USNC’s MMR Project Becomes First SMR in Canada to Enter Formal Licensing Phase 

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corp.’s (USNC’s) 5-MWe (15 MWth) Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) has entered formal licensing review with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) as part of its proposed project spearheaded by Global First Power (GFP). The small modular reactor (SMR) is the first to mark that milestone.  

Seattle-based USNC marked its newest milestone for its high-temperature gas-cooled microreactor on May 20, two days after the CNSC announced that GFP’s application for a “Licence to Prepare Site” for an SMR project at the Chalk River Laboratories had completed preliminary evaluations, giving it the green light to move onto formal license review.

Global First Power—a joint venture formed by USNC subsidiary USNC-Power and utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG)—has proposed to build, own, and operate a full-scale MMR reactor at Chalk River Laboratories, a sprawling 10,000-acre site in Ontario operated by Canada’s nuclear science and technology agency Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and owned by crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL).

As USNC’s CEO Francesco Venneri noted on Thursday, entering the formal licensing review phase puts the company closer to “near-term” completion of an “MMR Energy System,” which is the company’s nuclear power plant offering. 

Heat and Hydrogen Potential

The MMR Energy System, USNC explained, integrates “one or several standardized microreactors (MMRs) with a heat storage unit and the adjacent plant for power conversion and utilization. Electrical power or process heat (or a mix of both) is produced in the Energy System, depending on configuration. Nuclear heat is transferred from the microreactors to a molten salt energy storage unit that decouples the nuclear system from the power utilization system, greatly simplifying operations and allowing flexible use of the energy generated.”

The system is suited to supply high-quality process heat for co-located industrial applications and high-efficiency hydrogen production. If built as envisioned, the GFP project could serve as a pivotal demonstration to show how nuclear microreactors could support heavy industry and other off-grid uses, it said. 

The MMR Energy System is a fourth-generation nuclear energy plant that delivers heat and power to remote mines, industry, and communities. Courtesy: USNC

“This achievement follows more than four years of engagement by USNC with the CNSC in its Vendor Design Review (VDR) process, which ensures proposed nuclear technologies achieve the necessary design and safety qualifications to be considered for full licensing,” USNC said on Thursday. The ongoing VDR process comprises a review of the MMR as well of USNC’s tristructural-isotropic (TRISO) Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCM) fuel, it noted.

Learn more about TRISO, including recent developments, in this story from POWER‘s March 2021 issue: The Allure of TRISO Explained. 

Thursday’s announcement comes on the heels of several notable achievements for USNC. Last September, the company established a new facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, to support the development of its FCM fuel and materials that will be used in its own MMR, as well as other nuclear reactors, including gas-cooled reactors, light-water reactors, CANDU reactors, and molten salt–cooled reactors. 

In April, CNL announced it successfully fabricated FCM fuel pellets. That project represented the first time that a TRISO–based fuel has been manufactured in Canada. The project was funded by the Canadian Nuclear Research Initiative, an organization CNL established in 2019 to accelerate the deployment of SMRs in Canada. The FCM project scope includes the development of a multi-year testing program to support the validation of USNC’s fuel and core as they progress through the CNSC’s VDR process, CNL said. 

While CNL wants to begin operating an SMR by 2026, a 2018-initiated contest to choose a reactor design to site at AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories is still ongoing. “GFP is in stage three of CNL’s four-stage process, and with this recent CNSC announcement, GFP is the most advanced concept towards demonstration,” AECL noted on May 19.

“The licensing of a new nuclear reactor must be underpinned by a robust scientific understanding, and sound environmental research. The acceptance of this license application into formal review is evidence of the viability and safety of this project, and the diligence of the GFP team in preparing their application,” said Joe McBrearty, president and CEO at CNL, in a statement. “I would like to congratulate the team at Global First Power on reaching this significant milestone.”  

OPG Eyeing Construction License Application for Darlington SMR in 2022

Marking yet another milestone, OPG became the first utility to take an ownership stake in an SMR project as part of its GFP joint venture with USNC, which was announced in June 2020.

OPG, notably, last year also resumed planning activities to build an SMR at its Darling site in Clarington, Ontario, as early as 2028. The site is currently Canada’s only site that holds a site preparation license for future new nuclear development, with a completed and accepted Environmental Assessment (EA). This April, during a public information session, Robin Manley, vice president of New Nuclear Development at OPG, reiterated that no decision on a potential technology has yet been made. He noted, however, that after due diligence, the utility in October chose to begin advanced engineering and design work with three SMR developers that offer grid-scale solutions in the “ballpark of 300 MW”: GE Hitachi, Terrestrial Energy, and X-energy.

“We haven’t absolutely decided it’s going to be one of those three. We’re still open to other options. But we’re well-underway working with these three in particular on their engineering and project development, and the opportunity for potential construction license application next year, if all goes well,” Manley said. “We intend to come to a decision at the end of this year, and obviously that decision is subject to approval of our board and our shareholder, which is the province of Ontario.”

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

Updated (May 21): Corrects references to a “rebrand” of the MMR nuclear plant offering. USNC clarified that the MMR Energy System forms part of integrated energy systems that can be used to deliver electricity and/or process heat. Adds subheads, input from Ontario Power Generation on the status of planning activities for an SMR build at its Darlington site.

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