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Small Modular Reactors – The Future of Nuclear Energy

When it comes to nuclear energy, Canada has always been an innovator. This goes all the way back to 1952 with the development of the world-renowned CANDU reactor. Seventy years later, Canada is leading the charge once again. On this episode, we talk about the future of nuclear energy — small modular reactors.

Transcript

Joel Houle

When it comes to nuclear energy, Canada has always been an innovator. This goes all the way back to 1952 with the development of the world-renowned CANDU reactor. Seventy years later, with a renewed interest in nuclear as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, Canada is leading the charge once again.  On this episode, we talk about the future of nuclear energy — small modular reactors.

Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science — the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing.  My name is Joel Houle. And joining me is my cohost Barb Ustina. Barb, how are you?

Barb Ustina

I'm doing just great today. How are you doing, Joel?

Joel Houle

I'm OK. I'm really excited about today's episode. I interviewed our guest a few years ago, and I learned so much about nuclear energy, so I'm really excited.

Barb Ustina

Yeah, well, what stood out to you at the time?

Joel Houle

Well, one thing actually is the percentage of Ontario's electricity generation mix. It's at 60 percent — or around 60 percent. And I'm like, well, that's significant. You know, being from Ottawa, I wasn't aware that over half our energy actually comes from nuclear. So that was kind of surprising to me.

Barb Ustina

Yeah, I bet there are a lot of people who wouldn't expect that much energy to come from nuclear in Ontario.

Joel Houle

Yeah, definitely.

Barb Ustina

You know, I'm surprised by that, too. So that's one of the things I did to prepare for this podcast today was that I went back and I listened to that podcast that you did back then, and I think you called it the forgotten energy source.

Joel Houle

Forgotten clean energy.

Barb Ustina

Yeah. And I think you're right. The idea of nuclear energy has sort of been left behind for a few years and people haven't really talked about it maybe even for decades. So it's interesting now to see the renewed interest in nuclear energy and especially the way it's being discussed around climate change and energy use. And, of course, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to nuclear energy.

Joel Houle

Oh, definitely. And I'm really interested in this new small modular reactor technology. Well, you know what? I don't think we should delay it any more. Should we just go and bring in our guest?

Barb Ustina

Yeah, yeah. I'm really interested to do a bit of a deeper dive into nuclear energy. And the small modular reactors, what are they all about?

Joel Houle

Exactly! OK, let's do this.

Joël Houle

We have a returning guest today. We're really excited to welcome back Diane Cameron from Natural Resources Canada's Nuclear Energy Division. She was one of our very first guests on the podcast. So last time she was here, we talked about nuclear energy as a whole. And today what we're going to do is we're going to talk about small modular reactors. Diane, thank you for coming back.

Diane Cameron

Oh, it's great to be here.

Barbara Ustina

Yeah, you know, I was just listening to that early podcast this afternoon, and really, it's such an interesting topic, and I'm glad that you're able to make it back. But before we dive into it too deep, would you mind giving us a quick overview of where things are at with nuclear energy in Canada? You know, like how many power plants there are, where they're located, how much power we get from nuclear — that sort of thing?

Diane Cameron

Absolutely. Nuclear is a pretty important part of our clean electricity grid in Canada. Nuclear currently provides about 15 percent of the electricity across the nation. Now, that's mainly in Ontario, where we have 18 power reactors. They're all CANDU technologies. Home-grown CANDU nuclear technologies. And they provide in the province of Ontario over 60 percent of the electricity for the whole province. In New Brunswick, there's another power reactor. Another CANDU at Point Lepreau, and it provides over 35 percent of the electricity for the province of New Brunswick. In addition to power, though, in addition to clean electricity, we also have uranium mining in Canada concentrated in northern Saskatchewan. And the uranium that we mine in Saskatchewan is used not only to power the reactors in Canada, but also, we're the second-largest exporter of uranium to the world market. And another interesting thing that a lot of people don't know is about medical isotopes. CANDU reactors in Canada, one of the products that they produce is called a radioisotope. And these are things that are used in nuclear medicine, in the detection and the treatment of cancers, different types of cancers. Medical isotopes, in particular, one that's called Cobalt 60, is also used in the sterilization of medical equipment. And so throughout the pandemic, we were really reminded about the important role that nuclear energy plays in the lives of Canadians. Not only did we keep our nuclear reactors running, and that was so important for keeping the lights on in homes and hospitals across the nation, but we also continued to produce cobalt 60, and we supplied 40 percent of the world's cobalt 60 that was used to sterilize once through medical equipment like PPE gloves and gowns and masks, which we also very much needed during the pandemic.

Joël Houle

Wow. Well, I guess it's timely as well that we're talking about this today. So one of the things that I'm hearing is that there's this movement in the industry where small modular reactors, or SMRs, are said to be the future of nuclear energy. Can you please explain what those are?

Diane Cameron

For sure! So a small modular reactor is technically designed to be any nuclear reactor that is smaller than three hundred megawatts electric. But just to put that in perspective and give you a sense of that size, and the CANDU reactors that I talked about before, those are what we call gigawatt-scale reactors. Each one of the CANDU reactors produces on the order of 1,000 megawatts of electricity per unit. And so an SMR or a small modular reactor is anything that is sort of less than a third the size of the CANDU. Now, small modular reactors are not just smaller in terms of their power out, but they're also smaller in terms of their physical footprint and their land use. They're modular, which is a bit different to modular here means two things. It means they're intended to be factory produced and manufactured, kind of like the way we manufacture cars on a production line. And so these modular components would be manufactured. The idea is that by doing the manufacturing that way, you can drive down the cost and improve the economics of nuclear. So they're smaller, they're modular, and they're still reactors. So that means that somewhere in the middle of the SMR is a nuclear fission reaction that is generating heat. And that heat can be used directly as process heat for heavy industry applications like SAG-D or other industrial processes that need high temperature heat or high-quality steam. It can also be used directly for mineshaft heating or just district heating, for desalination, for hydrogen production. The heat is really valuable, but of course, the heat can also be used always to drive a turbine and generate electricity. So that's really what we mean by SMRs. Just to come back on the size just quickly. I said it was anything less than three hundred megawatts electric, but that's still a pretty big range from zero to three hundred. And really what we're seeing is the emergence of sort of different subsectors within SMR or different sub-applications within SMR. At the large end, that three hundred megawatts electric size, those are what we're calling grid scale. The main purpose of those units is to generate electricity on a grid to produce, non-emitting power to a grid. And one of the provinces that's interested in SMRs for this purpose is Saskatchewan, where they have a lot of coal that they need to get offline by 2030 to meet our climate change objectives. But at the other end of the spectrum, the very small modular reactors down around five megawatts electric. These are some people call them micro reactors. They're intended to be deployed off-grid. They're intended to be a little bit more mobile. And they have applications, for example, in off-grid mining where mines are looking to find an alternative to diesel, which is expensive, logistically complicated, emitting not only in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but also in terms of local air pollution. So there really is even within the SMR envelope, a range of different sizes and different applications.

Barbara Ustina

I'm just curious, are there any small modular reactors at work in Canada right now or is this totally new technology?

Diane Cameron

So that's a really interesting question. So right now in Canada, we have some research reactors, for example, at the McMaster campus in Hamilton, there's a small research reactor that's about five megawatts. And so it is a small reactor, but it's not what one would normally think of when we think of a small modular reactor because it wasn't factory produced. It was a research reactor, kind of a one-off. But of course, our experience with small reactors helps us as we try to get into SMRs. So the other point of comparison that I would put out there is that there are countries around the world that have been operating nuclear submarines and nuclear icebreakers for decades and decades. Now, those are also not exactly the same thing, but they are small nuclear. And so the exercise of innovation to create small modular reactors is really about engineers and scientists and industry working together to try to take the pieces that we know how to do and bring them together in a new way. So I would say that almost every SMR technology that people are working on developing has components that are well-understood and well-established, that have either been used in research settings or have been used in nuclear submarines or nuclear icebreakers, or they've been used by NASA or, you know, they've been used in different ways. And so there's some newness to it. But mostly the newness of it is about bringing it together in a new way for a new application.

Barbara Ustina

Now, why do you suppose there's renewed interest in nuclear energy now. It seems like it's popping up in all kinds of conversations in the media and public discourse.

Diane Cameron

Well, I think a couple of things have happened. One of them is, of course, the imperative to address climate change and decarbonize our electricity supply. This has forced some very difficult conversations about what are our real options and different jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions are blessed with different energy endowments that make it easier, some are not blessed with those endowments and it makes it harder. Each jurisdiction sort of has to look at its options. And in many contexts, nuclear is an excellent option for when you're trying to decarbonize and establish a non-emitting grid, so that's one. Another, also within the context of climate change, there are some traditionally very difficult to abate industrial sectors that need high-temperature heat. And right now, the only real option for them is cogeneration or what we call combined heat and power cogen from natural gas, which meets the needs for sure, but still has some emissions with it. And we are seeing some heavy industry stakeholders starting to consider what might I be able to do instead of natural gas cogen. If I wanted to reduce my emissions even further and where I could still get the high-temperature heat. And the challenge is that it's very inefficient and very costly to create heat from electricity. It's much better if you can create the heat that you need directly and then use your excess heat to create the electricity that you need. So there are these industrial sectors that have been very difficult to decarbonize and we call that deep decarbonization. And the priority on decarbonization has been rising because, of course, when we started the exercise of decarbonizing, you know, not just here in Canada, but around the world, you start with the low hanging fruit and eventually you have to get to even the difficult or hard to reach fruit. And that's when you have to start looking at all of your options very seriously. And I believe that that's one of the reasons that people have seen a renewed interest in nuclear technology. But I think there's another reason, too, which is that there have been some breakthroughs in nuclear innovation in recent years that have made some nuclear technologies more feasible than they had been in the past. So here, I'll just give you an example. There is a type of SMR called a molten salt reactor, and it has all these really interesting possible benefits. It is very efficient, it's theoretically, or at least on paper, very cost-effective. It can dynamically load follow variable renewables. It can store heat, it can provide high-temperature heat. It has some very attractive, simplified, enhanced safety features that would preclude the possibility of certain types of accidents that could never happen. But the challenge and these molten salt reactors have been researched and demonstrated in nuclear laboratories for decades. They were first conceived in the 1970s, but it was never possible to commercialize them because the faults were very corrosive. But breakthroughs in other sectors in material science in the last 10 to 15 years have all of a sudden made it possible for us to look at large-scale commercial development of SMRs. And so it's been these breakthroughs where one piece of the puzzle maybe was missing and all the other pieces were there. And all of a sudden this breakthrough gives you the last piece of the puzzle and something new is possible. And so I think it's the confluence of this wave of innovation and on the other side, the demand. The public policy objectives around electrification, around deep decarbonization. And so in Canada, those are the main drivers that are around the world. There's also just the driver of electricity for economic development in many parts of the world. And nuclear is an excellent option for many countries.

Joël Houle

So really, one of the factors that has prevented nuclear energy from being more prominent over the last few decades has been that stigma surrounding the safety of nuclear energy. For this new SMR technology or this type of technology, how safe is it?

Diane Cameron

For sure, when we engage with the public, there's always a couple of questions that are top of mind and safety is one of them. There have been nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima that people remember, and it's top of mind. And that's one of the first questions they ask. And we have what I would say to that is that collectively as a global community and Canada has been a part of this nuclear group of nations that have this civil nuclear technical capability. And we have accrued 60, 70 years of experience with sort of that first generation of technologies and we have learned a lot. Now, that has trickled into the innovation space. So now what we're seeing is this wave of innovation around SMRs that are being rethought and the idea is to take all the lessons learned and dramatically simplify, and by simplifying enhance the safety of these units. So without getting into too many of the technical details, there are certain and different SMRs are seeking to achieve this in different ways. But there are certain design features that are being built into these SMRs to create this enhanced safety. Some people call it walk-away safety, some people call it passive safety. The idea in many cases is that you use the laws of physics in your favour. You don't try to work against them, and you design a reactor such that if something shocks the system, if there's an earthquake or if there's a tsunami, or if something happens and you literally walk away, hands off the reactor and the laws of physics will drive it to zero. And for now, these have to be proven and they have to be demonstrated to the regulator to show that we are assured that they do what they claim to be doing. But what I can tell you is that the motivation of the scientists and the engineers in designing the next generation of SMRs is to take the lessons learned from the last 60, 70 years and rethink how we do safety in nuclear design.

Barbara Ustina

Now, I assume these SMRs produce waste. How much waste do they produce? How would it be handled?

Diane Cameron

Yes, they do produce waste. In some cases, these reactors, like I was talking about, the five-megawatt, they're very small. And so the first thing to know is that they produce a very small quantity of waste by comparison to a gigawatt-scale reactor. But even with our gigawatt-scale reactors, and it's a much smaller volume than most people know. In Canada, we've been operating nuclear reactors for over 60 years. And in that time, the amount of waste we have accumulated is the equivalent of seven hockey rinks filled to the boards. So that's really when you think of it in that sense, it's quite a manageable volume — like it's not sure insurmountable technical problem. In Canada, we have a polluter pays principle for nuclear waste and that is going to apply universally, whether it's a CANDU or whether it's an SMR. If you are the producer of nuclear waste because you operate an SMR or CANDU then you own the waste that generates and you are responsible for the long-term safe management and the liability associated with that. We have in Canada a very clear legislative framework for this. And today all radioactive waste is safely managed according to international standards at facilities that are licensed and monitored by the CNSC, which is our world-class regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. And we have another organization called the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is working on developing Canada's deep geological repository, which will be the ultimate destination for the long-term disposal of radioactive waste in Canada, all high-level radioactive waste in Canada. And that will apply equally to SMRs as it does to CANDU reactors. Having said all of that, many of the SMRs that we're looking at. Again, that idea of having learned from 60 years of experience, there are different ways. And again, without getting too technical. There are different ways for the designers to sort of configure and design the SMR and it produces kind of a different type of waste with different characteristics. And so there is definitely a lot of thinking being done around how can we do an SMR that will create a type of waste that is easier or a lower quantity of it. And so that's really interesting. And possibly the most interesting thing that I think the listeners might be really keen to hear is that there are a couple of designs that are being looked at in Canada where the SMR actually has the potential to recycle CANDU waste. So just like when you have an aluminum can and you finished drinking your soda pop ... that technically is waste. Now that is waste that you can either throw into a landfill or you could recycle it and create something useful and new out of it. The same concept is true. The stuff that we call waste, it still has an enormous amount of energy in it. And so we have CANDU waste that we are safely managing, but it still has a lot of energy in it. And there's a couple of SMRs that we're looking at that would actually take that waste and recycle it and take the old waste and create new useful SMR fuel, and then use the SMR fuel to generate new electricity. And by doing that recycling and closing the fuel cycle or that circular economy concept. And we would ultimately minimize and reduce the amount of waste that would require that long-term deep geological repository.

Joël Houle

So we have this movement that's moving toward SMRs. What are we doing here at Natural Resources Canada to support this movement? How are we involved?

Diane Cameron

Well, we are convening a pan-Canadian initiative. Now, we already did our policy homework in 2018. Maybe I'll just take a step back and say, I started this job as director of nuclear energy in 2014. And when I started this job, not very many people were talking about SMRs. Some scientists and researchers at the labs, but it wasn't the main topic of conversation in the nuclear sector. And I would periodically ask the senior engineer on my team, "SMRs, are they real, are they going to happen, how far away are they?" And when I first asked that question in 2014 and the answer I think was "oh they're at least 35 years away." And then a year later I'd ask the question again and all of a sudden they were like 30 years away. And then a year later I'd ask again, they're only 20 years away. And more and more people were talking and working on SMRs in Canada and around the world. And so clearly, it was accelerating and there was more and more enthusiasm and momentum as different pieces of the puzzle were being brought together. And all of a sudden, different groups are figuring out there's something real here and it could be really interesting and it could be really useful. So we had a lot of questions. You know, we're the group that leads on federal policy for nuclear energy, and we were seeing this wave of innovation coming down the pipeline and we wanted to know more about it. We wanted to know what are these reactors? Are they real? How far away are they and how much are they going to cost? Are they going to be competitive on the levelized cost of electricity? Is there a market in Canada? Is there a market around the world? How big is the market? We wanted to know how are we going to regulate these things? What kind of waste are they going to produce? What are we going to do with the waste? And then we wanted to know what the views of Canadians and also of Indigenous people in Canada. We had these big questions. And that was around 2017–2018. So in 2018, we convened a process called Canada's SMR Roadmap, and we invited all of the provinces and territories and all of the power utilities that were interested in SMRs at the time to join us and to help us do this analysis. And at that time, we had participation from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. And that was almost three years ago now. And there was already almost half of the jurisdictions in Canada starting to look at SMRs. Now, this steering group oversaw five expert working groups. We brought in experts from across the sector. And we were very clear we were not looking for the vendors and the ones that are trying to sell us the market. We listened to what they had to say, but we weren't taking it at face value. We wanted people from the demand side and from the experience engineering and procurement firms and from the operators' perspective and the regulators' perspective. We wanted to know what the evidence base was and at the end of a 10-month process. So we set up these expert working groups and we had workshops across the country and engagement sessions with Indigenous people. And at the end of the process, we summarized a report of Canada's SMR Roadmap, and that report set out what we learned and what we heard about SMRs. And so it was a really good snapshot of where the nation was at on SMRs in 2018, it was released in November 2018. You can find it still at SMRRoadMap.ca. Sometimes when you do that kind of project, you create a lot of buzz and momentum just by doing the project, because everybody's working on it. Everybody is talking about it. And then you publish your report and the report goes on a shelf somewhere and it kind of dies down and fizzles out and no one ever talks about it again. Well, nothing could be further from that. In the case of SMRs, in 2019, we saw even more momentum in Canada, stakeholders working on this. We saw industry and we saw the operators and then we saw four of the Canadian Premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick come together with a provincial premier level MOU (memorandum of understanding) and setting out their intention to collaborate on the development of SMRs. So clearly it wasn't just talk. Something real is happening and it's quite clear, not just in Canada, but around the world, that there is a bit of a race to bring this technology, to prove it, to demonstrate it and to deploy it for the benefit of citizens and for the benefit of the climate. Earlier this year in 2020, NRCan convened another pan-Canadian process. This time we're calling it Canada's SMR action plan. And it's a pan-Canadian initiative. Over 100 organizations have joined us this time. And this time it includes seven provinces and territories: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Yukon and Nunavut, as well as another hundred partners from industry and from the research community and universities and civil societies and some Indigenous voices as well. So the report of the SMR Action Plan will be a report out to Canadians, a snapshot of where the nation is at on SMRs in 2020.

Barbara Ustina

For our listeners right now, if they want to learn more about SMRs or they want to learn more about the action plan. Where can they get some of that information?

Diane Cameron

Well, a great place to start is SMRRoadMap.ca. And a lot of the analysis that we did in 2018 is still relevant today. And when we launch it, you'll be able to go to SMRactionplan.ca and see where we're at in 2020.

Joël Houle

Perfect. Thank you so much, Diane, for coming in and talking to us today. I'm sure we'll bring you back for a third episode at some point.

Diane Cameron

Awesome. Thanks, guys.

Joel Houle

That was a great interview! I always enjoy speaking with Diane. She has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to nuclear energy.

Barb Ustina

I know she's so well prepared and it's like she knows everything about it. There seems to be a lot of potential for this new SMR technology. But one of the things I found super interesting was that this is actually, it is a modular unit, you know, like we build modular homes, but instead of a modular home, this is actually a modular nuclear reactor that can be built in a factory and then shipped out to wherever it needed. That's really super interesting to me.

Joel Houle

Yeah, that flexibility, right! It offers up a lot of potential for industry and, you know, remote communities as well. That's really cool. So I guess if you, our audience would like to learn more about these small modular reactors or just nuclear energy in general, make sure to check out the links in the episode description. One of those links will be to our first podcast episode with Diane, which gives like a broader overview of nuclear energy in Canada. If you like this episode, feel free to share it with your friends. And if you share over Twitter, make sure to tag us. We have @NRCanScience for Simply Science as a whole, or you can tweet at us directly. I'm @JoelScience...

Barb Ustina

And I'm @SimplyScienceB, that's the letter 'B.' I'm just going to back up for a second because you mentioned the first podcast episode with Diane in the links. And I highly recommend, if you're listening right now, I highly recommend that you go back and you listen to that first podcast as well, because it's just full of information. I might also remind everyone that Simply Science has a website and a YouTube channel, which you should check out. We have in-depth articles of interest and videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada. And you can find those links in the episode description as well. And our social media channels are there too.

Joel Houle

Thank you, Barb, and thank you so much, everyone, for listening. We'll see you in the next episode.

Barb Ustina

See you then.

Photo Credit: Third Way

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