Small but mighty: Unveiling the power of small modular reactors

January 25, 2024

 

Almost everything we do depends on electricity - cooking, cleaning, working, you name it! The way in which electricity is generated can impact our environment, our economy, and our health. In fact, using fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas leads to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions which contributes to climate change and can affect our health.

With a growing demand for clean energy, Canadian scientists are taking real action to fight climate change, including taking steps to reduce emissions from electricity and shift to other non-emitting technologies.

Small modular reactors (also called SMRs) play a crucial role in this effort. These reactors utilize nuclear power, a clean energy source that generates electricity without emitting harmful byproducts like fossil fuels.

What is an SMR?

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy BWRX-300 Small Modular Reactor graphic rendering.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy BWRX-300 Small Modular Reactor graphic rendering.

SMRs are reactors that are, as the name suggests, designed to be built at a smaller size than a regular nuclear plant. This innovative technology promises to help make the clean energy transition, with lower financial investment and modular designs to control costs and include enhanced safety features.

SMRs are designed to be:

  • Small – in both power output and physical size.
  • Modular – built in a factory, portable and scalable;
  • Reactors – used to produce energy.

In fact, a 300-megawatt SMR could supply enough continuous clean power for over 300,000 homes!

SMRs, like nuclear power plants in general, are more environmentally-friendly than fossil-fuel based methods of generating electricity because they do not emit greenhouse gases while operating.

SMRs in Canada

Canada is one of the few countries that cover the full nuclear life cycle, from mining, to plant construction, to operation, to radioactive waste management – we do it all! Many government departments work together when either assessing, implementing, and regulating nuclear energy.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) promotes the sustainable development and responsible use of Canada’s natural resources, including nuclear energy. The department develops and implements government policy on nuclear energy and technology. It provides advice on energy policy, as well as institutional, legislative, and financial frameworks for the nuclear industry in Canada.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, and security of Canadians and the environment. Any proposal to build and operate a nuclear facility in Canada, including a potential SMR, requires a licence. Licence applications must meet the stringent conditions of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act and its regulations, as well as other applicable federal, provincial, and municipal requirements.

Health Canada (HC) is responsible for helping people in Canada maintain and improve their health. To this end, the department maintains subject matter expertise in areas such as radiation protection, chemicals management, noise, and consumer safety. For an SMR, these experts could be called upon to assess potential risks and help ensure that they are managed effectively. For example, Dr. Trevor Stocki is a Research Scientist in Health Canada’s Radiation Protection Bureau who studies how radioactivity moves through the environment. He is interested in new nuclear technologies such as SMRs and potential effects on the environment with respect to human health.

Moving towards cleaner energy in Canada

Small modular reactors don't emit CO2 in order to produce electricity, making them a cleaner alternative than fossil fuels.

Small modular reactors don't emit CO2 in order to produce electricity, making them a cleaner alternative than fossil fuels.

Canada is striving to become a global leader in low-greenhouse gas technologies. Recent studies have shown that Canada’s electricity supply will need to at least double by 2050 to achieve a net-zero emission economy and meet consumer demand. Small modular reactors are part of up-and-coming technologies that could help Canada to green parts of its economy and energy production.

Not only is the transition to clean electricity beneficial for the environment and human health, but the transition to a clean electricity sector will also lead to significant economic opportunities through the construction of new power sources and retrofitting and fuel-switching existing plants and buildings.

In the last year alone, the Government of Canada has provided millions of dollars toward SMR research and development across the country, and for reactor technology in Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. Canada is proud to contribute to the development of this small but game-changing technology.

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