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Small modular reactors: Driving energy security with nuclear power

February 26, 2024

By Jag Singh

The energy transition can leverage small modular reactors to provide a strong, clean baseload generation capacity and complement renewable energy

As we push forward with the energy transition, experts from around the globe are coming together to develop thoughtful solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues. The most obvious challenge we face is continuing to power our communities while reducing the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions being released into the atmosphere. But in trying to solve this problem, other challenges arise. How can we deliver clean energy to regions that can’t generate it? How can we secure the water supply needed for large-scale hydrogen production? And most importantly, how can we establish a reliable energy grid with the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power?

Traditional fossil fuel-based power generation, while a significant emitter of GHGs, provides a reliable baseload generation capacity for our energy grids. Reliability is essential to communities and promotes confidence in our energy infrastructure. But as part of the energy transition, we are reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and moving towards cleaner forms of energy like wind and solar. However, these forms of energy are intermittent in nature—the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. So how can we reduce emissions while ensuring a reliable grid? One answer is small modular reactors (SMRs).

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that can help us generate reliable, consistent power while emitting no GHGs. This is why they are such a hot topic with utilities right now. In Canada, we are seeing multiple provinces adopt SMRs as they move away from traditional fossil fuels. Ontario has embraced SMRs and is leading the way on project development. Saskatchewan is planning enough SMRs to potentially provide a surplus of energy within the province. And my home province of Alberta isn’t far behind, especially after a series of winter cold snaps in January 2024 almost compromised our energy grid. These events led Alberta’s Energy Minister to announce the exploration of SMRs in the province.

SMRs are important to me in my role as Nuclear Lead at Stantec. But in knowing that many people might not know a lot about the technology—or the benefits it can bring us—I thought it would be helpful to review SMRs and how they can help us provide reliable power to communities while driving the clean energy transition forward.

SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that can help us generate reliable, consistent power while releasing no GHGs into the atmosphere.

What are small modular reactors?

Before I get into the history of SMRs, let’s call out the elephant in the room: nuclear power. When most people think of nuclear power, they probably think of the catastrophic failure in Chernobyl. And that’s not unfair—the tragedy of Chernobyl had massive consequences that are still reverberating today. But for the sake of this discussion, let me be clear: SMRs are safe and meltdowns like what happened in the past aren’t possible with this new technology. According to experts from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), most new SMR technologies “improve safety over existing reactors by employing passive safety systems that do not rely on electrical power sources or operators’ intervention to function during accidents.” They are inherently walk away safe and present far less risk than traditional nuclear plants.

SMRs generate power from nuclear fission, a process in which atoms of uranium (and in some cases plutonium) are split. This process creates thermal energy that generates steam to spin turbines and produce electricity. Scientists first generated electricity from nuclear fission in the mid-1950s. Early SMRs were used on naval applications like submarines and warships for decades. Then in 2007, nuclear scientists at Oregon State University invented the first commercial SMR. Since then, companies have been hard at work trying to implement SMRs at scale, working with local governments to make this nuclear dream a reality.

However, there are a few barriers to overcome.

  • Public perception: Our communities need to feel safe and secure when adopting nuclear technology. We can achieve this through education, robust stakeholder engagement, and strong community relations focused on correcting commonly held misconceptions regarding nuclear technology, which is actually one of the safest industries in the world.
  • Cost: These projects require a significant amount of economic investment, which may seem daunting at first. How can we trust the economic viability of an energy program we haven’t really experienced before? Spoiler alert: the economics of an SMR program can actually be quite valuable to communities who embrace it (but more on that later). And while the capital cost to build these facilities is significant, the cost of electricity to consumers will likely have a meaningful reduction over the amortization period for the life of the facility. According to GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, the levelized cost of electricity for SMRs could be around $60 per megawatt hour (MWh), far less than electricity produced from traditional fossil fuels. These estimates can vary and will likely change over time.
  • Waste: People are often concerned with the waste material produced by nuclear power. The good news? SMRs not only produce very little waste, but there are technologies—both available now and in development—that enable the recycling of that waste through the reactors. This allows us to get the most value out of our resources and produce as little waste matter as possible.

Now that we got through some of the perceived challenges facing SMRs, let’s review some of the key benefits that these facilities can bring to localities that embrace the technology.

SMRs not only provide energy security, but also social, economic, and environmental benefits.

The benefits of SMRs

The clearest benefit of SMRs is energy security. They give us the ability to generate consistent, clean power—24 hours a day, 7 days a week—as we move further away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy. Also, SMRs don’t depend on site characteristics like excess wind or sunlight. They can be installed anywhere and plugged into the electrical infrastructure we’ve been using for decades.

But there are other benefits to adopting an SMR program as well. Let’s review a few of them below:

  • Socioeconomics: One of the biggest benefits of an SMR program is the billions of dollars of investment that these projects can bring to communities. Having reliable power at an affordable cost can bring great prosperity to those communities who adopt the SMR technology. Plus, the infusion of that kind of capital into a local economy can have a profound impact on regional services, such as bolstering small businesses, increased school funding, and other social programs.
  • Job Creation: Another benefit that SMRs bring is the creation of well-paying jobs to communities. The construction and operating lifecycle for SMRs is approximately 60 years. This includes everything from design, construction, transmission and distribution services, operations, and maintenance. The plants also need to be decommissioned, which could lead to many more years. Additionally, SMR projects require environmental planning, monitoring, and remediation services. It is critical to promote robust environmental stewardship from before these projects are started until long after they’re finished.
  • Powering rural and remote communities: One of my favorite features of SMRs is just how ideal they are for rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. A lot of these communities aren’t connected to the larger electrical grid and must generate power themselves. Microgrids have become an increasingly popular option when facing these challenges and SMRs can serve these microgrids well. They can help generate and distribute power for northern Indigenous communities, and they also can help remote mine sites to decarbonize. 

A rendering of an ARC facility that highlights how SMRs can complement renewable energy. Image Credit: ARC Clean Technology.

Different kinds of SMR technology

SMRs are relatively new compared to most of our traditional energy infrastructure. And the technology will only continue to evolve as we embrace this innovation, and the markets will follow accordingly. Here are a few main types of SMRs currently in use:

  • GE-Hitachi BWRX300, (Generation III, thermal neutron spectrum): The BWRX-300 is a water-cooled, natural circulation reactor that uses boiling water reactor (BWR) technology. It is designed to be cost-competitive with gas and can be deployed for electricity generation and industrial applications, including hydrogen production, desalination, and district heating. The reactor has a net electrical capacity of 300 MW(e) and a refueling cycle of 12-24 months. The fuel is Low Enriched Uranium in pellet form. The approach to safety systems is fully passive and the design life is 60 years.
  • ARC Clean Technology ARC-100 (Generation IV, fast neutron spectrum): The ARC-100 is a 100MWe liquid metal fast reactor. It uses liquid metal as the reactor coolant in place of the water that is typically used in commercial nuclear power plants. The fast neutron spectrum allows fast reactors to use both fissile materials and reprocessed spent nuclear fuel to produce heat. The fuel for the reactor is currently metallic HALEU pellets. The refueling cycle is currently expected around 20 years. Liquid sodium metal allows the ARC-100 to operate at higher temperatures (outlet of 510°C) and lower pressures than current reactors while improving both the thermal efficiency of the reactor. This is perfect for industrial steam applications such as supporting the oil sands and mining operations. The design includes passive safety features that do not require operator intervention. The ARC-100 will also have a design life of 60 years.
  • Moltex Energy SSR-W (Generation IV, fast neutron spectrum): The fast spectrum “Wasteburner” SSR-W Molten Salt 300MWe is fueled by higher actinides from recycled conventional spent fuel. Unlike other technologies, molten salt reactors (MSR) use molten fluoride or chloride salts as a coolant. This provides greater thermal properties than water, allowing operations at higher temperatures. The Moltex reactor has the trans-uranic elements (TRUs) dissolved in the salt forming liquid fuel in assemblies as opposed to solid fuel pellets. MSRs are designed to use less fuel and produce shorter-lived radioactive waste than other reactor types. They have the potential to significantly change the safety posture and economics of nuclear energy production by processing fuel online, removing waste products, and adding fresh fuel without lengthy refueling outages. Their operation can be tailored for the efficient burn up of plutonium and minor actinides, which could allow MSRs to consume waste from other reactors. The reactor is walk-away safe with passive safety features. The design life is yet to be confirmed but is expected to be in line with other SMR technologies.

SMRs should continue to part of the discussion around energy security as we push forward with the energy transition.

Driving the energy transition with SMRs

The transition away from fossil fuels and towards sources of renewable energy is part of a positive mission to protect the planet for future generations. But we also must ensure a reliable, resilient electrical grid that can deliver power to communities when they need it. Wind and solar generation generally can’t achieve that alone, and that’s where SMRs can provide incredible value to our energy infrastructure.

SMRs not only provide energy security, but also social, economic, and environmental benefits. They can be put to use anywhere, and they can especially help us to power rural, remote, and Indigenous communities who aren’t tied into the grid. A significant investment? Yes. Significant positive outcomes? Definitely.

SMRs should continue to part of the discussion around energy security as we push forward with the energy transition. And it is my hope that after reading this blog, you will feel more familiar with this technology and more open to exploring the development of your own SMR program.

Want to learn more? Reach out to me directly. 

  • Jag Singh

    Jag has extensive experience in the nuclear energy, renewable, and oil and gas sectors—providing solutions for a sustainable, clean energy future. He specializes in nuclear energy and small modular reactors.

    Contact Jag
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