as Saskatchewan works towards a cleaner, more sustainable future,” Don Morgan, Saskatchewan Minister of Crown Investments Corporation (which is responsible for SaskPower), said on Monday. SaskPower’s selection of a technology vendor for its nuclear ambitions “further acts on the Saskatchewan Growth Plan goal of advancing potential development of zero-emission small modular reactor technology,” he said.

Read more about why Saskatchewan considers new nuclear an integral part of its strategy in POWER’s May 2022 feature here: Headway for Potential Deployment of BWRX-300 Nuclear Reactor in Saskatchewan

SaskPower Expected to Identify Suitable Sites This Year

SaskPower’s next steps now involve making a site selection by mid-2024. “SaskPower is currently conducting a detailed technical evaluation of potential regions that could host an SMR, and is expected to identify these suitable regions this year,” the company said on Monday.

Siting criteria include access “to an adequate body of water for cooling,” proximity to existing power infrastructure and demand centers, as well as closeness to an existing workforce and emergency services, the company said. Site suitability will also include identifying “potentially environmentally sensitive lands and habitat” and land use, it said.

After SaskPower issues a shortlist of potential sites, it expects to engage in “meaningful” conversations around nuclear power with indigenous rights holders, stakeholders, and the public. The utility last year kicked off engagement and information sessions with indigenous peoples and First Nations communities across the province.

However, SaskPower will not make a final decision to build an SMR until 2029—until after it has completed “complex” project development, and licensing and regulatory work. The utility’s timeline sets out an eight-year planning phase that will involve garnering environmental, social, economic, and indigenous impact assessments, which are required by federal and provincial regulators.

SaskPower’s planning timeline for potential deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) in Saskatchewan by the mid-2030s. Courtesy: SaskPower

SaskPower’s Regulatory Pathway

SaskPower must also secure three different licenses from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC): a license to prepare the site, a license to construct an SMR, and a license to operate an SMR. “Because Saskatchewan is a greenfield jurisdiction, there’s a very lengthy regulatory process to build and operate the facility,” Scott McGregor, SaskPower spokesperson, told POWER on Monday. “But in terms of helping streamline that regulatory process, selecting the technology was a good play for us,” he said.

GEH’s BWRX-300 is still undergoing Phase 2 of the CNSC’s pre-licensing Vendor Design Review (VDR) process. GEH in a statement, however, noted that the BWRX-300 “leverages a unique combination of a new, patented safety breakthrough, proven components, the licensing basis of the U.S. [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] NRC-certified ESBWR and the existing, licensed GNF2 fuel design.”

“There is the potential for great synergy between the work we plan to do with SaskPower and the ongoing work with [OPG],” said GEH President and CEO Jay Wileman Monday. “OPG is expected to submit a construction license application this year, a major step toward the deployment of the first BWRX-300. Decades of design and licensing experience coupled with our proven and existing fuel supply chain make BWRX-300 the leading SMR solution,” he said.

The BWRX-300 is a 300 MWe water-cooled, natural circulation small modular reactor (SMR) with passive safety systems. As the tenth evolution of the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR), the BWRX-300 represents the simplest BWR design since GE began developing nuclear reactors in 1955. The design of the BWRX-300 is based on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission–licensed 1,520-MWe Economic Simplified BWR. GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy says the BWRX-300 is designed “to provide clean, flexible baseload electricity generation.” Courtesy: GEH

BWRX-300 Selection Aligned With Larger Inter-Provincial Vision

SaskPower’s BWRX-300’s selection plays into a larger vision laid out by four Canadian provinces—Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Alberta—in  a joint strategic plan in March. The plan identified three “streams” to kick-start SMR development. “Stream 1” includes the initial grid-scale 300-MW BWRX-300 at OPG’s Darlington site in Ontario by 2028, as well as up to four “subsequent” units in Saskatchewan, with a first project potentially coming online in 2034.

Saskatchewan’s plans under “Stream 1” notably suggested SaskPower could make a technology vendor selection in alignment with “OPG’s SMR vendor selection and advance with licensing and impact assessment work based on the deployment of the same SMR technology in Saskatchewan.”

For now, SaskPower plans to put the first of the two planned BWRX-300 reactors online by 2034. “Obviously, there could be changes to that timeline—it’s pretty far out,” McGregor said. Beyond the initial two reactors, SaskPower’s business case continues to support a potential deployment of two other reactors, he confirmed. SaskPower has evaluated the technical feasibility of adding 1.2 GW of new nuclear by 2042.

As envisioned under “Stream 1,” at least two of the first SMRs will be located at one site to reduce long-term licensing costs, though SaskPower also plans to take regulatory criteria and community input into account during the site selection process. In addition, SaskPower plans to follow progress gleaned from Ontario’s first-of-a-kind SMR to help mitigate risks for SaskPower’s projects. “This approach lowers risk for regulatory, construction and operating costs and helps maintain the project schedule,” SaskPower has said.

Growing a Supply Chain

In tandem, the provinces are working to efficiently build out a supply chain that will support Canada’s burgeoning SMR industry. GEH on Monday noted that it signed a collaborative agreement with uranium giant Cameco Corp. in July 2021 “to explore areas of cooperation to advance the commercialization of the BWRX-300.”

This May, meanwhile, GEH’s Canadian subsidiary GEH SMR Technologies Canada and the Saskatchewan Industrial and Mining Supplier’s Association (SIMSA) signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on the potential deployment of the BWRX-300 in Saskatchewan. Support from SIMSA— a nonprofit representing 300 members from the Canadian province’s manufacturing, construction, engineering, mining, and energy sectors—marks a pivotal boost from local suppliers that could “maximize the role of the Saskatchewan supply chain in the nuclear energy industry,” GEH said.

“Today’s announcement is a reflection of the growing momentum of the nuclear industry in Canada,” said John Gorman, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association. “Saskatchewan has a clear vision for a clean energy future, with nuclear power playing a central role in ensuring energy security while enabling a sustainable and affordable low-carbon energy transition.”

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

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