Nuclear reactors for the North?

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Economics, geography and “unknown” regulatory complexities makes proliferation of small modular reactors (SMRs) very unlikely in the Northwest Territories says the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA).

According to John Stewart, CNA president, 10 years is the soonest any such device could be employed anywhere in Canada, more likely in places where the primary power source remains coal.

“If you owned plants like New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and are currently burning icky stuff into the air, what you really don’t want to do is complicate the project by having to change the transmission structure,” Stewart told News/North. “You want the new generators to go in exactly where those coal plants were.” 

Outside of currently hydro-serviced regions North of 60, potential customers are diesel dependent communities and mines, but Peter Lang, president of Dunedin Energy Systems – which has built a six megawatt, self-contained reactor – said a smaller device can make the economic sense more elusive.

“Technically, it’s not terribly difficult to build a one megawatt reactor, but that will only generate so much of a revenue stream – you’ve got to staff it then decommission it after 20 or 30 years,” said Lang. “Whereas a 10 MegaWatt (MW) design is only incrementally more expensive, but offers ten times the revenue stream.”

Dunedin Energy has built a six-MW, self-contained configuration that Lang said is best-suited for smaller, long-term demands of a mine or community beholden to diesel. Large mines like those at Lac de Gras burn more power in a year than all of Nunavut.

“So, a 10-MegaWatt reactor would fit nicely into a place like Iqaluit, economically and in terms of base load (electricity demand),” said Lang adding that “district heating is something that could be introduced too.”

Tuktoyaktuk mayor Merven Gruben said “we’ve been throwing that around for years, but we usually get laughed out the door.”

“It’s the size of a trailer, these mini-reactors, and you can put it there for 20 years and makes so much sense to me,” said Gruben. “Nowadays, it’s used all over the place so I would not be worried.”

Attempts to tapping a new natural gas source for Tuktoyaktuk’s electric generator continue, said Gruben who called the $40 million granted to Inuvik for windmills “ridiculous.”

“They should spend that money to help us build a natural gas connection,” he said. “The status quo is trucking fuel up the highway and you’ll burn a hell of a lot of diesel doing that than natural gas or nuclear. The whole thing is ridiculous.”

According to Stewart, time frames for bringing SMR technology into the commercial realm tend to favour larger utilities that “can leverage capital” in a process still wrought with unknowns.

“We don’t really know that, because the regulatory model for SMRs hasn’t been fully shaped yet and also because the regulatory regime – Bill C-69 – is currently being changed,” he said. “Depending on how that applied to nuclear projects could really change the time frame.”

Markets like Iqaluit might be problematic, smaller communities even more so, according to Stewart.

“The hardest market to serve is the small community, 1,000 or 2,000 citizens,” said Stewart. “The complexity, the different encampments and associations, there are different local environmentalist constituencies … you’d have to spend a lot of time.”

Small reactors have been around for a while; about a half-dozen Canadian SLOWPOKE (safe low power critical experiment) reactors are used for research by places such as the University of Alberta and McMaster University. Built in the 70s by Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) these were roughly the size of a cinder block and just powerful enough to heat a bathtub full of water – AECL tried to build more powerful versions in the 1980s, but these got little traction because natural gas was cheap.

While military submariner applications have been around for decades, mini-reactors for commercial electricity have not been employed in Canada. The biggest ones, of the 900 MW variety, are in use at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario.

A myriad of countries are now in the race to bring the first reactors online and Canada’s regulatory regime is anticipated to serve as a model for future SMR project approvals. Five years ago, AECL were offering sales pitches to municipal politicos at the Chalk River nuclear site just outside of Ottawa.

But the technology has improved since then – relatively portable self-contained mini reactors or VSMRS and the “scaled down versions” of the 900 MW variety at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario.

Scaled versions of the 50MW variety will likely replace the dirtiest emitters first, like coal “if you’re going to close them down,” said Stewart.

Both Lang and Stewart noted the value of a willing mine partner whose adoption of SMR technology could serve a dual purpose as an education platform.

“A demonstration effect would be valuable and you might have it at a Northern mine site where you could bring people and show them that it works and it’s clean,” said Stewart. “They wouldn’t see that blanket of particle emissions (as you would see) from the diesel.”

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