The POWER Interview: How a Canadian Small Reactor Will Support Industrial Decarbonization

The nuclear power industry is banking on development of small modular reactor (SMR) technology to support global growth. Canada is at the forefront of the SMR market, with at least four Canadian provinces involved in a joint strategic plan to advance the deployment of SMRs.

ARC Clean Technology Canada recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Alberta’s Invest Alberta Corp., an agreement in which Invest Alberta will support commercialization of the ARC group’s ARC-100 technology—what ARC calls an advanced SMR, or aSMR. Alberta, along with the provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick, is taking steps with ARC to help develop a fleet of ARC-100 reactors. The MOU allows ARC to start expanding operations in Alberta, with Invest Alberta supporting interactions and partnerships with industry and other stakeholders in the province.

ARC is developing manufacturing, supply chains, and other services to support construction and eventual operation of a several ARC-100 units. The ARC-100 is a 100 MWe sodium-cooled fast reactor based on technology developed for the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II reactor, which has been operating at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois the past three decades. ARC recently said an operational ARC-100 unit will be deployed in New Brunswick, at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, by 2029.

Bill Labbe

William “Bill” Labbe, president and CEO of ARC Clean Technology Canada, talked with POWER about his company’s technology, and its importance in helping provide energy for industry while also helping the sector meet net-zero objectives.

POWER: ARC is developing the ARC-100, an advanced small modular reactor (aSMR).  Can you tell us a little about this technology? What differentiates ARC from the growing roster of SMR competitors?

Labbe:  Absolutely. I have been in and around power plants for my entire career and this is truly exciting technology.

The ARC-100 is an advanced small modular reactor (aSMR) with a very simple design and small footprint, approximately 10 acres. It is a sodium-cooled fast reactor (SFR) which uses liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. This allows the coolant to operate at higher temperatures and lower pressures than current traditional reactors which improves the efficiency of the system.  Our technology is an advanced reactor and meets the goals for Generation IV nuclear technology: improved safety, sustainability, efficiency, and cost.

What differentiates ARC is the speed at which we can be ready for market. Our technology is further advanced than other aSMR technologies that are still in the R&D (research and development) phase. The ARC-100 leverages 30 years of performance from its prototype, a sodium-cooled fast reactor that operated successfully from 1963—1994 as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s advanced reactor program. This experience is a significant advantage for our technology—particularly related to safety, simplicity, and fuel technology.

POWER: Can you help us understand the scope of the opportunity for nuclear energy around the world in our race to reach net-zero globally by 2050?

Labbe: It is a staggering transition that we have to go through to get to net-zero globally by 2050. That’s only 27 years away. Carbon dioxide (CO2)-emitting fossil fuels currently provide 85% of the world’s energy needs—and our global energy needs are projected to triple by 2050. If we truly want the children born today to inherit a healthier planet, we need to collectively pick up the pace.

This is a rendering of the ARC-100 advanced small modular reactor (aSMR) facility. An aSMR could be deployed at a site in Canada by the end of this decade. Source: ARC Clean Technology

We need to rapidly deploy all available clean energy solutions to meet net-zero by 2050. This includes expansion of hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear. Hydro is not an option everywhere. Wind and solar are renewable, but intermittent energy sources. The abundant and reliable power that advanced nuclear provides is a critical part of the clean energy mix needed to enable more renewables and to provide everyone with access to clean, carbon-free energy.

POWER: What is the net-zero challenge facing heavy industry?

Labbe: When we think of reducing our emissions and getting to net-zero, people are often focused on cleaning up the electrical grid. That is important, and must happen, but perhaps people are not as aware of the net-zero challenge facing heavy industry. Many industrial processes in the world depend on high-temperature steam. Currently, the energy to produce this steam is supplied by burning fossil fuels. Here in Canada, heavy industries like oil, mining, steel, and cement production release even more greenhouse gases than the grid. And, the demand for industrial heat is projected to increase more than 3.5 times by 2050. So, heavy industry has huge energy demands that need to be filled by clean energy solutions. Advanced small modular reactor (aSMR) technology, like the ARC-100, is vital to the path to net zero for this sector.

Want more insight into Canada’s push to support small modular reactor technology? Read about the status of the BWRX-300 SMR design.

POWER: What are the industrial applications that advanced small modular reactors can address?

Labbe: We’ve identified several industrial processes that can leverage the ARC-100. Over recent months, our team has been crossing the globe responding to strong interest from business, government, and regulators. Our reactor is versatile and scalable, and can support many industrial sectors.

For example, it can create clean fuels such as synthetic diesel, ammonia/hydrogen needed to make steel and cement, and power transportation. It can create clean process heat for heavy industry to replace heat generated by fossil fuels. It can provide the process heat and a distributed energy source to power paper mills and refineries. Our reactor is also ideally suited for the mining process and chemical manufacturing. This is a huge market opportunity for our technology.

POWER: Why is your advanced small modular reactor technology, the ARC-100,  particularly well-suited to industrial applications?

Labbe: Because the ARC-100 is a pool-type reactor, it is able to operate at low pressure, ensuring safe operations while efficiently producing an exceptional amount of heat in the form of steam.

Our technology also has a compact footprint—roughly the size of a city block. Its modular components make it ideal to bolt onto an industrial site, some of which are in remote locations.

The ARC-100 has a 20-year refueling cycle, and the ability to recycle fuel. This means limited waste, more reliable operations, and reduced maintenance costs for industrial applications. It is a powerful value proposition for industry.

POWER: You have just announced the first industrial application site of a small modular reactor project in North America. Tell us more about this project.

Labbe: Yes, this is a great opportunity for our company and for the Port of Belledune.

The Port of Belledune is 1,600 acres of industrial-zoned land located in northern New Brunswick and situated on the Atlantic Ocean. In 2021, ARC formed a partnership with Cross River Infrastructure Partners to develop industrial projects using ARC-100 technology. At the same time, the Port of Belledune had been developing a strategy to transform its operations into a “green energy hub” where the group will develop green energy projects and low-carbon industries.

In 2022, the Port of Belledune and Cross River Infrastructure Partners announced that they will pursue the use of our technology to supply energy for hydrogen production and other industries located at the port. These could include metal fabrication and advanced manufacturing. We are currently undertaking feasibility studies with the goal of deploying our second ARC-100 unit at the Port of Belledune in the early 2030s, making this the first site announcement of an industrial application of an aSMR in North America.

POWER: What went into the decision to site the project in New Brunswick, Canada?

Labbe: That’s a great question. Canada has a long history of nuclear leadership globally. By 2018, Natural Resources Canada had already developed a roadmap for a pan-Canadian approach to SMRs, which was about 5 to 7 years ahead of other countries. Following that, New Brunswick became one of four provinces to sign an agreement for the strategic deployment of SMRs. NB Power, the utility in New Brunswick, took the lead on the deployment of advanced SMRs and initiated a process to select an aSMR technology to deploy and operate in the province. NB Power evaluated 80 SMR technologies, and the ARC-100 was one of two technologies selected.

With both an operator and a site location, ARC established our office in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada where we are working through the regulatory and licensing processes with NB Power. We are currently on target to deploy the first grid-scale, aSMR in Canada at NB Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating site by the end of this decade.

And there is strong social license for nuclear technology in New Brunswick.  Nuclear currently accounts for 40% of the electricity generation here. This has built strong academic support for nuclear in the province, and the location of New Brunswick with two world-class ports is ideal to support the aSMR manufacturing and export industry.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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