Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick are hoping that small modular reactors (SMRs) can provide affordable, emissions-free baseload power to their economies. But they may have a long wait. SMRs show promise on paper, but they are at least a decade from deployment in Canada and will inevitably have to address the concerns of nuclear energy opponents and the seemingly intractable problem of nuclear waste management.
In advance of the December 2, 2019 Premiers’ meeting in Toronto, Premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding to promote SMRs as a source of emissions-free energy. With SMRs, Saskatchewan’s electricity sector could achieve “70% emissions reduction by 2030, 80% by 2040 and a complete 100% elimination of Saskatchewan’s electrical generation emissions by the year 2050,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters.
SMRs use a wide range of technologies, some well established, some new. The new generation of SMRs produce anywhere from five to 300 MW of power, occupy a small footprint, are assembled from modular components, and are equipped with passive safety systems that promise an automatic, orderly shutdown of the reactor in the event of a malfunction.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the Canadian market for SMRs could hit $10 billion between 2030 and 2040. Globally, it would be $150 billion, he said.
Canada is trying to elbow its way to the global forefront of SMR technology. In November 2018, Natural Resources Canada released A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors, the first step toward assessing the merits of SMRs in Canada and, perhaps eventually, deploying them for use.
Earlier in 2019, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission received its first licence application from an SMR proponent, Global First Power, to build a demonstration plant at Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. Other proponents are not far behind.
Moe said deployment fits within the timeframe of the 2030 emissions target. “I think it’s in the range of 5+ years,” he said about the first deployment of an SMR in Canada, but that is unlikely. Licensing a nuclear reactor is an arduous process that currently takes upwards of nine years.
However, if deployed, SMRs could put a meaningful dent in the emissions of Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, both of which rely heavily on coal. For Ontario, it’s mostly an economic development opportunity, explained Ford. There might also be opportunities to take remote communities off diesel and to provide remote mines with emissions-free power, he said.