Small reactors are a big deal in Canada

Earlier this month, I traveled to Ontario, Canada to learn about its nuclear power industry. From its recent decision to refurbish many of its existing reactors and the launch of a small modular reactor (SMR) roadmap report, Canada sees a role for nuclear power in meeting its long-term greenhouse gas emission targets.

Nuclear power provides about 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity and 15 percent of Canada’s total nationally. Combined with hydropower (59 percent) and renewables (7 percent), 81 percent of Canada’s electricity generation is non-emitting. In fact, Canada has one of the cleanest power sectors of any developed nation.

Canadian federal and provincial governments are serious about dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. A federal carbon tax will go into effect early next year, and many provinces have already acted on climate – see C2ES’s Canadian climate policy maps for more detail. Notably, nuclear power was instrumental in helping Ontario successfully phase out more than 7,500 MW of coal-fired electricity (25 percent of its supply) between 2003 and 2014.

After serious evaluation, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the government-owned corporation that runs Ontario’s nuclear power plants, determined that refurbishment of around 75 percent of its nuclear capacity would be cost effective. In 2016, OPG embarked on an ambitious plan to refurbish reactors, which will ensure their operation for an additional 30 years. On a site visit to the 4-unit, 3,500 MW Darlington Nuclear Station, an OPG representative described the refurbishment as the best option to provide low cost, reliable generation for Ontario and to help Canada meet its climate goals.

As Canada maintains its existing fleet along with its nuclear expertise and supply chains, it is also looking at additional ways that nuclear power can provide benefits. In early November at a conference in Ottawa, it launched a SMR roadmap to adopt small (and advanced) modular reactors.

Led by Natural Resources Canada, a group of provincial and territorial governments, and power utilities produced the roadmap, which lays out the case for why Canada is well-suited to develop and deploy the next generation of nuclear reactors. With promising technologies, a raft of experience, naturally endowed mineral wealth, a favorable regulatory regime, and some compelling domestic market opportunities, Canada is well positioned.

Small and advanced reactors can dependably generate zero-emission electricity and useful heat, and they are scalable to produce very small (e.g. a few or even less than 1 MW) or very large quantities (e.g. hundreds of MWs) of energy from a very small footprint. New designs hold the promise of being more affordable, even safer, and are expected to produce less waste than the current generation of reactors.

Canada has a wide array of nuclear capabilities, including research reactors, commercial power reactors, fuel manufacturing capabilities, and so on. Additionally, Canada has one of the largest and highest-grade sources of uranium in the world.

Also, with a flexible and less-prescriptive, yet highly-respected approach to licensing new nuclear designs, Canada’s nuclear regulator plays a constructive role in providing clarity with regards to the regulatory process and regulatory requirements and guidance.

There are at least a couple of very compelling opportunities for small modular reactors to dramatically lower emissions in Canada. First, Canada has a large, energy-intensive extractives industry, particularly oil and gas and mining. Typically, oil and gas and mining operations are located in remote locations. Expanding the use of nuclear power to other provinces through more affordable, right-sized reactors offers plenty of opportunity for emissions reductions, through clean electricity production (for power and electric vehicles), and heat production for industrial processes, among other things.

Another strong market opportunity exists in supplying heat and power to widely-scattered, indigenous, First Nation communities and other isolated populations in the far north, who currently rely on expensive and dirty diesel generators for electricity. Micro-reactor powered microgrids in these locations could make a serious dent in carbon dioxide and black carbon emissions, saving money and improving the environment.

Support for existing nuclear generation and evolving strategies to support the development and deployment of small and advanced reactors in Canada and the United States are promising signs. Most studies indicate that a diverse mix of renewables, nuclear power, and fossil fuels with carbon capture is the least costly and technically challenging path to achieve the dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions necessary by mid-century. Small and advanced reactors should be a key element in the deep decarbonization solution.

We need more low-cost, zero-emission solutions to help us stave off the worst effects of climate change. Technology developments in Canada and the United States are important examples for the rest of the world. New reactors fit the bill because they don’t have to be fancy, they just have to be inexpensive and easy to deploy.