Are small nuclear reactors the solution to Canada’s net-zero ambitions?

By Martin Boucher, Faculty Lecturer, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan   

Features nuclear energy small modular reactor SMR

By promising faster construction, lower costs and enhanced safety, SMRs are not just another alternative energy source

Cooling towers for a conventional nuclear power plant in France. Photo: AdobeStock/JackF.

As Canada grapples with the imperative to meet its net-zero carbon emission targets, a new player has emerged on the energy scene: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These compact reactors present a modern twist on traditional nuclear technology, which has languished without significant new developments for three decades.

By promising faster construction, lower costs and enhanced safety, SMRs are not just another alternative energy source. They represent a potential game-changer in our energy landscape.

But is this the solution Canada has been waiting for in our quest for net-zero?

In my academic career exploring the energy transition — from researching energy efficiency in low-income households  to fostering renewable energy co-operatives and decentralized energy systems — the most common hurdle I have observed is achieving the right scale and speed of deployment.

SMRs offer an intriguing proposition, potentially overcoming deployability challenges due to their uniquely scalable and flexible implementation. But as with any emerging technology, their promise comes with uncertainties.

What are small nuclear reactors?

SMRs offer a compact alternative to nuclear power, with outputs much smaller than traditional reactors, usually in the range of 10 to a few hundred megawatts — enough to indefinitely power approximately 10,000 to 300,000 homes. This smaller scale and modularity allows for more flexible site placement and potentially faster, more cost-effective construction.

Unlike large-scale renewables, SMRs provide a less visually intrusive and space-consuming option, making them suitable for diverse locations, including remote areas.

The overall life-cycle emissions of SMRs are significantly lower than those of fossil fuels, and comparable to other low-carbon energy sources like wind and solar power.

Emerging technology concerns

The primary concerns with SMRs are their largely untested nature on a commercial scale and the speculative nature of their economic projections. The actual costs of building, operating and maintaining these reactors could differ significantly from initial estimates. For instance, the recently approved Oregon-based NuScale cancelled their project, citing concerns related to its escalating costs.

Regulatory hurdles also present a challenge, necessitating the development of new regulations and standards, which can be a time-consuming and complex process.

Canada’s approach to managing waste from SMRs echoes its policy for conventional nuclear plants, addressing a key concern in the nuclear debate.

The strategy, shaped by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, integrates community input and focuses on sustainable, long-term disposal solutions. This reflects Canada’s proactive stance on responsible and environmentally conscious nuclear waste management.

For SMRs to succeed in Canada, it’s essential to establish a supportive regulatory environment, ensure financial viability and leverage existing nuclear expertise while focusing on safety and environmental sustainability.

Economic and environmental potential

Economically, SMRs present a promising avenue for growth. A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada projects that building and operating a fleet of four SMRs could contribute approximately $15.3 billion to Canada’s GDP, with a notable $13.7 billion impact on Ontario’s economy.

According to the Conference Board, this initiative is also expected to sustain 2,000 jobs annually over the next 65 years, marking a significant stride in job creation.

Environmentally, SMRs stand out for their potential in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the heavy industrial sector. Projections suggest that by 2050, SMRs could reduce these emissions by 18 per cent, signifying a considerable step towards Canada’s net-zero goals.

SMRs, alongside renewable energy sources like solar and wind, as well as advancements in energy efficiency, are crucial components to reduce emissions at the scale necessary to reach our national targets.

The current state

The journey towards SMR development is marked by strategic initiatives and significant investment.

The Canadian government’s Enabling Small Modular Reactors Program underscores this commitment with its funding pool of $29.6 million over the next four years.

Financing provided by the Canada Infrastructure Bank for the Darlington SMR project in Clarington, Ont. further positions Canada at the forefront of commercial SMR deployment. Meanwhile, Ontario has received approval for the development of the first SMR in Canada, the GE BWRX-300, by 2028.

At this crossroads, SMRs represent more than an innovative clean energy solution; they offer a chance for Canada to assert global leadership in a rapidly evolving energy landscape.

As the world races to mitigate climate change and energy security, Canada has the opportunity to pioneer a technology that could make significant strides to advance the energy transition.

A collaborative approach

Amid tensions surrounding Canada’s carbon tax, SMRs are emerging as a point of collaborative progress.

The Canadian federal government has shown substantial support for SMRs. The SMR Action Plan was launched in December 2020 with significant progress across sectors: from utilities, municipalities, provincial governments, vendors and universities to Indigenous organizations.

Together, Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Alberta have made a joint strategic plan for SMRs and an inter-provincial Memorandum of Understanding. These commitments — and more — show strong collaboration.

As Canada ventures into developing SMRs, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture — a now-or-never moment in our energy transition. This exploration isn’t merely about embracing a new technology; it’s a crucial opportunity to assert leadership in global clean energy innovation and make tangible strides toward our net-zero targets.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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