Canada SMR race expands to six entrants

U-Battery is latest of six confirmed proposals for an operational small modular reactor by 2026.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) aims to build a demonstration SMR plant at one of its sites by 2026. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The race is on to gain approval for the first small modular reactor at a Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) site, with six formal applications now submitted for operational capability by 2026.

U-Battery – a concept developed by the University of Manchester in the UK and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – is the latest hopeful that has announced it has submitted its prequalification package.

Two other parties presently engaged in the process have not yet publicly announced their participation, Philip Kompass, Corporate Communication, CNL told Nuclear Energy Insider.

U-Battery is a collaboration that began in 2008 in an effort to design a nuclear energy unit that would work like a battery. The modular design would be powered by TRISO fuel, which prevents the release of radioactive material, minimizing the need for back-up safety systems and reducing exclusion zones.

TRISO particles contains enriched uranium oxycarbide that is encased in carbon and ceramic layers which provide an independent containment system that prevents the release of radioactivity, while graphite surrounding the particles moderates the nuclear reaction.

Kompass said CNL was pleased with the response generated so far, and that it was an “indication of strong interest in the technology”. While no project has yet been approved, and invitations are still open, three other companies have made progress in the process.

Leading SMR proposals

Leading the way is Global First Power, with support from Ontario Power Generation and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), with a proposal to build a SMR at Chalk River, Ontario. 

GFP’s 5MWe high-temperature gas reactor, designed by USNC, has completed Phase 2, and now enters Phase 3 – a negotiation stage which may take varying amounts of time depending on factors including financing and design. GFP’s proposal entered Phase 3 in February.

“We have engaged with the Canadian regulators and CNL for more than four years and we understand the process for licensing and building an SMR at CNL,” Francesco Venneri, CEO of USNC, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

“We have a good path to commercializing our design quickly because of the low cost of prototyping. With the right set of financing we’re set to break ground in about three years.

“SMRs done the right way can power remote communities and make the grid extremely resilient to anomalous events. The next step is significant decarbonization in industrial heat, grid power, and transportation. Our technology is particularly adept at replacing these carbon sources. Our focus has been the ultra-safe concept based on melt-down proof technology which is more difficult to achieve with large reactors and other more advanced tech.”

The two proposals that have completed the prequalification Phase 1 are from StarCore Nuclear and Terrestrial Energy.

StarCore Nuclear’s design is a 14MWe high temperature gas reactor, with plans submitted for two reactors – at the Whiteshell and Chalk River sites.

Terrestrial Energy’s proposal is a 190MWe integral molten salt reactor.

“Participants in the invitation process thus far have indicated interest in both the Chalk River Laboratories and Whiteshell Laboratories campuses,” Kompass said.

“While the specific needs would vary with each proponent, preliminary siting studies undertaken by CNL indicated that there are multiple siting options in each location.

“Our assessment teams, including more than 35 expert reviewers, both internal and external, have been diligently evaluating the applications against the established technical, financial and business criteria.”

Those criteria include:

• Benefits to Canada, Benefits to CNL
• Stakeholder Engagement and Corporate Social Responsibility
• Technical readiness, feasibility
• Schedule feasibility
• Licensing approach, experience and risk
• Credible paths: fuel, manufacturing
• Decommissioning and waste management
• Health safety security environment and quality
• Business case and potential for commercial deployment success
• Credible path to obtain fuel
• Credible Path to Manufacturing and Construction, Construction and Commissioning
• Management of waste
• Decommissioning

USNC’s Venneri is convinced that this is a significant opportunity to put SMR technology on the map.

“Having the first CNL site would mean leading the SMR push in what has become a very crowded field. Being first will be the launch pad for our fleet,” Venneri said.

The invitation process remains open, with intake dates announced twice a year, so being first past the post is far from a done deal for Global First Power despite holding a lead over the other five proposals currently under consideration. And with multiple siting options in two campuses, and all projects submitted for evaluation in the current invitation being fully funded by the proponents, Phase 4 is where any ‘race’ could be won or lost.

Phase 4 is Project Execution, and would include construction, testing and commissioning, operation and ultimately decommissioning of the SMR unit.

It is important to note that the invitation and evaluations are conducted entirely independently of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s licencing processes; all projects are subject to regulatory requirements.

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

Market potential

Canada's large mining sector is seen as a key early market for SMR plants and whoever develops a SMR first will dominate demand from the growing global mining market, Vic Pakalnis, President and CEO of MIRARCO Mining Innovation, told the International SMR & Advanced Reactor Summit.

Speaking at the Small Modular Reactors for Remote Mining Operations seminar in Atlanta, on April 3, Pakalnis urged the nuclear industry to bring SMRs to market in the next few years to take full advantage of mining’s current upcycle.

Opportunities for future mines in remote areas such as Ontario’s Ring Of Fire development and the Arctic, that do not have an existing grid infrastructure, means they will require a significant power source, which could be solved with SMRs.

“I could probably sell six of them if you had them ready today,” Pakalnis said. “Mining is being developed every year. We went through a long down cycle for five years, now we are in an upcycle. So make hay while the sun shines. Get that SMR out in the next five years.”

There are around 50 SMR designs and concepts being developed around the world, while Russia already has a floating SMR power plant.

Nuclear Energy Insider