Small Modular Reactors: Promising Climate Solution, or Niche Clean Energy Technology?
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Moderator: Dr. Margot Hurlbert, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change – Energy and Sustainability Policy, University of Regina
Speakers: John Gorman, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association; Justin Hannah, Senior Director – Nuclear Energy and Infrastructure Security Branch, Natural Resources Canada; Dr. Daniel Kammen, Director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, UC Berkeley; Guy Lonechild, CEO, First Nations Power Authority; Lisa McBride, Country Leader – Small Modular Reactors, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy.
Nuclear technology is already well-established in Canada and worldwide. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are an emerging technology that presents advantages as a new clean energy production source. While some suggest SMRs can play a key role for Canada to achieve its 2050 net zero targets, others express concerns about the timeline under which such technology could be deployed at scale. The climate change clock is ticking; will SMRs be able to contribute substantially to Canada’s transition to net zero?
- The use of small module reactors (SMRs) to deliver affordable, flexible energy at scale will make getting to net-zero “massively easier”, said panel experts.
- Called the “Swiss army knife of energy supply,” SMRs can deliver grid-scale power in hard-to-reach locations, such as Canada’s rural and remote northern communities. Especially advantageous for Canada’s industrial sector, they can provide both power and high temperature heat needed for industrial processes.
- Canada is a leader in the nuclear SMR space. Ontario Power Generation will deploy the first grid-scale SMR in North America in 2028, and Saskatchewan’s SaskPower is looking to do the same before 2040.
- The nuclear waste cycle, including the effective and safe management of spent fuel, remains a prominent concern among experts and the public. To avoid losing momentum to the U.S.’s recent climate policy advances, research dollars must be directed toward the safe management of nuclear waste, capacity building, and strengthening of nuclear supply chains.
- A challenge for the nuclear industry is how to support, and not detract from, a net-zero, renewable-powered energy grid, especially as renewables become so cheap. Some experts question how well nuclear SMRs will be able to “play nice” in a renewable-powered clean energy grid.
- Panel experts say the stable, low-carbon energy provided by SMRs will complement intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, creating a grid that is “balanced, resilient, and affordable.”
- Canada will face a challenge balancing competition and cooperation with the U.S. and needs to be mindful about how it will compete across supply chains, human resources, and financing. The U.S. is “sending a message to the entire world that they are intent on being a clean energy superpower… and many nations like Canada are now contemplating how it is we’re going to keep up.” (John Gorman)
Small module reactors (SMRs) are a promising technology in Canada’s low-carbon energy arsenal, expert panelists on our February 28 webinar agreed.
Simpler to manufacture than traditional nuclear power plants, SMRs are significantly more affordable than their counterparts thanks to a smaller design and cheaper construction and operations costs. The “Swiss army knife of energy supply,” Canadian Nuclear Association President and CEO John Gorman praised SMRs for their unique ability to deliver low-carbon, grid-scale power in hard-to-reach locations, like rural and remote northern communities. SMRs can also produce power alongside high temperature heat, a boon for decarbonizing the industrial sector, which currently relies heavily on burning fossil fuels for industrial processes.
“The race to net zero is a marathon, not a sprint,” adds Gorman. “We need to make deliberate decisions in a very thoughtful way in terms of bringing all technologies to bear as we work towards that net zero future.”
Advocates agree that SMRs will be critical to addressing climate change and helping Canada meet net-zero targets. For smaller grids in provinces like Saskatchewan, their deployment could support the integration of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, creating an energy grid that is that is “balanced, resilient, and affordable.”
“Do we absolutely need nuclear power to be in the [energy] mix?” asked Daniel Kammen, Director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley. “I would say the answer is a controversial no. But would it make the job massively easier? I think that’s a clear yes.”
But with the plummeting cost of solar and other clean energies, experts are concerned about the ability of nuclear to “play nice” in net-zero future powered by renewables. Significant funding and research is still needed to address concerns like nuclear waste management, technology deployment speed, and labour and supply chain capacity.
“I’m much less concerned about the technical functioning of the reactors than about the economics and the management of the back-end fuel cycle,” says Dr. Kammen. “The idea that SMRs are going to transform the world… that depends on this strategy of mass-producing reactors, central management of waste, and somehow getting very, very large improvements in cost and in safety.”
Canada is a leader in SMR deployment, with a recent announcement to open the first grid-scale SMR in North America, designed by GE Hitachi, at Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington site in 2028. Industry experts feel confident Canada can and should leverage its 70 years of nuclear technology experience to become a global leader.
“Canada is first in and best dressed. And that stems from all the things that we have: uranium mining to nuclear waste management, research and development, supply chain jobs, the talent… we need to leverage all of that,” says Lisa McBride, Country Leader for Small Modular Reactors at GE Hitachi’s Nuclear Products Division.
But pressure to move quickly is increasing. Since signing the Inflation Reduction Act into effect in 2022, the U.S. is moving swiftly to catalyze investment in clean energy manufacturing and supply chains, and Canada risks missing out. Bolstering Canada’s carbon regulatory market is one route to increase the attractiveness of our green economy over the U.S.’s, but would require the Canadian government to move quickly to address carbon pricing uncertainty.
To address the waste management issue — a common public concern — the Canadian government recently directed $29.6 million in funding toward SMR waste management research and supply chain development. “If nuclear is to play a significant role in Canada and the world going forward, we’re going to need to ensure… that these reactors can receive fuel in a safe and timely manner,” says Justin Hannah, Senior Director of the Nuclear Energy and Infrastructure Security Branch at Natural Resources Canada. Hannah also emphasized the role of the Canadian government to work closely with Indigenous communities in supporting and partnering on nuclear projects.
Nonetheless, the window for meaningful action that will decarbonize the Canadian grid by 2050 is closing. Whether SMRs remain on the sidelines as a niche energy technology, or rise through regulatory and economic hurdles to become a heavyweight of the clean energy transition, has yet to be seen. One thing panel experts can agree on: In the clean energy economy of the future, nuclear will almost certainly be part of the mix. Canada’s challenge is now to figure out how to keep up.
“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And we need to make those deliberate decisions in a very thoughtful way in terms of bringing all technologies to bear in appropriate ways as we work towards that net zero future.”
“We want to make sure the Canadian supply chain is fully engaged and well positioned, not only to supply components and services in Canada, but for global deployment too. That’s really the advantage of being a first mover: taking the opportunity to embed capabilities in the Canadian market and then really act as a platform for export in new areas.”
“Do we absolutely need nuclear power to be in the [energy] mix? I would say the answer is a controversial no. But would it make the job massively easier? I think that’s a clear yes.”
“Canada is first in and best dressed. And that stems from all the things that we have: uranium mining to nuclear waste management, research and development, supply chain jobs, the talent… we need to leverage all of that.”
We are grateful to all our panelists and our moderator for sharing their expertise and insights into the challenge that are Small Modular Reactors.
This panel was part of the Transition Accelerator’s Pathways to Net Zero webinar series. The Transition Accelerator is a charity dedicated to empowering and guiding decision-makers toward net zero with the tools and knowledge they need to unlock a sustainable future for Canada.
To learn about upcoming webinars or review our previous events, be sure to visit our webinar page. We’ll see you on March 8, 2023, to discuss ¨Responding to the IRA: Creating a Canadian Advantage?¨.
We welcome suggestions for discussions you would like the Transition Accelerator to host. Email us your ideas!
About Our Panel
Dr. Margot Hurlbert, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy, University of Regina
Margot Hurlbert is the Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Energy, and Sustainability Policy at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina. Her research focus is on governance and climate change, energy and water; interrogating laws, policies and practices that will address both the problem of climate change and adaptation, and mitigation to the changing climate. Her current passion is determining participatory governance mechanisms and constructing action-based imaginaries that help us achieve our Paris goals—net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Hurlbert has been a Coordinating Lead Author, Contributing Author and Review Editor for the IPCC. She has also authored numerous journal articles, book chapters and scholarly papers on a broad range of topics but more recently on the subjects of energy, Aboriginal justice, water and climate change adaptation.
John Gorman, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association
John Gorman is President & CEO of Canadian Nuclear Association, an organization which has been the national voice of the Canadian nuclear industry since 1960. The CNA promotes the industry nationally and internationally, works with governments on policies affecting the sector and endeavours to increase awareness and understanding of the value nuclear technology brings to the environment, economy and daily lives of Canadians.
Gorman served as President & CEO of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, Canada’s Designate to the International Energy Agency’s Executive Committee (PVPS) and was a Founder of the Canadian Council on Renewable Electricity (CanCORE). Gorman uses his experience to secure a leading role for nuclear energy at the heart of Canada’s energy transition. He has also served as a director on the boards of numerous community and corporate organizations.
Justin Hannah, Senior Director – Nuclear Energy and Infrastructure Security Branch, Natural Resources Canada
Justin Hannah is the Director of the Nuclear Energy Division at Natural Resources Canada responsible for major policy issues within the nuclear energy industry for the Federal Government He has over 15 years of experience leading teams and programs focused on market and industry development, strategy and engagement with utilities, vendors, and government stakeholders. His areas of expertise include market development, government policy and international affairs.
Justin began his career in the nuclear industry in 2005 with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Commercial Reactor division as part of the international business development team. He had also played significant leadership roles within the private sector including with SNC-Lavalin and Cavendish Nuclear.
Dr. Daniel Kammen, Director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, University of California Berkeley
Daniel Kammen is a Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, with parallel appointments in the Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy and the department of Nuclear Engineering.
He was appointed by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 as the first energy fellow of the Environment and Climate Partnership for the Americas initiative. Since he served the State of California and the US federal government in expert and advisory capacities, including time at the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Energy, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He has also served as a contributing or coordinating lead author on various reports of the IPCC since 1999 and has helped found over 10 companies.
Guy Lonechild, CEO, Fist Nations Power Authority
Guy Lonechild is a well-known advocate for enabling growth and opportunities for First Nation communities and serves as CEO of First Nations Power Authority. FNPA is the only North American non-profit Indigenous-owned and controlled organization developing power projects with Indigenous communities. It bridges the gaps between industry, government, and Indigenous communities to evaluate and develop Indigenous-owned power generation projects.
Lonechild has served Saskatchewan First Nations in elected positions, administrative capacities, and as a private management consultant. He also led a number of taskforces, development programs, and initiatives to enable good governance, change management, and growth and renewal of First Nations and enterprises in Canada.
Lisa McBride, Country Leader – Small Modular Reactors, GE Hitachi Nuclear Product Division
Lisa McBride is the Country Leader, Small Modular Reactors for GE Hitachi’s Nuclear Products Division. Lisa is responsible for leading the collaboration with customers, stakeholders and suppliers to deploy the BWRX-300 SMR in Canada, targeting to be the world’s first operational grid-scale SMR before 2028.
Lisa has over 17 years of experience in the nuclear industry, starting her career with Ontario Power Generation. Her drive and commitment have propelled her into several key leadership roles with Pickering Nuclear Generating Station and the Nuclear Regulatory Affairs group at Ontario Power Generation. She is also the President of Women in Nuclear (WiN) Canada, where she provides vision, strategic direction and oversight of the day-to-day operations of WiN Canada, an organization comprised of over 3,000 members across Canada.