The path to SMRs: Canada's leadership, industry diversity, and securing fuel supply
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Last week the nuclear industry came together for North America’s biggest annual conference on small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs. The event focused on pathways to deployment and commercialization of SMRs in both Canada and the US.
I had a chance to (virtually) attend this conference. Below are three insights that anyone in the industry should take from the event.
1. Canada is truly a global leader on SMR development
There are very few industries where a US event would have spent so much time talking about their much smaller northern neighbour.
The three-day event featured a panel of Canadian utility CEOs, a keynote from Canada’s head nuclear regulator, and a number of other Canadian speakers and topics. Much of this is driven by the fact that Canada plays host to three leading deployments of SMRs: at Darlington, Chalk River, and Point Lepreau.
The focus on Canada speaks to the leadership role that our domestic industry plays, influencing not only our American neighbours, but the nuclear sector around the world.
2. Commercializing SMRs will require building social license
SMR companies have spent years engineering and perfecting their reactor designs, and in the coming years many of these designs will see test deployments. At this point, the greatest challenge facing SMRs is not about technical feasibility—it's about the business case.
SMR vendors need to prove that not only do their reactors work, but they can be built in a reasonable timeframe, at a reasonable cost, and with public support. Succeeding in each of these metrics requires earning social license for deploying the technology.
The industry still has a long way to go on this front. The industry does not invest enough in telling its story in a way that is accessible to investors, policymakers, customers, or the public. Too little time, money and effort is spent communicating with those outside of the nuclear bubble.
At a bare minimum, the industry must start by diversifying its messengers. Too many leaders and spokespeople for SMRs are white, male, Baby Boomer engineers.
Left alone, this group of people will simply never be able to communicate effectively with the audience that needs to be reached.
To be successful, the spokespeople for SMRs must better represent the people who will be the customers, regulators, and barometers of popular opinion for this technology.
A more diverse slate of messengers will not only be more recognizable to a broader audience but will also bring with them a better understanding of that audience and ability to answer their concerns.
In Canada, some headway has been made in recent years on this challenge, with organizations like Women in Nuclear and NAYGN leading the way. But the work has barely begun.
Organizations that choose to diversify their spokespeople will not only do the industry a service, but also will give themselves an important competitive advantage in more effectively communicating their story to those who need to hear it.
3. For the US, developing supplies of SMR fuel is a national security challenge
The Canadian CANDU reactor design uses unenriched, or natural, uranium. This means our industry has historically been spared from the need to enrich fuel—and the related concerns around weaponization and supply chain security that this brings.
In contrast, many American SMR designs and some of the leading Canadian designs use enriched versions of uranium. Many use a particular fuel known as HALEU (High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium). Currently, the only commercial suppliers of HALEU in the world are in Russia. Naturally, this creates serious concerns for policymakers around the reliability of this fuel supply.
For SMRs to flourish, this supply challenge must be overcome. At the Advanced Reactors Summit, several speakers suggested the US government should announce a procurement for a strategic stockpile of domestic HALEU.
This initial procurement would give the necessary signal for markets to step in and begin establishing North American supply chains. The Canadian government might also find ways to contribute to an initiative like this.
We will be keeping an eye out for signs that a strategic procurement like this is under consideration by policymakers. This would not only serve as a catalyst for the markets for these fuels but would also serve as a significant sign of governments’ commitment to SMR technologies.
Written by David Campbell, former Director at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.