Fission could help power district heating, water desalination, hybrid systems and steam for heavy industry.
Photo courtesy CNA.
A new national ‘action plan’ for the safe and responsible development of small modular reactors (SMRs), which Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) released earlier this month, outlines the next steps for using non-emitting electricity generation to support the country’s net-zero goals for 2050.
SMRs use nuclear fission to generate energy for a range of applications—including district heating, water desalination, hybrid systems and steam for heavy industry—without greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but at a factory-constructed and portable scale that can help ensure self-sufficiency in remote communities. By way of comparison, a a Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor averages 700 MWe, SMRs generate between 10 and 300 MWe.
“SMRs are the great enabler of other clean energy sources,” says John Gorman, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA), which welcomed the federal government’s release of the plan. “They are uniquely equipped to work alongside renewables to help decarbonize key regions and industries—e.g. steel, cement, oil, gas, mining and agriculture–that are challenged to meet emission reduction goals.”
As CNA points out, Canada’s electricity system is already 82% derived from emissions-free sources, making it one of the world’s cleanest, with a combination of hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, biofuel, solar, geothermal and tidal generation. And while some SMRs have existed since the introduction of reactor technology 50 years ago, including several research reactors at Canadian universities, the SMR Action Plan underlines significant potential to develop smaller and less expensive reactors to further replace Canada’s reliance on GHG-emitting fuels and resources and capture a share of an emerging global market, expected to exceed $150 billion by 2040.
The plan responds to the 53 recommendations of Canada’s SMR Roadmap, which was launched in late 2018 and outlined the following three major application areas:
The plan’s pan-Canadian approach involves partnerships with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, organized labour, utilities, industry, innovators, academia and civil society to ensure robust policy, regulatory and legislative frameworks. Such progress has implications for consulting engineering firms.
By way of example, Hatch recently signed a collaboration agreement for engineering and project management with X-energy, the U.S. company behind the Xe-100 SMR, under which Hatch will provide site-specific infrastructure planning in Canada and around the world. Meanwhile, Candu Energy parent firm SNC-Lavalin has developed a 300-MWe CANDU SMR.
What is the Canadian plan to dispose of spent radioactive fuel? This topic needs to be addressed and disseminated to the public to obtain more buy-in (social license to operate). A general (mis-)conception is associated with safe spent fuel disposal as an argument against SMRs. Also, there is a similar need to emphasize the dissimilarity between the modern SMRs and the “older” technology reactors (Russian, Japanese and US accidents).
The answer may be simple, though additional technology development is required. The spent fuel can be “burned up” in Thorium-based MSR plants; also modular and of great interest world-wide.
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