Canada SMR groups pass early development tests in first reactor push

Advanced reactor developers are meeting early business case and safety requirements but these pioneering groups must overcome further licensing challenges to tap Canada’s large deployment potential.

Last month, Ontario's Global First Power became the first small modular reactor (SMR) developer to advance to the third stage of Canada's selection process to build a full-scale demonstration plant.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) aims to build at least one demonstration plant on site by 2026. In June 2018, four SMR developers, including Global First Power, Terrestrial Energy and Starcore Nuclear, entered into CNL's design selection process.

Global First Power is developing a 5 MWe high-temperature gas reactor designed by U.S. group Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC). The developer has progressed through the prequalification and due diligence stages of the selection process and can now proceed with stage 3, which involves non-exclusive negotiations on land arrangements, project risk management, and contractual terms, CNL said in a statement.

"These negotiations are not an indication of project approval, and the proposal and proponent must satisfy further stringent evaluation," CNL noted. The fourth and final stage of the process consists of construction, testing and commissioning the plant.

In addition, Terrestrial Energy and StarCore Nuclear have now advanced to the due diligence stage, CNL said.

Terrestrial Energy is proposing to build a 195 MWe integral molten salt reactor at a CNL site. The developer has shortlisted a number of sites within CNL's Chalk River facility and will perform further detailed investigations, it said February 27.

StarCore Nuclear aims to build two 14 MWe high-temperature gas reactors at separate CNL sites.

The developers are also making progress in the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's pre-licensing vendor design review (VDR) program.

In February, USNC became the second SMR technology developer-- after Terrestrial Energy-- to complete phase 1 of the VDR, in which CNSC assesses the overall design against current regulatory requirements. Terrestrial Energy entered phase 2 of the VDR process in October. In this phase, CNSC examines the design for any fundamental barriers to licensing.

Almost two years after CNL's first request for SMR proposals, CNL believes its target of a first demonstration reactor by 2026 could yet be achieved.

“Multiple SMR proponents internationally have publicly discussed schedules that include a start-up date on or before 2026. The CNL assessment indicates it is possible, though there are many factors and uncertainties (including regulatory, technical, and financial) that could pose challenges,” CNL told Nuclear Energy Insider.

                                        Canada SMR markets

                                                       (Click image to enlarge)

Source: 'A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors' (NRCan, November 2018).

Business model

Global First Power is being supported by nuclear power utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG), operator of 6.6 GW of nuclear capacity.

OPG and Bruce Power, Canada’s other large nuclear utility, are playing a growing role in Canadian SMR development, providing licensing and business case expertise to a number of SMR developers.

By completing phase 2 of CNL's selection process, Global First Power has sufficiently demonstrated the technical and business merits of its SMR design.

Key technical areas examined in this phase include technology readiness, licensing planning, fuel and manufacturing plans, and construction pathways.

To assess business merits, CNL examines details such as high-level capital and operational costs, financial structure and partnership plans, forecast revenue streams and estimated deployment potential.

Canada's large mining sector is seen as a key early market for SMR plants.

Mining demand could support a fleet of cost-effective small modular reactors (SMRs), including up to 2 GW of capacity in Ontario's Ring of Fire development, Jeff Lehman, Vice President, New Nuclear Development - ‎Ontario Power Generation, told Nuclear Energy Insider in May 2018.

"We are engaged with the mining community with representatives and they would like to go now," he said.

Earlier this month, CNL showcased advanced nuclear technology at PDAC, the world's largest mining conference in Toronto.

"Heavy industry, such as mining, is energy intensive and requires a reliable source of electricity, but also in many cases, heat and steam. Next-generation nuclear energy offers the versatility to meet these needs, and does so in a low-carbon, environmentally-sustainable way,” Corey McDaniel, Vice-President of Business Development at CNL, said.

Licensing learnings

A CNL-sited demonstration plant is not a requirement for wider deployment in Canada and the country’s supportive licensing framework has attracted a wide range of advanced reactor developers.

                        Canada's current SMR pre-licensing reviews

                                                          (Click image to enlarge)

Source: Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), January 2019.


Canada’s licensing regime is considered less prescriptive and more principles-based than the U.S. licensing process.

CNSC’s pre-licensing VDR allows developers to engage at an early stage on new design concepts. This means fundamental barriers to licensing can be identified before a final design is brought into the licensing process, Todd Allen, senior fellow at think tank Third Way, said in an earlier interview.

“That is a strong statement for investors," he said.

Licensing of new reactor types remains a significant challenge. The USNC design is the first high-temperature gas-cooled reactor to complete phase 1 of the VDR process.

In future review phases, CNSC will require further clarifications on areas such as adequacy of USNC's R&D activities to substantiate safety claims and the fuel qualification program, applicability of operating data from previous high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, adequacy of shutdown means and adequacy of the probabilistic risk assessment methodology that USNC has proposed, CNSC said.

"These issues are foreseen to be resolvable and will be followed up on in future VDRs," the regulator said.

Nuclear Energy Insider