promoting a dizzying assortment of next-generation models that have collectively been dubbed “small modular reactors” (SMRs).……..
The real challenge “is answering all the safety questions that any good regulator would ask: ‘How will this behave if there’s an earthquake or fire? What happens if there’s a complete blackout? What happens if this component fails?’ ” Answering such questions requires an intensive research program and countless hours of laboratory work, which can take decades. There’s no guarantee the answers will be favourable.
Governments, utilities and the nuclear industry hope small modular reactors will power Canada’s future. Can they actually build one? The Globe and Mail MATTHEW MCCLEARN, JULY 17, 2021
Ontario Power Generation plans to make a decision this year that might determine the future of Canada’s nuclear industry.The utility, by far Canada’s largest nuclear power producer, promises to select a design for a 300-megawatt reactor it proposes to build at its Darlington Nuclear Generating Station by 2028. The estimated price tag: up to $3-billion.
It would be the first new reactor built on Canadian soil in well over three decades. OPG won’t make that decision alone, because it’s intended to be the first of many reactors of the same design built across the country.Canada’s nuclear industry desperately needs a next act…..
With a supply chain of more than 200 companies covering everything from uranium mining, to operating power plants, to decommissioning them, Canada is considered a Tier 1 nuclear country.
But lately, this machine has been devoted to squeezing more life out of old CANDU units, largely through Ontario’s $26-billion plan to refurbish its Darlington station, east of Toronto, and the Bruce Power complex, on Lake Huron.
The industry has few, if any, exciting new products for sale……
but renewable forms of generation – hydro, wind, solar and biomass – have become preferred tools for decarbonizing electricity grids. And utilities can buy inexpensive wind turbines and solar panels today.
Seeking to catch up, dozens of nuclear vendors sprung up just in the past few years, promoting a dizzying assortment of next-generation models that have collectively been dubbed “small modular reactors” (SMRs)………
U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have also indicated they will also support SMR development, as have some prominent investors, notably Bill Gates.
Here’s the reality: Most SMRs exist only as conceptual designs and are not yet licensed for construction anywhere.
The promised assembly lines that would churn them out like clockwork don’t exist
(The international law firm White & Case says the only contemporary SMR in existence is located on a vessel anchored off Russia’s Arctic coast. According to reports, construction of China’s first SMR recently commenced on the southern island of Hainan.)
The promised assembly lines that would churn them out like clockwork don’t exist; many vendors are early-stage companies with hardly any revenues.
To change this, the federal government will probably have to open wide the taxpayer’s wallet. And the industry must move quickly from bold marketing claims to commercially viable products
OLD IDEAS, NEW PACKAGES
MR is a marketing term, rather than a technical one, reflecting the industry’s aspirations rather than what it can deliver today. In Canada, SMR has come to describe reactors that generate 300 megawatts or less.
That isn’t exactly small – it’s enough to power a small city – but for comparison’s sake, Ontario’s largest current reactors generate around 900 megawatts. Some proposed SMRs would produce just a few megawatts. The industry pitches them for remote Indigenous communities, industrial use (at mines, for instance) and tiny island nations.
Small reactors aren’t new. They’ve been used in icebreakers, submarines and aircraft carriers. And many SMRs are based on concepts contemplated as long ago as the 1950s.
Oakville, Ont.-based Terrestrial Energy Inc., one of OPG’s potential partners, intends to use molten salt, rather than water, as a coolant. The company says its technology is a “game-changer”: The Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) would operate at much higher temperatures (about 700 C) than conventional reactors (about 300 C)….
As for the “modular” part, the notion is that SMRs would be mass-produced on assembly lines and shipped to where they’re needed, rather than custom-built onsite. This plug-and-play approach is intended to reduce purchase costs and accelerate deployment…………….
SMRs appeal to certain nationalist impulses as well: Canada is, after all, the world’s second-largest uranium producer.
…… The industry has made limited progress in addressing wastes from decades-old reactors; it’s unclear how novel detritus from SMRs might be handled.
Perhaps most damagingly of all, reactors have earned a reputation for being overpriced relative to other forms of generation, and often beleaguered by massive delays and cost overruns.
SMR GAME PLAN
The nuclear industry’s plan to reverse its flagging fortunes begins at Darlington.
OPG announced late last year it was working with three SMR developers on preliminary design and engineering work: North Carolina-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Terrestrial Energy and X-energy. It promises to select a winner by year’s end….
Naturally, of course, no SMR developer aspires to be a one-hit wonder. So next up: Persuade Saskatchewan to build a fleet of the same reactors……….. Winning Saskatchewan would be a major coup: Jurisdictions that go nuclear tend to stay nuclear for decades. ……
quandary remains: Prospective SMR buyers such as SaskPower can only look at conceptual designs. “There’s been some small demonstration units built, but nothing of the size that we would expect to see in operational terms,” Mr. Morgan said.
……... NUCLEAR GHOSTS
Twenty years ago, Canada’s nuclear industry staked its future on updating the venerable CANDU design.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the Crown corporation that pioneered it, talked up the Enhanced CANDU 6, CANDU 9 and Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR) as safer, faster to construct, cheaper and better than previous models.
The federal government pumped untold sums into their development. None were licensed. None were ordered. None were built.
In 2011, the federal government sold AECL’s reactor business to SNC-Lavalin for a paltry $15-million. After six decades of development, and dozens of bona fide reactors built and operated in seven countries, the CANDU had become nearly worthless.
The proposed site for OPG’s first SMR, next to the existing Darlington Station, is an artifact of that era. In 2006, OPG began preparing to build up to four reactors at the same location. AECL’s Enhanced CANDU 6 and the ACR 1000 were candidates.
But the project was derailed in late 2013 when the Ontario government asked OPG to stand down, essentially because the province no longer needed the power. The viability of those “next-generation” CANDUs, however, was never clear.
It’s relatively easy to sketch a reactor design on the back of a napkin, or create promotional videos and brochures with snazzy renderings. Professor M.V. Ramana, of the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, says a few graduate students can develop a conceptual design for a few hundred thousand dollars.
But it’s quite another matter to advance a design to the point of actually building it.
The real challenge, Prof. Ramana said, “is answering all the safety questions that any good regulator would ask: ‘How will this behave if there’s an earthquake or fire? What happens if there’s a complete blackout? What happens if this component fails?’ ”
Answering such questions requires an intensive research program and countless hours of laboratory work, which can take decades. There’s no guarantee the answers will be favourable.
…………… Even a mature design isn’t enough. Just as Ford wouldn’t build an assembly line for the Mustang Mach-E if it thought it could sell only a handful, SMR vendors need assurances they’ll receive enough orders to justify mass production.
It’s unclear how many orders would be sufficient, but published estimates have ranged from as low as 30 to well into the hundreds.
……… Prof. Ramana said many of the earliest power reactors met the modern definition of SMRs. But their diminutive size was rarely a virtue: It meant they couldn’t take advantage of economies of scale, resulting in high costs per unit of electricity generated, not to mention disproportionately greater volumes of radioactive waste. Many were shut down early.
“The lesson that we learned from some of these experiences is that designs that might seem captivating on paper might not actually work so well in real life,” Prof. Ramana said. “SMRs are not going to be economical. You can see that from the outset.”
………………. FEDERAL SUPPORT – THE CRUCIAL INGREDIENT.
In contrast with the CANDU, the nuclear industry promises SMRs will be funded largely by the private sector.
Many observers are skeptical. “Without government programs and financial support promoting SMRs, industry alone is unlikely to invest in the high up-front costs,” opined lawyers at Stikeman Elliott in a recent commentary.
Nor are non-nuclear provinces likely to make the leap alone. Mr. Morgan confirmed Saskatchewan seeks federal support to deploy SMRs, although the form of that support has yet to be determined.
For several years, federal and provincial government officials have signalled they want Canada to be one of the earliest adopters of SMRs. They’ve partnered with industry to produce road maps for making that happen.
The governments of Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta have agreed to collaborate on advancing SMRs. Mr. O’Regan, the federal Natural Resources Minister, has fully embraced the industry’s claim that Canada’s clean-energy transition cannot succeed without them,
So far, however, such pronouncements haven’t translated into generous subsidies. The federal government has channelled just meagre amounts of funding to SMRs, such as $20-million last October toward development of Terrestrial’s IMSR, and $50.5-million to New Brunswick-based Moltex Energy in March.
The latest federal budget didn’t mention SMRs. Nevertheless, studying its fine print, lawyers at McCarthy Tétrault LLP noticed what they described as “exciting policy levers.”
They pointed, for example, to an income tax break of up to 50 per cent for manufacturers of zero-emission technologies. There was also $1-billion offered for clean tech projects “where there is a perceived lack of patient capital or ability to scale up because of the size of the Canadian market.”
SMR vendors could capitalize on such programs, the lawyers concluded, depending on how they’re implemented.
Meanwhile, SMR vendors seek relaxed safety requirements that could make SMRs more cost-competitive.
……It’s unclear to what extent the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will acquiesce………….
Obtaining a licence typically takes a few years. “Experience has shown that it will be dramatically affected by the [proponent’s] capability of submitting adequate and complete information on day one,” Mr. Carrier said.
Only one SMR has so far commenced a full licensing review: Ottawa-based Global First Power Ltd. submitted documentation for its Micro Modular Reactor in March.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a long-time opponent of nuclear power, released a study in March which concluded that SMR designs, including molten salt reactors, are no safer than previous designs. It therefore urged regulators to maintain current requirements.
“The intense scrutiny, from policy makers and the public – given the safety and security angle combined with a nascent technology – will likely cause delays and conflicts” for SMR developers, lawyers from global law firm White & Case predicted in a recent commentary.
In short, SMRs’ future depends to a large extent on vendors delivering hard proof supporting their most ambitious promises about safety, efficiency, cost and other matters…….. a late arrival by SMRs could consign them to irrelevance.
And right now, many observers regard them as too speculative to factor into forecasts. The federal government’s own Canada Energy Regulator projects the amount of power generated by nuclear reactors in Canada will continue on a declining trend.
Dennis Langren is a regulatory lawyer with Stikeman Elliott. He says the earliest deployments of SMRs in Canada are at least a decade off
Paris-based Mycle Schneider Consulting has reviewed the status of global SMR development three times since 2015.
In the firm’s most recent review, published in September, 2020, it found little had changed over the period.
“Overall, there are few signs that would hint at a major breakthrough for SMRs, either with regard to the technology or with regard to the commercial side,” the firm observed.
“Delays, poor economics, and the increased availability of low-carbon alternatives at rapidly decreasing cost plague these technologies as well, and there is no need to wait with bated breath for SMRs to be deployed.”
Ralph Torrie is a partner at Torrie Smith Associates, an energy and environmental consultancy. He says he’s focused on power generation options that can be built this decade to address a warming climate – a criterion that, in his view, disqualifies SMRs.“They’re a long way off.”