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Could tiny nuclear power plants be the answer to cleaner power for diesel-reliant, remote communities and mine sites? Economics, geography and regulatory complexity makes such proliferation of small modular reactors very unlikely says the Canadian Nuclear Association.
According to association president John Stewart, 10 years is the soonest any such nuclear power device could be deployed anywhere in Canada, and that expanding nuclear power usage would likely happen first where the primary power source remains coal.
“You would want the new generators to go in exactly where those coal plants are,” he said, necessitating scaled down versions of the 900 megawatt CANDU reactors at Darlington, Ontario, rather than micro reactors, some as small as one-megawatt currently under development.
“If you owned (coal-fired) plants like New Brunswick or Saskatchewan does, what you really don’t want to do is complicate the project by having to change the transmission structure.”
But Conservative MP David Yurdiga thinks mini-reactors, or small modular reactors (SMRs) could provide reliable and clean power to scores of small communities outside of a provincial or territorial grids’ reach – coal-fired or hydro electricity.
“Black carbon, particulate matter from burning diesel, is becoming a problem as it can settle out onto the ice fields and the snow and it’s actually causing a melting effect,” said the Fort McMurray–Cold Lake MP.
“There will always be a need for diesel, but you can minimize it and this modular reactor technology becomes attractive to develop in the north when the alternative is transporting diesel in perpetuity.”
Small reactors have been around for a while; about a half-dozen Canadian SLOWPOKE (safe low power critical experiment) reactors are used for research by the places like University of Alberta and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Built in the 1970s by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, these are roughly the size of a cinder block and powerful enough to heat a bathtub of water – AECL tried to build more powerful versions in the 1980s, but these got little traction because natural gas was cheap.
While military submariner applications have been around for decades, and the Russians recently unveiled a floating reactor to power the Siberian town of Pevek, mini-reactors for commercial electricity have not been tried in Canada.
But Canadian firm Dunedin Energy is currently developing self-contained SMR configurations that its president Peter Lang said are suited for smaller, long-term demands of a mine or small community beholden to diesel electricity.
It’s possible to build really small mini-reactors one megawatt or less, according to Lang but there is an economic sweet-spot.
“Technically, it’s not terribly difficult to build a one megawatt reactor, but that will only generate so much of a revenue stream – you’ve got to staff it, then decommission it after 20 or 30 years,” said Lang. “Whereas a 10 megawatt design is only incrementally more expensive but offers ten times the revenue stream.”
Mines like the Diavik Diamond Mine at Lac de Gras, in Northwest Territories requires more power in a year than all of Nunavut demands and more than 50 million litres of diesel fuel to generate.
“So a 10 megawatt reactor would fit nicely into a place like Iqaluit (population 7740), economically and in terms of base load,” said Lang.
But according to the CNA’s Stewart, bringing modular reactors into the commercial realm would favour public utilities or large-scale mining ventures that “can leverage the necessary capital”.
“And we don’t really know how the regulatory model for SMRs will work because it hasn’t been fully shaped yet,” Stewart said.
“A demonstration effect would be valuable and you might have it at a northern mine site where you could bring people and show them that works and it’s clean,” he said. “And they wouldn’t see that blanket of particle emissions from the diesel.”