Written by Deirdre A. Sheehan, Thomas W. McInerney, Stephanie Ridge and Alexandra Rayment
On August 7, 2020, the Government of Alberta announced its intention to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to explore emerging nuclear power generation technology in the form of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
Alberta is the fourth province to sign the MOU, following in the footsteps of the governments of Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, which signed the MOU in December 2019. Ontario and New Brunswick are Canada's only provinces currently producing nuclear energy, while uranium fuel is mined in Saskatchewan. Athabasca Basin contains the world's largest high-grade deposits of uranium and straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
SMRs are distinguished from existing nuclear reactors by their size and output. Unlike conventional nuclear reactors, which can generate between 600 to 1,000 megawatts (i.e., enough to power a large city), SMRs typically generate between two and 300 megawatts of electricity (i.e., enough to power a village or small city). Due to their small size, SMRs attract interest in the potential for modular, prefabricated, scalable and portable reactors that may shipped to any location accessible by truck, rail, or ship.
A Role for SMRs in Alberta
In their pre-recorded statement, Premier Kenney and Minister Savage discussed the potential for SMRs to power remote communities, provide a form of economic diversification, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions—including those associated with the oil and gas industry. Additionally, while uranium is currently only mined in Saskatchewan, Alberta may also stand to benefit from further exploration and development of uranium deposits contained in the Athabasca Basin.
The announcement was presented as another element of Alberta's Recovery Plan and forms part of Alberta's efforts to explore potential avenues for economic diversification. The Premier and Minister emphasized that signing onto the MOU is intended to put Alberta at the forefront of SMR development and ensure that Alberta has proper regulatory process in place should private industry decide to pursue the development of SMRs in the province.
Contents of the MOU
In the non-binding MOU, the signatories commit to work cooperatively to achieve a number of goals, including:
- to advance the development and deployment of SMRs to address the needs of the provinces to address climate change, regional energy demand, economic development (e.g., supply chain, fuel manufacture, skilled employment and export opportunities) and research and innovation opportunities;
- to address key issues for SMR deployment including technological readiness, regulatory frameworks, economics and financing, nuclear waste management and public and Indigenous engagement;
- to positively influence the federal government to provide a clear, unambiguous statement that nuclear energy is a clean technology and is required as part of the climate change solution;
- to positively influence the federal government to provide support for SMRs identified in the Canadian SMR Roadmap and those identified by the CEOs of Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power, New Brunswick Power Corporation, and SaskPower;
- to work co-operatively to positively influence the federal government to make changes as necessary to facilitate the introduction of SMRs;
- to work co-operatively to inform the public about the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy and SMRs; and
- to work co-operatively to engage with other interested provinces and territories to explore the potential for SMR deployment in their jurisdictions.
SMR Development in Canada
Interest in SMRs is not new in Alberta. In 2015, the government at the time expressed interest in the potential deployment of SMRs in the 2015 Climate Leadership Plan. In support of that plan, Alberta Innovates contracted with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to provide an assessment of development potential for SMRs to be used in Alberta. The technical report evaluated the different SMR designs available at the time and made recommendations for their use in the provincial energy industry.
Federal regulatory mechanisms have also been engaged to address the introduction of SMRs. In May 2016, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission issued a discussion paper entitled "Small Modular Reactors: Regulatory Strategy, Approaches and Challenges", in which it provided an overview of the potential issues with SMRs and sought feedback from stakeholders on areas of potential regulatory challenges. In that paper, the Commission determined that existing regulatory and licensing mechanisms are appropriate for SMRs.
More recently, in 2018, the federal government released the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap. The Roadmap was developed by a Steering Committee of representatives from industry, utilities, the federal government and provincial governments, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.
The Roadmap identified three primary uses for SMR deployment in Canada:
- on-grid power generation given the regulatory requirement to phase out coal electricity generation by 2030,
- on-grid and off-grid heat and power for heavy industry; and
- off-grid power, heating and water desalination in remote communities that currently rely on diesel fuel.
The Roadmap identified four areas of focus for the strategic development of the Canadian Nuclear Industry to implement SMR use in Canada:
- Demonstration and deployment: the levels of government should provide funding to share costs and risks with investors to incentivize the deployment of SMRs in Canada.
- Indigenous engagement: meaningful two-way engagement with Indigenous peoples and communities concerning SMRs projects.
- Legislation, regulation and policy: recommendations for federal impact assessment, nuclear liability, regulatory efficiency and waste management.
- International partnerships and markets: emphasize working with all levels of the Canadian nuclear industry to build strong international relationships and access to markets.
Further to the 2018 Roadmap, the federal government has also reaffirmed its support for the Roadmap and SMRs. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan announced in February 2020 that the federal government will launch Canada’s SMR Action Plan in Fall 2020. Natural Resources Canada is currently inviting governments, Indigenous groups, industry, utilities and the general public to contact them for more information and templates for input into the Action Plan.
Interest in SMRs is likely to grow over the next few years as governments explore the tools available to lower carbon footprints and deliver energy solutions to their populations and industries. With this most recent announcement, Alberta has positioned itself alongside provinces that have traditionally been more involved in nuclear power generation, and in doing so, opened the door to discussions of the role SMRs may play in the province.