Canada’s new national action plan for the safe and responsible development of small modular reactors (SMRs), released in December 2020, outlines the next steps for using non-emitting electricity generation to support the country’s net-zero goals for 2050. COSIA has endorsed this plan and signed up to participate.
Clean energy from small modular reactors (SMRs) could be a major player in supplying heat, steam and electricity to mining, manufacturing, and other industries worldwide. This emerging, emissions-free technology could help countries, including Canada, address climate change by replacing heat and electricity traditionally derived from emissions producing sources, such as natural gas and coal.
SMRs are, as their name suggests, smaller capacity, energy-generating facilities that do not produce any greenhouse gases (GHGs) and have lower costs than traditional, large nuclear reactors. Simpler in design, (their modular components are small enough to be shipped by truck, rail, or ship) they use different types of nuclear fuel, while innovative safety features dramatically reduce – if not eliminate – any accident risk.
SMRs have the potential to generate clean, safe, and lower-cost energy for communities in remote or rural areas in addition to supporting industrial processes. Over the longer term, they could also drive economic growth – even making Canada a global leader in this space – with Canadian nuclear products, services, and expertise available for export to other countries.
COSIA and its members have been investigating the potential application of SMRs in the oil sands, especially for in situ bitumen recovery operations, mine extraction activities, and bitumen upgraders. In 2016, COSIA participated in a study that found SMRs could potentially play a role in providing competitively-priced, low GHG emitting, safe, and dependable heat and power for the oil sands and electricity sectors.
A second, follow-up study in 2018 took a deeper dive into the technical aspects of deploying SMRs in the oil sands, including whether they could reliably produce high quality steam at required temperatures. This report found that SMR technologies checked all the boxes except one: they were not yet cost-competitive.
This financial hurdle may be overcome over the next five to ten years as the nuclear industry progresses safe, reliable, and cost-effective commercial SMRs for use in the oil sands and elsewhere. In fact, the first demonstration SMR is predicted to be constructed by 2030. Many producers have set ambitious targets for zero or near zero carbon emissions, and SMRs may fit into the suite of innovative technologies that will help them achieve these environmental goals.
The technology also aligns with the Government of Alberta’s Climate Change Leadership Plan to transition to more renewable energy and natural gas generation by 2030 and limit GHG emissions from oil sands operations. Alberta is collaborating with Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, through a memorandum of understanding signed in 2020, to join forces to advance and deploy nuclear energy through SMRs.
COSIA, meanwhile, is keeping a close watch on SMR innovation and building working partnerships with others involved in the nuclear sector, including Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Mining Innovation Council, and the Mining Association of Canada. Member companies are currently working to better understand the different types of SMR technologies under development, the individual benefits and risks and how these could be integrated into oil sands facilities.
Watch this space for more nuclear innovation in the future.
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