Small Modular Reactors (SMRs): Unlocking emerging SMR possibilities and new energy paradigms
Change is inevitable. It could manifest itself through shifting motivations and trends or advances in technology. But... it isn’t often that we are faced with or can envision a shift, a change of such magnitude, that it could trigger a paradigm shift (see SMRs – a Quick Primer). Our collective perspective and attitudes are not necessarily fixed, but they don’t adapt easily or quickly, and take time to change at the society level. Unlocking the potential of SMRs for energy production is one case in point.
As stated in the first SMR blog posted late last year, there are roughly 50 SMR designs in various stages of development worldwide. In Canada, there are currently 9 SMR designs with 3-to-300MW electrical capacity in various stages of the CNSC pre-licensing vendor design review (as of February 11, 2020). These SMR technologies will require substantial financial support (business case blog) to turn the concept into reality. On top of the design and material costs, there are substantial obstacles related to our limited knowledge of new technologies, public support (perceptions and misconceptions blog) and experience.
In 2017, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) gathered responses from a range of stakeholders on specific issues related to the successful deployment of SMRs as part of a Request for Expression of Interest on its SMR program, then issued a summary report. The CNL SMR Summary report was comprehensive with responses from a variety of industry stakeholders, but the field of view may have inherently been somewhat narrowed due to respondent bias towards the ultimate success of the CNL SMR program. As such, I’ve selected three key themes mentioned in the CNL SMR Summary report to do with safe-by-design technologies; government and regulatory support; and the economics of SMRs, and then searched literatures for alternative viewpoints to delve into and discuss within the final blog in this SMR series on obstacles to development and deployment.
SMR technologies must be safe-by-design, given their standalone nature and their application for remote locations. Passive and/or inherent safety features to enable “walk away” safety is an absolute key requirement, as stressed by many respondents in the CNL SMR Summary report. The security, safety, and environmental impact of multiple SMR designs need to be tested and verified. The proposed path forward is to use existing licensed sites for demonstration SMRs and then to use those “tested” SMRs to power a host community and / or an energy intensive project. Will these measures be enough to build public confidence needed? Our safety record and experience in Canada has been limited mostly to CANDU and some research reactors, so dedicated effort to prove and communicate the safe-by-design nature of SMRs is essential.
But what about the small Pressure Water Reactors (PWRs) used by militaries to power aircraft carriers and submarines that for decades have been in operation in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France? These small PWRs are akin to some of the proposed SMR technologies. The past safety records and practices used in NATO navies for small PWRs could be instructive for developing safety practices for the deployment of SMRs on land.
Government and Regulatory Support
The CNL SMR Summary report noted a need for consistent long-term political support. This includes political support and leadership, financial support, policy tools, and effective communications with the public on the benefits and safety of SMRs. Strong evidence of this much-needed political support was recently demonstrated with the announcement that Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have signed a memorandum of understanding on the development of SMRs.
In Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is well-recognized as a predictable and reputable regulator. The CNSC has successfully implemented a robust and flexible regulatory regime that is accepting of new technologies and could be a major enabler for the potential deployment of SMRs in Canada. The costs and timeline for getting approval for SMRs presents something of an obstacle to rollout, despite the inherently safe nature of SMR design. The existing regulatory regime should be examined to determine what baseline elements should apply to SMR regulation, and where new regulation more suitable to the specific nature of SMRs could be developed.
The discussion on SMR deployment has been largely focused on political support and regulatory requirements, which are clearly success factors. But also raises the question of whether they are relevant if the commercial issues associated with the successful development and deployment of SMRs are not addressed.
From the CNL SMR summary report, if the SMR vendors are not able to demonstrate the economic benefit of their reactor technology design, or if the capital or lifecycle costs are too high, there is no room for success. What might be the potential market share? Low gas prices and emission reductions from coal plants could end up leaving little room for SMRs, except in niche markets such as projects requiring large energy resources and remote communities.
How will these SMR technologies gain the competitive economics needed? The SMRs are smaller and less expensive to build than the current larger CANDU reactors, though economies of scale are larger for CANDU reactors on a per-megawatt basis.
Some of these savings can be realized through large-scale production of identical or very similar reactors, with additional efficiencies generated through learning on the production line; the same thing that happens with any manufacturing process. But… I have seen arguments that production of SMRs would “need to be in the thousands” to realize this level of savings and economies-of-scale. Is it possible for the potential market share for SMRs to be large enough to accomplish this? If so, how many vendor designs can the market support? The cost argument is a powerful one, though this should not exclude the possibility of moving forward to enable remote communities to gain independence, for energy intensive industries to reduce emissions, or to combat our contribution to climate change.
Some of the biggest questions that remain are: How do we get from where we are to where we should be going? How do we define the “should” for SMRs, with our mixed perspectives on energy issues? How do we collectively embrace a new energy paradigm for Canada?
Dr. Adrienne Ethier is a Senior Nuclear Analyst for Calian Group in Ottawa.
Christine McNally is a Senior Nuclear Analyst for Calian Group in Ottawa
Jordan Miller is Program Manager - Strategic Initiatives & Public Affairs for Calian Group in Ottawa