Nuclear Energy: Small Modular Reactors (SMR)

Nuclear energy is globally recognized as one of the most resourceful, ascendable, and functional alternative for fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – which is proven to be a major source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Nuclear power reactors produce nuclear energy and as of early 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports there are 454 nuclear power reactors and 226 nuclear research reactors in operation around the world. Nuclear power reactors are used at nuclear power plants for electricity generation and in nuclear marine propulsion. 

According to the World Nuclear Association nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during operation, and over the course of its life-cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.

Here is a chart, comparing average life-cycle carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions for different electricity generators: 

Source: Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)

Experts have concluded that in order to achieve the deep decarbonization required to keep the average rise in global temperatures to below 1.5°C, combating climate change would be much harder, without an increased role for nuclear. Because nuclear power is reliable and can be deployed on a large scale, it can directly replace fossil fuel plant, avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation. The use of nuclear energy today avoids emissions roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads. 

Source: The National Interest

Greentech Media reported that the nuclear industry is heading into 2021 with increased optimism around small modular reactors (SMR) after a series of policy initiatives that were announced worldwide in recent weeks. The U.S., U.K. and Canada, three major nuclear markets, all signaled growing support for SMR in the closing weeks of 2020. 

Canadian taxpayers are pouring tens of millions of additional dollars into subsidizing the development of SMR in New Brunswick.  It happened just weeks after the provincial government committed $20 million to support one of the two Saint John companies (ARC Clean Energy) working on the development of SMR technologies. Here is what the federal government has committed:

  • $50.5 million to Moltex Energy to subsidize its work on the development of the SMR technology;
  • Almost $5 million to NB Power to help prepare the Point Lepreau generating station site for the installation of SMR; and
  • $560,000 for a research centre at the University of New Brunswick that works on SMR technology.
SMALL MODULAR REACTOR (SMR) Source: IAEA.org

This investment is a part of the strategy as well as an acknowledgement to the fact that nuclear energy is a low-carbon source of energy which will be instrumental in reducing GHG emissions as Canada is committed to be a carbon-free country by 2050 which is consistent with the Paris Agreement. 

The term SMR refers to a nuclear reactor facility that is usually smaller than a traditional nuclear power plant, and that may employ multiple novel technological approaches, such as passive/inherent safety features, and extensive use of factory-built modules. Common terms used internationally to describe these designs include advanced reactor technologies and advanced modular reactors.

SMALL MODULAR REACTOR (SMR) Source: shop.alwaysreview.com

SMR can vary significantly in size, design features and cooling types. Examples of different SMR technologies include:

  • Integral pressurized water reactors;
  • Molten salt reactors;
  • High-temperature gas reactors;
  • Liquid metal cooled reactors; and
  • Solid state or heat pipe reactors.

SMR can also be located on sites that differ from those of traditional nuclear power plants. For example, SMR may be established on small grids where power generation needs are usually less than 300 megawatt electric (MWe) per facility, or at edge-of-grid or off-grid locations where power needs are small – in the range of 2 to 30 MWe.

ADVANCING SMALL MODULAR REACTORS Source: lessonplanet.com

Electrical utilities, industry groups and government agencies throughout the world are investigating alternative uses for SMR beyond electricity generation. These include producing steam supplies for industrial applications and district heating systems, and making value-added products such as hydrogen fuel and desalinated drinking water.

The IAEA continues to facilitate efforts of Member States in the development of SMR technology, recognizing it’s potential as a viable solution to meet energy supply security, both in newcomer and expanding countries interested in SMR.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the global market for SMR technology is expected to exceed $150–300 billion (USD116-232 billion) by 2040.

Canada uses nuclear reactors of varying sizes and power outputs for a range of applications, such as research, materials testing, medical uses and electrical power generation.

It’s worth knowing that due to its chemical properties, uranium can generate large amounts of energy with very little material if properly refined. This refinement process is known as the “nuclear fuel cycle” and it is used to convert uranium into nuclear energy. Uranium is the primary element used in nuclear energy, one of the most important global energy sources.

NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE Source: wikipedia

Canada is the world’s second largest producer of uranium, with 13 percent of global production in 2018:

  • Canada has the world’s largest deposits of high-grade uranium with grades of up to 20 percent uranium, which is 100 times greater than the world average;
  • In 2018, Canada produced 6,996 tonnes of uranium, all from mines in northern Saskatchewan;
  • Nearly 85 percent of Canada’s uranium production is exported. The remainder is used to fuel CANDU reactors in Canada; and
  • With its resource base and current output, Canada is well positioned to maintain its importance in uranium production in the future.

Canada has developed its own line of nuclear power reactors, starting from research in 1944 when an engineering design team was brought together in Montreal, Quebec, to develop a heavy water moderated nuclear reactor.  The government established Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL) as a crown corporation in 1952 with a mandate to research and develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

CANDU CANADIAN NUCLEAR REACTORS Source: xylenepower.com

AECL, in cooperation with Canadian industry, began developing the first Candu (Canada deuterium uranium) reactor in the late 1950s. Candu reactors use heavy water (deuterium oxide) as a moderator and coolant, and are fueled using natural uranium (as opposed to enriched uranium).  Today, there are 34 Candu power reactors in seven countries, as well as 13 ‘Candu derivative’ reactors in India, with more being built. Export sales of 12 Candu units have been made to South Korea (4), Romania (2), India (2), Pakistan (1), Argentina (1) and China (2), along with the engineering expertise to build and operate them.

PICKERING NUCLEAR GENERATING STATION Source: The Toronto Star

Here are some facts about Canadian nuclear power (Updated December 2020):

  • About 15 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear power, with 19 reactors mostly in Ontario providing 13.5 GWe of power capacity;
  • Canada had plans to expand its nuclear capacity over the next decade by building two more new reactors, but these have been deferred; and
  • For many years Canada has been a leader in nuclear research and technology, exporting reactor systems developed in Canada as well as a high proportion of the world supply of radioisotopes used in medical diagnosis and cancer therapy.

The Canadian Nuclear Association estimates that the Canadian nuclear industry employs approximately 30,000 people, and creates another 30,000 jobs indirectly through contracting. The industry generates revenues of approximately $6.6 billion and contributes $1.5 billion in federal and provincial taxes.

Kanata, Ontario, Canada 11 April 2021