Going small to get big: arms race for first small nuclear reactors
The Canadian provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have climbed on a wagon occupied by the United States, Russia and China which are in a race to build the first small nuclear reactors, SMRs, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help combat climate change.
Although the technology is still in the early phases, there is a growing belief that it could become commercially viable by developing SMRs, which are rated as compact, affordable, quick to construct and in some cases transportable.
Although the SMRs would generate less than 300 megawatts of electricity per unit, they can operate in areas where less power is required - an enticing prospect for frontier oil development such as the oil sands in Canada.
An SMR could even provide power to off-grid locations where power needs are as little as 2MW to 30MW and could replace large nuclear reactors when they are decommissioned as well as coal plants that are identified as some of the greatest culprits in producing carbon dioxide.
In addition, SMRs could be used for water desalination.
Cost effective?But it has yet to be established whether SMRs could be cost effective enough to compete with largescale nuclear plants, or other forms of energy.
However, Canada’s estimated uranium resources are already well established in Saskatchewan, while what is rated as the world’s largest uranium reserve lies just northeast of Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the heart of the oil sands operations and is being developed by NexGen Energy.
The Vancouver-based company, whose biggest shareholder is Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men, has estimated uranium grades from the deposit at 20% or more and has the potential to supply one-fifth of the global uranium market.
John Gorman, president of the Canadian Nuclear Association, wrote in the Globe and Mail that the “development and deployment of SMRs has the potential to be even more transformative than the introduction of wind and solar power.”
He said the small reactors could “generate clean and inexpensive electricity for decades ... and could be scaled to suit local needs.”
Although the price tag on one of the new advanced reactors is about C$1 billion, Gorman said bulk purchasing of parts and replication of skills would reduce costs further,” while the payoff could stretch over several decades.
“We’re about to witness a fascinating race to determine the best SMR design,” he said, forecasting that Canadian Nuclear Laboratories plans to have a demonstration unit built by 2026.
Gorman said the agreement by the three provinces “is the beginning of a transformation of our energy sector,” which could resolve the divisions within Canada over energy and climate change, notably between the Canadian and provincial governments.
- GARY PARK