In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
Advances in small modular reactors
This month’s EIB focuses on advances in the development and deployment of Small Modular Reactors or SMRs, which are small scale nuclear reactors.
SMRs provide between 15 and 300 megawatts (MW) of power compared to the 500-4,000 MW output of a traditional nuclear reactor. Modular means they can be built off-site and then assembled or combined on-site, making them useful for remote applications. SMRs thus offer a scalable and versatile version of nuclear power technology with substantial economic and material savings.
While interest in SMRs has been rising across the globe, the technology has many skeptics with questions raised about whether the technology is feasible, the cost is reasonable and the timeline is appropriate. The stories below are a way to start answering these questions.
Although this brief focuses strictly on SMR technologies, there are many other nuclear initiatives underway. For instance, the U.K. is undergoing a “British Nuclear Renaissance” with eight new large-scale reactors planned. And the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy claimed that August was the best month for the U.S. nuclear sector ever. Interest in nuclear power is not universal, with many countries, like Germany, decommissioning older plants due to safety concerns.
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news
01| Canada’s first grid-scale SMR could be operational by 2028
02| Alberta signs first-of-its-kind MOU for nuclear development
03| Not just small… very small
04| China clears experimental reactor for start-up
05| U.S. approves first SMR design
06| NASA investigates moon-stationed nuclear power plants
Canada’s first grid-scale SMR could be operational by 2028
Canada’s first grid-scale SMR is being constructed at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario to partially replace the output of the Pickering nuclear plant, which is scheduled to be retired in 2026.
The project is being carried out by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) which hopes to use the opportunity for Ontario to become embedded in a global supply chain for SMRs. OPG has chosen to use General Electric’s Hitachi BWRX-300 SMR reactor, a 300 MW light water reactor. The choice has generated controversy because OPG opted to purchase a U.S. design by GE Hitachi rather than sourcing from a Canadian supplier such as Terrestrial Energy. Some observers feel the decision may have long-reaching implications for the success of Canada’s home-grown nuclear industry. However, turning to GE has been described as the “conservative choice” because the BWRX-300 is the tenth generation of the company’s light water reactor design.
OPG hasn’t released its costs, but PWC estimates the project will cost around $2 billion over seven years, generate nearly $1.3 billion in gross domestic product and produce over 1,700 jobs in Canada.
Alberta signs first-of-its-kind MOU for nuclear development
While Terrestrial Energy’s technology may not have been chosen for the Darlington nuclear site, the company is making inroads in other provinces. On August 11, 2022, Invest Alberta and Terrestrial Energy signed a first-of-its-kind MOU to support nuclear development in Alberta—specifically, the deployment of Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR).
The IMSR is an SMR designed to operate as a co-generation plant—supplying both heat and power for industrial operations. The electricity can be moved using standard power transmission lines, and the heat output can be transported to secondary locations via steam pipelines or molten salt loops. Press releases about the MOU do not state where or for what purposes the technology will be used. However Sonya Savage, Government of Alberta Minister of Energy, noted its potential for use in the oil sands (where super-heated steam is required in processing and for in-situ production methods) and for industrial applications (such as the petrochemical sector). Terrestrial also noted its potential use in supporting hydrogen and ammonia production.
Although implementation is still a long way out, this MOU represents a big step in pursuing the province’s long-term SMR strategy and will also help commercialize Canadian SMR technology.
Not just small… very small
You think SMRs are small? Very Small Modular Reactors (vSMRs), also known as micro-reactors, are a subcategory of SMRs that produce less than 15MW of electricity. In May 2022, both the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) and McMaster University signed agreements to pilot vSMRs in Canada.
The SRC partnered with Westinghouse Canada to test the company’s eVinci micro-reactor—which is planned to be up and running in 2028. The eVinci essentially operates as a rechargeable nuclear battery. It is pre-assembled and pre-fuelled, and when the fuel is spent the unit is sent back to its point of manufacture. Its self-contained design removes the need for nuclear waste storage or disposal on site. The unit can be easily transported to remote locations, and installation can be completed in less than 30 days on a site half the size of a hockey rink. The reactor will be capable of providing combined heat and power with an electrical capacity of 5 MW—enough to power roughly 5,000 homes.
McMaster University has partnered with Global First Power and Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation to study the feasibility of deploying a Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) at the McMaster campus or an affiliated site. The MMR is a fourth-generation vSMR technology that can be operated for 20 years without refuelling. USNC compares the technology to an emission-free natural gas plant, due to its ability to quickly react to changes in demand and compensate for declines in power production from intermittent renewables.
China clears experimental reactor for start-up
After starting construction in September 2018, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) has just cleared an experimental thorium-powered molten salt reactor (TMSR-LF1) for start-up. The construction of the 2-megawatt-thermal reactor was completed in August 2021, three years ahead of schedule.
Molten salt reactors (MSRs) attempt to address one of the biggest factors in the safety of nuclear power plants: the loss of the ability to cool the fuel, leading to overheating or meltdowns. Rather than fuel rods cooled by water, MSRs suspend the fuel in a solution of molten fluoride or chloride salts. A rapid increase in temperature causes the salts to expand, moving the molecules further apart and resulting in a drop in the fission reaction – a self-controlling behaviour that doesn’t require operator intervention.
The TMSR-LF1 will start with a mix of 20 per cent thorium and 80 per cent uranium, with the goal of gradually working up to 80 per cent thorium. Using thorium brings additional benefits. Thorium is unable to undergo nuclear fission on its own—making it much more difficult to utilize in weaponry. And thorium waste is much less radioactive than uranium waste – some reports indicate that thorium generates between 1,000 and 10,000 times less radiotoxicity than uranium and the waste is radioactive for 500 years instead of 10,000.
MSRs are by no means new technology. Scientists have been researching MSRs since the 1960s but the technology has never reached commercialization. However, interest in the concept has been renewed since the Gen IV International Forum—a partnership between 14 nations to collaborate on advanced nuclear systems—included MSRs in its technology roadmap. If successful, MSRs could offer a safer route for nuclear energy, allowing for wider utilization without the concerns about safe decommissioning and nuclear proliferation that exist with traditional nuclear power.
U.S. approves first SMR design
In August 2022, after eight years of development, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the first SMR design for use in America. The NuScale SMR, designed by NuScale Power, is an integral pressurized-water reactor capable of producing 50 MW of power. Although the power output of the reactor is relatively low, NuScale’s reactor building is designed to hold up to 12 SMRs, giving the power plant a total capacity of 600 MW.
The first NuScale SMR power plant is expected to be operational by 2029 and will be located in Idaho Falls as part of the Carbon Free Power Project. The plant will consist of six SMR modules with an increased capacity of 77 MW per unit. The project is part of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plan to advance nuclear technologies to provide economic zero-emission power to communities in the Intermountain West.
NASA investigates moon-stationed nuclear power plants
As outlined in this brief, nuclear power is well suited for use in remote regions like the Canadian North and Alberta’s oil sands operations. But NASA has its sights set on an even more remote location—the moon.
In support of its Artemis program—an initiative with the goal of not only on returning to the moon, but on developing a permanent presence there—NASA has launched a Fission Surface Power project. The project will develop nuclear reactors capable of being launched into space and providing long-term power for future moon missions. Eight months after issuing a call for proposals, NASA has awarded three U.S. companies with 12-month contracts to develop preliminary designs for lunar-based fission reactors. The reactors must be capable of supplying a minimum of 40 KW of power for a duration of at least 10 years.
Powering the moon is a unique challenge. The lack of atmosphere means wind and combustion-based sources of power are out of the question, and the long duration of a lunar night—over 14 days—means solar power would experience extreme variability. This leaves scientists with few options to power future expeditions, but perhaps nuclear is up for the task.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke, and Tyler Robinson. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .