Mining could benefit from nuclear reactor technology

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By Peter Kennedy

It is an idea that seems long overdue. The premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have pledged to collaborate on developing nuclear reactor technology in Canada.

Doug Ford, Scott Moe, and Blaine Higgs made the announcement and signed a memorandum of understanding on December 1, 2019, ahead of a meeting of all the premiers.

The aim is to work together on research, development and construction of small modular reactors as a way to help each province to reduce carbon emissions and move away from non-renewable energy sources such as coal.

The Premiers said small nuclear reactors are easy to construct, are safer than large reactors and are regarded as cleaner energy than coal. They can be small enough to fit inside a school gymnasium.

The agreement comes after Natural Resources Canada produced a Canadian Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Roadmap following discussions with industry and potential end users, initial dialogue with Indigenous and northern communities and expert analysis.

It contains over 50 recommendations in areas such as waste management, regulatory readiness and international engagement.

Here are some of the key findings of the Roadmap:

Canada has one of the world’s most promising domestic markets for SMRs. Conservative estimates place the potential value of SMRs in Canada at $5.3 billion between 2025 and 2040.

Globally, the SMR market is much bigger, with a conservative estimated value of $150 billion between 2025 and 2040. This represents a large potential export market for Canada, which has already exported nuclear reactor technology to six other countries.

Canada has all of the necessary attributes to become a leader in this area, including a strong international brand, flexible and performance-based regulator, world class nuclear laboratories and demonstration sites, a mature supply chain and a domestic uranium mining industry in northern Saskatchewan.

According to the Roadmap, SMRs can be applied in three major areas in Canada, including:

  • On-grid power generation, especially in provinces that are phasing out coal in the near future. Utilities want to replace end-of-life coal plants with non-emitting base-load plants of similar size. Larger SMRs are likely to align to this application.
  • On and off grid combined heat and power for heavy industry. Oilsands producers and remote mines would benefit from medium-term options for bulk heat and power that would be more reliable and cleaner than their current energy sources. Small or medium SMRs are likely to fit this need.
  • Off-grid power, district heating and desalination in remote communities. These currently rely almost exclusively on diesel fuel, which has various limitations (e.g. cost, emissions). Renewables and batteries can mitigate these limitations to some extent for residential power, but may not supply building heat, nor are they likely to offer reliable bulk energy to open up economic development. Very small SMRs may address these needs.

However, it is thought that it may take at least another 10 years before any SMRs are built in Canada.

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