What are small mo­du­lar re­ac­tors?

AND WHY ARE 3 PROV­INCES UNIT­ING TO BUILD THEM?

Montreal Gazette - - CANADA - AILEEN DONNELLY

On­tario, saskatchew­an and Man­i­toba have pledged to work to­gether to build smaller nu­clear re­ac­tors in an ef­fort to re­duce emissions and help fight cli­mate change. the premiers gath­ered on sun­day to sign a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing to de­velop small mo­du­lar re­ac­tors (SMRs) ahead of a meet­ing of the coun­cil of the Fed­er­a­tion. but the tech­nol­ogy is still in the early phases in canada — and around the world. Here’s what we know about SMRs, and the role they could play in help­ing canada meet its goal to re­duce green­house gas emissions 30 per cent be­low 2005 levels by 2030.

WHAT IS AN SMR?

small mo­du­lar re­ac­tors are ba­si­cally smaller-than-usual nu­clear re­ac­tors that are some­times con­sid­ered safer due to their size. they gen­er­ate less than 300 megawatts of elec­tric­ity (MWe) per re­ac­tor, and can be small enough to fit in a gym­na­sium, so they can op­er­ate in ar­eas where less power is re­quired. an SMR could even pro­vide power to off-grid lo­ca­tions where power needs are only be­tween two and 30 MWe. canada’s cur­rent nu­clear re­ac­tors sup­ply be­tween 515 and 881 MWe. SMRs are called “mo­du­lar” be­cause they can op­er­ate in­di­vid­u­ally, or as part of a larger nu­clear com­plex. Mul­ti­ple SMRs can be set up at a sin­gle nu­clear plant to sup­ply a sim­i­lar level of power as larger gen­er­a­tors, which means a nu­clear power plant could be ex­panded grad­u­ally, as de­mand in­creases.

WHERE COULD THEY BE USED IN CANADA?

SMRs could re­place larger nu­clear re­ac­tors when they are de­com­mis­sioned as well as co2-pro­duc­ing coal plants. they could also be used to pro­vide en­ergy to re­mote in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in canada that cur­rently rely on diesel. in ad­di­tion to gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity, SMRs can be used for wa­ter de­sali­na­tion, and they could be used to gen­er­ate heat for oil­sands pro­duc­tion. SMRs are touted as be­ing more at­trac­tive to com­mu­ni­ties that have not pre­vi­ously used nu­clear power. How­ever, it is yet to be seen if SMRs can be cost ef­fec­tive enough to compete with large-scale nu­clear plants and other forms of en­ergy.

WHY ARE THE PROV­INCES IN­TER­ESTED IN DE­VEL­OP­ING SMRS?

the fed­eral govern­ment plans to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030 un­less they use car­bon-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy. While on­tario elim­i­nated the last of its coal-fired plants in 2014, new brunswick still has one in oper­a­tion and 30 per cent of sask-Power’s elec­tric­ity comes from coal.

nu­clear power does not emit green­house gases, and the premiers see SMRs as an op­por­tu­nity to re­duce emissions while pro­vid­ing an eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity.

“We could be a world leader,” on­tario Premier doug Ford said of the ex­port po­ten­tial that could ben­e­fit on­tario.

this wouldn’t be canada’s first time de­vel­op­ing new nu­clear re­ac­tor tech­nol­ogy. canada got 15 per cent of its elec­tric­ity from nu­clear in 2017, and is one of only about half a dozen coun­tries that sells do­mes­tic-de­signed re­ac­tors. the candu is a pres­sur­ized heavy-wa­ter re­ac­tor de­signed in canada, and there are 18 of them in on­tario, 1 in new brunswick and 12 op­er­at­ing out­side canada.

canada de­scribes SMRs as “the next wave of in­no­va­tion in nu­clear en­ergy tech­nol­ogy.”

HOW ARE SMRS DIF­FER­ENT THAN LARGER RE­AC­TORS?

SMRs are in­tended to be con­structed in part or in whole in a fac­tory and then shipped to the site. this could al­low for cheaper con­struc­tion and shorter con­struc­tion times, ac­cord­ing to the World nu­clear as­so­ci­a­tion. Many of them are also de­signed to re­side un­der­ground, mak­ing them less sus­cep­ti­ble to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or ter­ror­ist at­tacks. they are also in­her­ently safer, ac­cord­ing to the World nu­clear as­so­ci­a­tion, thanks to their higher sur­face area to vol­ume ra­tio, when com­pared to larger re­ac­tors. ba­si­cally, they don’t get as hot, so there is less need to man­u­fac­ture a heat-re­moval system and other ad­vanced safety fea­tures. they also re­quire a smaller emer­gency plan­ning zone.

DOES THIS TECH­NOL­OGY HAVE ANY NEW AN­SWERS FOR HOW TO HAN­DLE NU­CLEAR WASTE?

no. as with re­ac­tors of any size, nu­clear waste can re­main ra­dioac­tive for as long as 100,000 years.

ARE OTHER COUN­TRIES DE­VEL­OP­ING THEM?

the in­ter­na­tional atomic en­ergy agency es­ti­mates that there are around 50 SMR de­signs at dif­fer­ent stages of de­vel­op­ment around the world, with ar­gentina, china and rus­sia ahead of other coun­tries.

WHEN COULD THE RE­AC­TORS START OP­ER­AT­ING?

the prov­inces hope that the tech­nol­ogy can be de­vel­oped and built within eight years. the cana­dian nu­clear safety com­mis­sion is re­view­ing the de­signs of about a dozen com­pa­nies, as part of the pre-li­cens­ing process, but none are ac­tu­ally close to be­ing able to build an SMR. still, the cana­dian small Mo­du­lar re­ac­tor roadmap pub­lished by the fed­eral govern­ment last year pre­dicted that the coun­try’s nu­clear in­dus­try is poised to cap­ture a sig­nif­i­cant share of the emerg­ing global mar­ket by 2040.

WE COULD BE A WORLD LEADER.

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