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Small modular reactors (SMRs) hold tremendous potential promise as a source of nuclear energy power generation that is inexpensive, safe and readily deployed.

These small advanced nuclear reactors, which are scalable with application and generate power up to 300 MW per module, could:

  • be pre-fab manufactured and shipped for installation as opposed to custom-built on site, reducing costs;
  • scale to match load requirements and deployed where needed, such as remote locations;
  • be used in tandem with alternative energy sources to provide baseload power and replace diesel and other carbon-emitting energy sources to run electricity grids;
  • cut emissions of greenhouse gases and mitigate the impacts of climate change by replacing traditional fossil-fuel usage.

Currently there are a range of SMR designs and concepts in various stages of development around the world, with Argentina, China and Russia the only countries where SMRs are currently in the advanced stages of construction. With so much potential, there remain challenges. Here, I look at three ways we can address some of the potential major obstacles to commercialization.

Challenge 1: Public Perceptions of Nuclear Power

While this may be the single greatest obstacle, there is good reason to think we can shift perceptions.

In 2012, the Canadian Nuclear Association found in a national survey that 37% of respondents supported nuclear power and 53% opposed it. Chief among the public’s concerns were safety, waste management and cost. Perception is important. Poor or misguided science can also falsely inform public opinion and, as a consequence, has the potential to adversely affect the future role of nuclear power and SMR success in the Canadian market.

In addition to this, much of the challenge here is related to the distinction between community and individual welfare. People often cannot see how they personally benefit from nuclear energy – which hampers support for it.

For instance, take the benefits of medical isotopes, which are produced in nuclear power reactors. Many of us have loved ones or friends whose life was saved because of the medical isotopes used to diagnose or treat their cancer. And yet, most of us completely take for granted the power stemming from a nuclear reactor when we switch the light on in our kitchen. If the public could better connect with and appreciate the various benefits of nuclear power they would be more likely to support it.

One potential way to help people make this connection would be to consider having one or more SMRs designed to serve more than one of the potential applications for nuclear reactors: carbon-free emission energy production, nuclear scientific research, and the production of medical isotopes. Those applications from SMRs with broader public acceptance (medical isotopes) could help mitigate concerns about issues that have lower public acceptance (nuclear energy), and as such, improve the overall likelihood that technology will be successful.

Public consultation with First Nations and other stakeholders, including discussion and knowledge sharing, will be key to paving the way forward to greater public support for SMRs in Canada. It’s important to get the message out about the safety of SMR designs, owing to their smaller size and relative simplicity.

Challenge 2 – Building the Business Case

Many questions remain before a sound business case can be made for deploying SMRs, including (but not limited to) continued construction and fabrication costs, and the cost of decommissioning versus the long-term value of the power produced.

SMRs, because of their smaller size, have a greater overhead burden per MWe produced. This overhead burden can be substantial and is generally fixed, but the overall economics can be improved with a fleet approach to mitigate these costs (i.e., economies of scale).

Manufacturing innovations, such as 3D printing, are also now being implemented to further reduce the costs associated with manufacturing. A third aspect to consider in building the business case are design simplifications and the ease of maintenance that must be built into the design to minimize ongoing operational costs.

Early focus on areas with the strongest business case (e.g. mining) would also help facilitate movement from individual units to an entire fleet. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and NRCan have both made great strides in facilitating the licensing process and mitigating potential setbacks through collaborative efforts (yet there is potential for increased timelines and uncertainty stemming from the introduction of Bill C-69).

Challenge 3 – Development & Deployment

There remains some work to be done before we move into deployment. SMR designs need further testing and verification for security, safety, and assessment of potential environmental impact (i.e., where challenges will also arise due to data limitations). Engineers are looking for additional data sources to help parameterize predictive models and build safety cases, but there is minimal data for non-CANDU reactor technologies in Canada. That said, there are roughly 50 SMR designs in various stages of development worldwide, with exciting potential.

In 2018, Natural Resources Canada convened the SMR Roadmap Project, a national consultation involving potential end-users such as northern and Indigenous communities, heavy industry, power utilities, and interested provinces and territories. One of the aims of the consultation was to gain feedback on some of the issues discussed here and identify solutions for the possible development and deployment of SMRs in Canada. It was the first of many promising discussions.

I am encouraged by the extent of innovation, cooperation and support I’ve witnessed. That, combined with the exciting potential within SMR vendor engineering and design technologies, I believe we may just be on the cusp of a new era of nuclear power in Canada.