Ontario’s largest energy utility is working with Saskatchewan power authorities to explore the development of a fleet of ‘small modular reactors’ (SMRs) that can nimbly respond to the emerging demand for more clean electricity as the country attempts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The vice-president for strategy and acquisitions at Ontario Power Generation, Nicolle Butcher, gave a speech last month to the International SMR and Advanced Reactor Summit describing how climate targets are presenting new challenges for energy planners.
Due to uncertainties over how and whether these targets will be achieved on time, smaller scale reactors (SMRs) and even very small modular reactors (VSMRs) are better adapted for the clean transition than conventional large-scale nuclear reactors. The main reason is that SMRs can be deployed bit by bit, rather than in one large chunk, making them potentially more responsive to new policy or market developments.
As a result, OPG intends to cover the predicted gaps with SMRs and VSMRs. The utility wants to achieve the maximum possible economies of scale by convincing its counterparts in other provinces to deploy multiple reactors. OPG is already collaborating with Saskatchewan, the second largest producer of uranium in the world, to figure out how to develop what she calls a “pan-Canadian approach.” OPG and Saskpower are looking at how they could ensure use of the same reactor design across jurisdictions.
The two utilities believe there is a potential market for grid-size SMRs in coal-dependent Alberta and Saskatchewan, while VSMRs could provide clean electricity for far-flung mining operations and remote communities currently dependent on diesel generators in northern Ontario, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
However, the Alberta government has said it is “not considering” nuclear to replace its coal plants, favouring renewables backed up with natural gas instead. At the same time, Japan’s Toshiba corporation is aiming to deliver small reactors to power oil sands operations by 2020. Critics of the effort worry about seismic activity in the region, particularly after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 where, following a major earthquake, a tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three reactors, resulting in meltdown of the three reactor cores.
British Columbia’s 2010 Clean Energy Act aims to achieve its climate and energy goals without the help of nuclear power, and is widely described as a prohibition on the technology in the more seismically active province.
Some 20 percent of the world’s reactors are located in earthquake danger zones, according to the World Nuclear Association. As a result, seismic hazard analysis is performed to ensure that plants can withstand earthquakes, and reactors are designed to shut down when an earthquake is detected. However, these systems are not perfect. In Japan, it was not the earthquake, but the subsequent tsunami that led to the meltdown.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.