Provinces’ next step on building small nuclear reactors to come in the new year

Alberta’s ministry of energy says the four provinces cooperating on nuclear reactor technology are aiming to release their strategic plan in the new year. 

In August 2020, Alberta announced it would join Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick on a pre-existing memorandum of understanding to explore and eventually develop small reactors.

The small modular reactor (SMR) strategic plan, a collaboration between the four provinces, is in development now and Alberta says it’s planning for the details to be released shortly. 

“[The] provinces are aiming to release the plan in early 2022,” Jennifer Henshaw, Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s press secretary, said in a statement. 

The group released a feasibility study in April which found SMRs could help Canada improve its domestic energy security and aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The upcoming strategic plan was originally expected to be completed in the spring of 2021. 

Nuclear energy works by splitting atoms, which creates heat that can then be harnessed and turned into electricity. 

“If you’re going to get to net zero [emissions], there is no way to do this without nuclear. And given the importance of the oil sands in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this may be the opportunity,” Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University who is also an expert in Canada’s history with nuclear energy, said. 

Canada has committed to reaching that net zero target by 2050. 

The operation of SMRs doesn’t produce carbon emissions. However, its status as a fully clean energy has been criticized due to the dangers of disposing the radioactive waste. 

Federal government looking at national nuclear supply chain

This fall the federal government put out a tender to study how Alberta and Saskatchewan could contribute to a national nuclear supply chain. 

“Alberta Energy was engaged by Prairies Economic Development Canada (PrairiesCan) for the development of their SMR Supply Chain Study project,” Henshaw said. 

“Alberta Energy, the Alberta Utilities Commission and the Alberta Energy Regulator will be working together to identify and address potential areas of overlap, uncertainty and duplication between federal and provincial regulatory regimes.”

Traditional nuclear reactors used in Canada can typically generate about 800 megawatts of electricity, or about enough to power 600,000 homes at once, assuming one megawatt can power about 750 homes. The term SMR, on the other hand, is applied to units that produce less than 300 megawatts of electric output. Some SMRs are small enough to fit into a school gym.

No SMRs have been built yet, but Ontario Power Generation says it’s on track to have two established by 2028. A Saskatchewan report estimates it will have SMRs by 2032. The small reactors are cheaper and require less complex engineering.

SMRs could have the capacity to provide largely emission-free energy to oilsands facilities, according to a roadmap prepared last year by an intergovernmental committee and industry stakeholders. It warns that cost and regulatory hurdles could be serious roadblocks.

“I haven’t heard Alberta-based oil and gas companies being so bullish on nuclear before. And so this is industry led, not government led,” Bratt said.

He added collaboration between the provincial and federal governments is also essential, because while electricity is Alberta’s jurisdiction, nuclear is in the national purview.

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