Researchers weigh in on Sask.’s small modular nuclear reactor concept

SaskPower has narrowed down where a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) would go if Saskatchewan goes ahead with the technology.

The sites under consideration are in the areas of Estevan and Elbow, which are both close to water sources, have existing power transmission infrastructure and have the ability to support a workforce.

SaskPower said the area will be selected by 2023, although the decision on whether to use SMR technology as part of the province’s power generation mix will not be made until 2029.

If approved, the SMR could be operational by 2035.

Researchers Esam Hussein and Susan O’Donnell have both studied small modular nuclear reactors. They spoke on CBC Radio’s Blue Sky Thursday, answering questions from guest host Stefani Langenegger and the public.

The following questions and interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity:

Esam Hussein

Esam Hussein is a nuclear engineer and the retired dean of engineering at the University of Regina.

What exactly is a small modular reactor?

Hussein: There is the small part of it, which means that the power level is less than 300 megawatts. What’s new [technology] here is the “modular.”

There’s a couple of definitions for modular. One of them is building a power plant from small modules, so rather than committing to a large amount of power produced upfront, putting capital and taking the financial risk, a power plant can be built from small units. The other definition of modularity is building the reactors and modules off site.

The idea here is to reduce the construction time and cost and that has been a challenge to almost any megaproject. As you know they always end up beyond schedule and over budget.

How does the technology work?

The boiling-water reactor (the type of technology chosen by SaskPower for the potential SMR) is a very well established, tested technology. The new thing here is it’s smaller in power and volume, and it’s modular.

In a way, it is less risky than going in with a brand new technology, or technology that in the past was proven not to be very effective. The Candu system has been a very reliable technology. It’s served the country well. It uses natural uranium so we don’t have to import enriched uranium, that boiling-water reactors use.

However, the cost overruns of the technology has been a challenge.

How might it fit in with renewable energy sources?

The way I see it is that having a SMR will actually encourage more use of renewables, solar and wind, because you have a reliable base load that you can depend upon.

How might the location of the SMR affect tourism to the area or people who live nearby?

I spent 25 years of my career in New Brunswick. The Point Lepreau nuclear power plant there is in the Bay of Fundy.

It’s a beautiful area. People are still living in the neighborhood. In fact, studies show that people who live near nuclear reactors are very supportive of nuclear technology.

There is nothing really significant released that affects the water quality. The water is monitored. The only thing is that you are releasing some water, not radioactive water, ordinary water, that is slightly hot and it can increase the temperature.

Susan O’Donnell

Susan O’Donnell is an adjunct professor with the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University, who also works with the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development. She has been researching SMRs specifically during the last two years. (Submitted by Susan O’Donnell)

What do you think of Saskatchewan and your province looking at building a small nuclear reactor?

O’Donnell: There’s a huge leap between having a design for an SMR and then getting to the point of having an engineered design where you can actually apply for a license to build one.

The most advanced design for an SMR in the US is called NuScale, and they’ve spent almost a billion dollars on the engineered design and they just got a license to build it.

It’s another huge leap between building a prototype that might actually work in a laboratory to get one that actually works commercially in the real world.

Why then would four provinces be looking at them?

I’d have to say that the decisions around SMRs at the federal level, and certainly at the provincial level, are political decisions rather than based on science.

From reading peer-reviewed science in three different countries — Canada, the US and the UK — it really doesn’t make any economic sense. However, what we have happening here is a very, very powerful industry, the nuclear industry, that has a long history in Canada, and they have been lobbying like crazy to get these things off the ground because unfortunately nuclear power hasn’t been successful financially.

In New Brunswick, the Point Lepreau reactor has been a financial disaster for the province. It’s put us $3.6 billion in debt. It loses money every year because of the unscheduled downtime.

How is this technology different from what is already in use?

I often hear people say, we already have these small reactors in submarines, etcetera. There’s a huge difference between military and civilian reactors, and this is really a crucial point. Those use what’s called highly enriched fuel, and basically it’s the kind of fuel that you can actually make nuclear bombs out of, and you can only use them in military environments.

What we have in Canada are called Candu reactors, which operate on an entirely different kind of fuel. It’s natural uranium from Saskatchewan.

None of the new reactors proposed are proposing to use the Saskatchewan uranium. They’re all proposing to use enriched fuel that will come from outside of Canada, because we don’t have an enrichment plant here.

The designs are different and they’re going to take a long time to realize if they can build them, if they can get them to work.

How might this fit in with renewable energy sources?

We don’t say we’re going to solve world hunger by feeding everyone caviar. Why would you take the most expensive way to produce electricity, which is nuclear power, and say this is how we’re going to solve the climate crisis when the technology does not exist now and we have proven technologies like wind and solar?

Listen to the full episode here:

blue sky47:01Are small modular reactors needed to help Sask. reach net zero by 2050?

SaskPower is holding public information and engagement sessions throughout autumn. More information can be found on the Corwn corporation’s website.

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