Nuclear power is increasingly being accepted as one of the clean energy technologies required to achieve emissions reduction targets in Canada and to meet global climate goals. According to the International Energy Agency, climate change initiatives will fall short without nuclear power as part of the electricity supply mix. Unsurprisingly, 2021 witnessed expanding interest and support for small modular reactors (SMRs) both globally and across Canada. SMRs are nuclear reactors that produce 300 megawatts of electricity or less and are designed to be constructed on a modular basis to achieve economies of scale and reduce overall costs. A single SMR of about 300 megawatts can prevent between 0.3 – 2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Given that Canada is one of over 120 countries committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, SMRs may be the key to making nuclear power a viable part of Canada’s clean energy future.
SMR ACTION PLAN AND CANADIAN UPDATES
Since Canada’s release of the Small Modular Reactor Action Plan (SMR Action Plan) in December 2020 (discussed further here), Canada has seen the progression of many actions to advance the safe and responsible development and deployment of SMRs. Completed actions include investments in technology, provincial governments and territories undertaking feasibility studies, engagement with the public and Indigenous communities, international partnerships and market engagement, and Alberta becoming the fourth province to sign the inter-provincial memorandum of understanding (Inter-Provincial MOU) on SMR development. In last year’s publication, we indicated that sustained government support, patient venture capital and public acceptance would be required to make Canada competitive on the world stage. We are pleased to note that, since the release of the SMR Action Plan, steps have been taken to begin to address some of these issues.
December 15, 2021 announcement that the federal government will invest C$800,000 in the First Nations Power Authority to create a national Indigenous Advisory Council. This investment is part of the SMR Action Plan and its purpose is to support Indigenous communities in exploring the potential of SMRs to provide emissions-free energy for a wide range of applications, including electricity generation in remote communities. The advisory council, composed of individual First Nations, Métis and Inuit members from Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta and the territories, will enable Indigenous communities to be more informed about the role SMRs could play in addressing energy challenges and potential opportunities from development and deployment.
Other funding updates from 2021 include the following:
- In February 2021, the Premier of New Brunswick, Blaine Higgs, announced an additional C$20 million in funding towards SMR development, specifically for the advancement of ARC Nuclear Canada Inc.’s (ARC Canada) ARC-100 sodium-cooled fast reactor, one of the two designs being studied as part of the SMR vendor cluster established by New Brunswick Power (NB Power), Moltex Energy Canada Inc. (Moltex Energy) and Advanced Reactor Concepts, the parent company of ARC Canada, at the Point Lepreau nuclear site in New Brunswick. The funding is conditional on ARC Canada providing C$30 million of matching funds. According to ARC Canada’s chairman, Donald Wolf, the funding will play an integral role in the development of SMRs in the late 2020s. ARC Canada is beginning the second phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) Vendor Design Review Process of the ARC-100, which is expected to be operational by 2029.
- In March 2021, the federal government announced C$50.5 million in funding through the Strategic Innovation Fund and the Regional Economic Growth through Innovation program to advance the design of Moltex Energy’s 300-megawatt Stable Salt Reactor
- Wasteburner (SSR-W) and WAste To Stable Salt facility. The SSR-W is the second design being developed at the Point Lepreau nuclear site and is expected to be operational by the early 2030s.
- The federal government also announced the following investments through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency:
- C$561,750 to help the University of New Brunswick expand its capacity to support SMR technology development in New Brunswick.
- The 2021 Canadian Federal Budget (Budget), released on April 19, 2021, contained green policy tools that could support and enable the development of the nuclear industry and SMRs. Particularly, the Budget provided a tax break for manufacturers of zero-emission technologies; further funding to the Strategic Innovation Fund’s “Net Zero Accelerator”; C$5 billion in funding to a “Green Bond Framework” which would allow investors to invest in “Green Bonds”; and C$1 billion in funding over five years to increase funding to “Clean Tech Projects”.
Significant developments by Canadian companies have reduced the expected timelines for operational SMRs in Canada. On May 19, 2021, Global First Power Ltd.’s (Global First Power) Micro Modular Reactor (MMR™) Project achieved a licensing milestone, bringing it closer to constructing and operating Canada’s first SMR. The project will use the MMR® technology designed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and will be capable of producing 15 megawatts of thermal output, which can be converted to 5 megawatts of electrical power. MMR® technology is an economically competitive alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting diesel power and heat generation with a smaller footprint, which according to Global First Power’s CEO, Robby Sohi, can help meet Canada’s energy needs, specifically for heavy industry (such as mining) and remote communities. Global First Power fulfilled the requirements under its Licence to Prepare Site, enabling it to proceed to the formal phase of the CNSC’s licensing process. The MMR™ is scheduled for first power in 2026.
Most significantly, Ontario Power Generation Inc. (OPG) reached its stated milestone of down-selecting a developer to deploy an SMR at the Darlington New Nuclear site, choosing GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GE Hitachi) as its developer. As part of “Stream 1” of the SMR project proposals described in the SMR Feasibility Study (described below), OPG and GE Hitachi will work together on all aspects of the SMR engineering, design and permitting with a goal to complete construction of Canada’s first-of-a-kind commercial, grid-scale SMR as early as 2028 and to subsequently achieve the “fleet approach” to pan-Canadian SMR deployment.
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed support for nuclear power, stating that Canada will need every alternative pursued and explored fully as it tries to achieve its clean energy goals, including exploring nuclear power. He indicated that a number of provinces are working hard on developing SMRs and he is certain that those efforts will continue to evolve, pointing to Canada’s strong history in nuclear energy.
One such example of provincial commitment to developing SMRs is the addition of Alberta as the fourth signatory to the Inter-Provincial MOU on April 14, 2021. In the Inter- Provincial MOU, the provinces of Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan agreed to collaborate on the advancement of SMRs as a clean energy option to address climate change and regional energy demands, while supporting economic growth and innovation. On the same day, the provinces released the report, Feasibility of SMR Development and Deployment in Canada (SMR Feasibility Study), completed by power utilities in New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan. The SMR Feasibility Study was formally requested when the Inter-Provincial MOU was first signed in December 2019. The SMR Feasibility Study concluded that the development of SMRs would support domestic energy needs, curb greenhouse gas emissions and position Canada as a global leader in the industry. The SMR Feasibility Study anticipates that 4th generation advanced SMRs designed in New Brunswick can begin to be deployed in support of industrial needs in Alberta and Saskatchewan as early as 2030. The next action identified in the Inter- Provincial MOU is the development of a joint strategic plan to be drafted in collaboration by the four governments.
HOW DOES CANADA MEASURE UP AGAINST THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY?
On June 24, 2021, Canada and the US entered into a revised memorandum of understanding (Revised MOU) (discussed further here) to create a framework for cooperation on energy between the Department of Natural Resources of Canada and the US Department of Energy (DOE). Under the Revised MOU, the parties committed to sharing knowledge and exploring options for enhancing cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as those related to nuclear energy policies, technologies and fuel cycles.
While Canada increased its funding to nuclear and SMR projects in 2021, it still lags behind the US. For example, on October 13, 2020, the DOE announced that, as part of its Advanced Reactor Development Program (ARDP), it had selected two US-based teams, TerraPower LLC and X-energy, LLC to receive a total of USD$160 million in initial funding to build two advanced nuclear reactors that can be operational within seven years. The DOE plans to invest a total of USD$3.2 billion in the two projects over those seven years, subject to availability of future appropriations by Congress. As highlighted above, the Canadian federal government invested approximately C$52.3 million to private companies, universities, and the First Nations Power Authority. On top of this, C$20 million was invested to Terrestrial Energy in 2020, totalling approximately C$72.3 million in comparison.
Since the DOE announcement, the US has taken further funding initiatives that illustrate its commitment to energy innovation and nuclear technology as a significant component to achieving climate change goals. On April 27, 2021, the US Department of State committed an initial USD$5.3 million investment to the Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology. The program promotes the responsible development and deployment of SMRs and provides capacity-building support to partner countries as they develop their nuclear energy programs.
Subsequently, on November 3, 2021, the US announced at COP26 that it will provide USD$25 million in support towards expanding access to clean nuclear energy as part of the program, the “Nuclear Futures Package.” As part of this initiative, the US is partnering with Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Romania and Indonesia, among others, to support progress on meeting their nuclear energy goals. Passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by Congress on November 15, 2021 earmarked an additional USD$2.5 billion for the ARDP.
Other international updates
Following a number of recent developments in the UK, Argentina and China, the UK published its “Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener” on October 19, 2021. Alongside Canada, the UK is pursuing net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and net decarbonization specifically with respect to its electricity system by 2035. The UK aims to use nuclear power as a significant part of its strategy to achieve this goal. The goal is that SMR designs will complete regulatory approval for UK deployment by 2025 and the first SMR and advanced modular reactor demonstrators will be deployed by 2030. As part of the UK’s consideration of large scale and advanced nuclear technologies, the UK government announced a new £120 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund to provide specific support in relation to barriers to entry. The UK government is also providing funding for SMR design through their £385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund.
British companies have been pursuing the deployment and commercialization of SMR technology with government assistance. For example, prior to announcing its new business named Rolls-Royce SMR Limited, Rolls-Royce secured £210 million in funding from the UK government, matched by more than £250 million in private investment including from the Qatar Investment Authority. Rolls-Royce is leading a UK SMR consortium to build 16 SMRs with an intention to complete its first unit in the early 2030s and to build up to 10 units by 2035.
France recently announced a five-year investment plan, “France 2030”, aimed at placing the country as a world leader in green hydrogen by 2030 and building new SMRs. Additionally, the French government pledged €1 billion to invest in SMRs and other technologies, placing Électricité de France SA, the state-controlled utility company, in the race to develop SMRs.
HOW CAN SMRS BECOME A VIABLE PART OF CANADA’S CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE?
The future viability of SMRs in Canada will depend on, among other things, their cost-effectiveness, the regulatory framework for their development, and public perception and acceptance. With respect to cost-effectiveness, SMRs have the potential to be more cost effective than conventional nuclear. To ensure that SMRs are cost-competitive, a fleet approach is envisioned. SMRs are designed to be mass produced, lowering overall unit costs to realize economic benefits. However, this will require the market for a single design to be relatively large, which emphasizes the need for a market beyond the Canadian domestic market.
Generally, there are no major impediments to the licensing of SMRs for deployment in Canada. However, regulating SMRs in the same manner as the few, large, centralized nuclear generating stations that only three Canadian provinces have ever sited could result in increased timelines and uneconomic cost escalation for SMR project approval. SMRs are designed with enhanced safety features, more modular construction approaches for ease of installation, operation and removal and potentially decentralized, load-following deployment. Such features should inform the licensing requirements and regulatory framework without compromising the safety case.
With respect to public perception and acceptance, historically, opposition to nuclear power has stemmed from the potential harm that can be caused by a nuclear accident despite the strong safety records of most nuclear plants. SMRs, with their smaller size, passive safety, and reliance on passive circulation, are designed to offer a more inherently safe design than traditional reactors. Further, SMRs are adaptable to different applications, ranging from generating electricity to burning nuclear waste. To enable the viability of SMRs, governments and proponents will need to cultivate public trust. A critical step will be demonstrating the inherent safety features presented by SMR designs. Additionally, proponents must pay close attention to the preferences of host communities and ensure there are opportunities for local and regional job creation such that SMRs are attractive to local communities. As noted above, Indigenous consultation and acceptance will be an integral aspect of such a trust building exercise. Highlighting the generally high support and satisfaction of communities that host existing Canadian nuclear generating stations may assist as well.
Alongside many global players, Canada is working to promote and support the expanded use of nuclear power and SMRs through funding initiatives and partnerships. This action will be beneficial in decarbonizing and helping Canada achieve its net-zero emissions target by 2050. Canadian companies are favourably situated to become one of the first to develop commercially viable SMR technology with projected timelines analogous to their leading international counterparts. Conservative estimates place the potential value for SMRs in Canada at C$5.3 billion between 2025 and 2040. The global market, estimated at C$150 billion between 2025 and 2040, shows a potential export market for Canada.