Updated: Jan 10, 2022
A historic decision is about to be announced this fall—which everybody, not just folks from the nuclear industry—should be watching out for. Ontario Power Generation (OPG) will announce which small modular reactor (SMR) vendor’s technology will be selected for Canada’s first grid-scale SMR deployment project.
This will be the first time ever where a government-owned utility uses advanced nuclear technology to add capacity to the grid.
This decision will be made at a time when parts of the US and European Union are experiencing energy shortages and bridging the gap between supply and demand by ramping up coal and natural gas. The results have been devastating for climate objectives as well as electricity prices. OPG’s SMR deployment could show the world that there is a far better solution.
OPG, a crown corporation of the provincial government, is interested in SMRs as a potential source of new baseload electricity for the province. As Ontario expands the use of electricity as a means to decarbonize our economy, sources of new clean generation are going to become increasingly important.
Due to their modular design, SMRs offer a promising method of expanding generation in a way that is both affordable and flexible.
SMRs are small nuclear reactors which have 300 MW of electrical power output or less. At the high end, this is enough output to power 219,000 average Canadian homes.
There are a number of different SMR designs that exist, including miniature versions of existing reactor designs as well as Generation IV systems, which represent new advanced technology.
While these novel technologies typically differ in size, fuel, and coolant, all of them feature the added benefit of having high temperature systems as part of their design.
This means that in addition to the electrical output, they generate a massive amount of thermal heat, which could be used for applications like heat for homes and water, as well as industrial and chemical processes like hydrogen production.
Meet the contenders
GE Hitachi is a publicly traded American company based out of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Their boiling water reactor (BWXR-300) has a 300 MWe generating capacity that uses standard low enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel and water for coolant.
The BWXR-300 is based on GE’s existing boiling water reactor design that is a proven technology and is currently being used by Exelon in 14 of their 21 boiling water reactors deployed across the United States. Click here to learn more about how it works.
Terrestrial Energy is a private Canadian company based out of Oakville, ON.
Their Integrated Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR-400) is a molten salt reactor with a 200 MWe generating capacity that uses molten salt as both coolant and fuel. Molten salts are very stable, which permit them to operate at low pressure and high temperatures, giving it the added benefit of reduced costs and increased efficiency.
The IMSR-400 also uses standard nuclear fuel that is already commercially available. Click here to watch their video to learn how it works.
X-Energy is a private American company based out of Greenbelt, Maryland. It is both a nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company.
Their XE-100 is a high-temperature gas cooled reactor (HTGR) which uses their proprietary TRISO-X fuel.
The Xe-100 has an 80 MWe generating capacity and the smallest physical footprint compared to the other technologies with the potential to be scaled up into a ‘four-pack’ quickly as needed.
Click here to learn more about how it works.
The impact of this decision
This decision will have major implications—for the climate, for the industry, and for Canada:
A win for the climate: This project will demonstrate how we could add energy quickly and at scale to meet rising demands—so that we don’t have to rely on fossil fuels to bridge the gap.
And since Canada is a global leader in nuclear technology—with some of the most respected regulator and utilities in the world—choosing to adopt this technology will send a hugely important signal globally that SMRs are a viable technology for reaching net zero. Other governments and utilities may follow OPG’s lead and make SMRs part of their own climate plans.
A win for the industry: Deployment of SMRs globally is the dream of the industry, and may be accelerated by this decision.
More than that, the chance for an SMR to prove itself at commercial scale may also raise awareness of the technology for stakeholders who will be essential to their deployment—especially the financial sector (whose investment will be needed for widescale deployment), and the public (whose acceptance of SMR technology has yet to be fully tested).
A win for Canada: The successful company will have other opportunities to deploy their technology.
For example, Saskatchewan has already announced they intend to use OPG’s decision to help inform their own selection of a design for four SMR deployments they are planning in the 2030s. Other jurisdictions are also likely to follow Ontario’s lead.
One of the companies in contention is fully Canadian, while the other two boast robust Canadian supply chains.
So regardless of who wins, the construction of more SMRs will bring significant investment and jobs into Ontario and Canada, while further cementing our position as a global leader in both nuclear power and clean energy.
So in addition to sipping pumpkin spiced lattes and doing some early holiday shopping this fall, I encourage you all to tune in next month to see how this decision unfolds.
It may well mark the beginning of a new energy era, one that embraces fresh thinking and innovations like SMRs as a part of a clean energy future.
Written by Susie Ho, former Senior Advisor at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.