The Canadian nuclear industry is getting a fillip from Ottawa as it seeks to launch a dialogue with provinces, territories and electric utilities to develop a national roadmap for small modular reactors (SMRs) as part of its long-term climate and energy strategy.
The feds made the announcement in a 5 October response to a report on the state of the nuclear sector from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources issued in June. The committee recommended that the government support the research and development of SMRs—reactors much smaller (typically under 300 MW) and much cheaper than conventional designs, although yet to be commercially proven in Canada. One possibility upon further development of the technology, according to the government, could be to provide clean and reliable power to remote and northern communities, as well as to open up a new economic sector. The federal Ministry of Natural Resources is tasked with developing the roadmap.
This development is significant because currently many remote communities rely on diesel generators to supply their power, but even though this fossil fuel is in principle available 24 hours a day (“dispatchable” in energy systems jargon), these generators are often old and notoriously unreliable. Access to diesel fuel flown into such communities is also expensive, making economic development unattractive, and is frequently cut off due to harsh weather conditions.
Microgrid clean energy options such as wind and solar can reduce reliance on diesel, and such combined renewable-diesel systems are widespread in Alaska. But these energy sources are also variable, which potentially has devastating consequences for communities. Electricity to power water treatment cannot be completely trusted. For similar reasons, households resort to oil burners and wood stoves for heating and cooking, deteriorating air quality and increasing risk of fire. Poor air and water quality, in turn, result in health problems. And last year, nine members of a family in Pikangikum in northwestern Ontario died in a house fire. Indigenous leaders have described the lack of energy security in these communities as “Third World conditions.”
Community leaders say reliability comes first; clean energy second. The government noted that SMRs may offer the possibility of both, while for the wider economy, the technology could integrate greater quantities of variable renewable options than is currently possible by delivering backup when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. At the moment, in most places without access to hydroelectricity, backup for variable renewables typically is provided by natural gas, a fossil fuel that may be less carbon-intensive than coal, but must also eventually be wound down to avoid dangerous climate change.
The standing committee’s recommendations dovetail calls by the government of Saskatchewan, home to the country’s uranium reserves, to develop an SMR industry. In 2016, Ontario and the federal government funded a study exploring the readiness of SMRs for remote mines and communities in the province and found options at prices that are competitive with diesel. The national nuclear energy and medicine research centre, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario, is currently exploring the viability of SMR technology for the country more widely.
Elsewhere in the response to the committee, the government committed to expanding training of nuclear professionals, to support the establishment of a nuclear innovation council with representatives from all levels of government, and to facilitate public understanding of nuclear safety and “demystify the sector” in order to build public confidence.
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