Canadian utilities build SMR alliances as developers tackle licensing

Nuclear utilities are playing a growing role in Canadian SMR development and their operational expertise could support the first fleet deployment at mining sites, industry experts said.

Canada's large mining sector is seen as a key early market for SMR plants as operators look to reduce carbon emissions and costs. (Image credit: Shauni)

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In November, Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) signed development agreements with U.S. SMR developer NuScale to support the deployment of its IPWR design in Canada.

Bruce Power is Canada's largest private nuclear power generator, operating eight Candu reactors for a total capacity of 6.4 GW. Ontario government-owned OPG operates ten Candu reactors, representing 6.6 GW.

Bruce Power will support evaluation, planning and licensing activities for NuScale’s light water reactor (LWR)-based design, the developer said. OPG will support the pre-licensing vendor design review (VDR) and help evaluate deployment opportunities.

The agreements show how Canada’s nuclear utilities are stepping up their support for SMR deployment to meet future power needs and carbon reduction targets.

A national SMR roadmap, published in November, called on utilities to "advance strategic partnerships, joint ventures, and consortia" to accelerate deployment in Canada and open up potential export trade. Canada could deploy its first commercial SMRs by 2030 if sufficient federal funding and regulatory support is provided, the roadmap said. The report followed a 10-month engagement of industry, governments, utilities and other interested parties.

                Canada's key SMR markets 

                             (Click image to enlarge)


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

Bruce Power and OPG already have representatives on the advisory boards of several SMR technology developers and the companies are chairing working groups that will help define the business case for SMR deployment.

The utilities are currently focusing on helping SMR developers understand Canada's operating and regulatory regime, Frank Saunders, Bruce Power’s Vice President of Nuclear Oversight and Regulatory Affairs, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

"Industry is assessing new designs for applicability to various markets, ease of construction, ability to license, and overall economic viability,” Saunders said.

"In the near term deployment of the new designs will likely be through established nuclear operators since the skill sets and the business knowledge is currently there," he said.

Early support

SMR developers will require government support to build the first commercial-scale plants. The estimated cost of a first of a kind (FOAK) reactor ranges between "several hundreds of millions to over $1 billion," the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) said following a recent request for expressions of interest (RFEOI).

To accelerate development, CNL has designated SMR technology a research priority and aims to build a demonstration plant on site by 2026. In June, four SMR designs advanced to the pre-qualification stage.

In parallel, some 10 SMR developers have applied to use the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s pre-licensing vendor design review process, submitting a range of LWR and advanced non-LWR designs.

                        Canada's current SMR pre-licensing reviews

                                                          (Click image to enlarge)

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

In October, Terrestrial Energy became the first SMR developer to enter phase 2 of the CNSC's design review process. In this phase, Terrestrial’s advanced molten salt reactor design will be examined for any fundamental barriers to licensing.

Terrestrial was an early mover into Canada and the company recently signed a design services contract with BWXT Canada for the development of steam generators and heat exchangers. The company has also started pre-licensing activities in the U.S. and has signed a number of early-stage development and R&D agreements with public groups including the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

The shape of SMR development consortia will depend on technology readiness and the financial backing of the developer, Justin Hannah, Senior Director of Marketing, Strategy & External Relations for SNC Lavalin, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

SNC Lavalin is providing engineering services for the development and licensing of Holtec's SMR-160 LWR design. Other partners in the project include GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), New Jersey energy company PSEG Power and Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Co. (MELCO).

LWR designs are derived from operational nuclear plants technology, which aids licensing and regulatory efficiency. In the U.S., NuScale plans to receive design licensing approval by September 2020 and aims to build a 720 MW commercial plant for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) by 2026.

Support from CNL facilities will be particularly useful for non-LWR developers with greater R&D requirements, Hannah said.

“Most LWR vendors have already advanced their designs where they may not require the R&D that CNL offers,” he said. CNL's licensed site may still be an efficient initial siting option for LWR developers, he noted.

The Canadian government must also provide financial products which minimize commercial risks, Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy, said.

“Financial support for the first commercial plants, for example with loan guarantees, production tax credits, grants and offtake agreements, is important to accelerate early market adoption,” he said.

Alongside federal government plans, the province of New Brunswick has launched a $20 million R&D program to demonstrate the competitiveness of non-LWR technologies. New Brunswick has partnered with advanced SMR developers Moltex Energy and Advanced Reactor Concepts (ARC) in a new research cluster, aiming to build commercial demonstration plants at NB Power's Point Lepreau nuclear power plant site by 2030.

Mining demand

Canada’s SMR roadmap identifies three types of SMR applications: on-grid power demand, heavy industry including mining operators, and remote northern communities.

The country’s large mining sector is seen as a key early market for SMR plants. Canadian mineral production rose by 11% in 2017 to $43.9 billion and off grid power demand is typically provided by expensive subsidized diesel-fired plants, presenting an opportunity for cost-efficient zero-carbon generation. In some northern locations, fuel transport issues can raise electricity prices to several hundreds of Canadian dollars per MWh.

Mining operators could be Canada's first commercial SMR customers with utilities playing an owner-operator role, Vic Pakalnis, CEO of Mining Innovation Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO), a public-private research group, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“I think big utilities will likely be the ones that own SMRs and will deliver power to mining companies for 10, 20, 30 years for the life of the mine,” Pakalnis said.

At the end of the mine’s lifetime, the plants could be refueled and maintained as necessary and allocated to a different mining project, he said.

Canada's mining sector could support a fleet of cost-effective 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, said in May 2018.

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

"The focus is on the utilities to step up and do what they are best at - work with the mines and the vendor community to develop a fleet-based operating model to SMR deployment that meets all indigenous and stakeholder needs, including those of the federal government," Lehman said.

By Jax Jacobsen