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Nuke in a box

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 4/13/2018 1:20:00 PM

Soon, possibly before the end of April 2018, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario is expected to issue an RFP for prototypes of small modular reactors. Vic Pakalnis, president and CEO of the Laurentian University-affiliated not-for-profit mining research organization MIRARCO, believes it may be the first step in revolutionizing how the mining industry and remote communities power their operations.

There’s a new generation of small nuclear power plants with a footprint no bigger than a small household living room, that can generate around 30 mW of power effortlessly for 20 to 30 years, Pakalnis told EcoLog News. That’s enough to power a remote mine or northern town, places that now rely on expensive and dirty diesel-powered generators. These new small modular nuclear reactors exist only on paper. They’ve been looking for a host with the appropriate licensing to demonstrate that the technology works and, most importantly, a client willing to take on the risk of installing the technology.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has agreed to serve as that host, says Pakalnis, and the mining industry is a willing, even eager, client.

The lifespan of the average mine is 10 to 30 years, says Pakalnis. He envisions a not-too-distant future where a small modular reactor will be trucked into a remote location, turned on, and then trucked out when the mine is decommissioned and the reactor is due for refurbishment. The reactor should generate consistent power at a cost of around 15 cents per kWh, half of what diesel generation costs in the north, and as little as a fifth of what it might cost in the Arctic. Current designs also incorporate passive safety systems, he says, that shut the reactor down automatically if anything goes awry.

Efforts to market this technology to remote communities around the world have not succeeded. It would be a big investment in untried technology. But that’s also why Pakalnis believes mining is the ideal client. It’s an industry that needs clean power, he says. Successful mining is about understanding challenges and making rational decisions, he says. Miners aren’t frightened by the unknown.

“It’s good science,” he says, “and once it’s used in the mining industry it’s going to be used everywhere, because mining tends to be very careful with what we do.”

Pakalnis knows that the biggest roadblock may be public acceptance rather than science. Look at any list of least trusted industries and there’s a good chance that mining or nuclear, or both, will be near the top.

“You can’t ignore that,” he says. “You’ve got to meet it head-on.”

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