Canada’s first new nuclear reactor in decades is American designed. Will this prompt a rethinking of government support?

A visitor to the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ont., Looks at the grounds of the facility during a visit in February 2016.Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

Ontario Power Generation’s selection of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to help build a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) at its Darlington Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario, sparked events that could shape Canada’s nuclear industry for decades to come. .

OPG’s choice, announced in December, is the BWRX-300. It is a light water reactor, the most popular variety in developed countries, and very different from the current fleet of Canadian reactors. CANDU heavy water reactors. While it’s not exactly small – the BWRX’s 300-megawatt rated capacity roughly equates to that of a large wind farm – it would only produce a third of the amount of electricity as traditional reactors. It would use different fuel, produce different waste, and possibly have different safety implications.

The Darlington SMR would be the first BWRX-300 ever built. By acting first, OPG hopes Ontario will fit into a global supply chain for these reactors.

“OPG ourselves, we’re really not getting anything out of it – it’s a lot of work,” said Robin Manley, OPG’s vice president of nuclear development. “Our goal is to have as many contracts signed with Canadian suppliers as possible. But that might not satisfy some critics, who protested OPG’s selection of an American design by North Carolina-based GE Hitachi.

This seems to confirm the end of the Canadian tradition of local reactors. The BWRX-300 would be the first new Canadian reactor since Unit 4 at Darlington, Ontario, completed in 1993. According to Mycle Schneider Consulting, the average age of the country’s 19 operational reactors is 38 years. Attempts to update the CANDU design were largely unsuccessful; OPG and Bruce Power have chosen to refurbish the reactors at Darlington and Bruce power plants to operate them for a few more decades, while considering RMPs as a possible next course of action.

Hurry up. This decade is widely seen as crucial for building emission-free production capacity. SMRs will be late to this party even if this BWRX-300 is built on time. Delays and cost overruns, ubiquitous risks with any reactor, could kill its prospects.

The partnership with OPG represents a major blow for GE Hitachi, an American-Japanese alliance which established its SMR subsidiary in Canada less than a year ago. There are at least 50 SMR models in the world, but most exist only on paper; suppliers compete vigorously to sell to experienced nuclear operators like OPG because they represent an opportunity to build a good faith reactor that could attract other customers. For the same reason, OPG’s decision is a blow to the losing candidates, Terrestrial Energy Inc. of Oakville, Ont., And X-energy, a US supplier.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm among nuclear reactor designers, developers and national laboratories, as well as university nuclear engineering departments” about SMRs, said Edwin Lyman, director of energy safety nuclear to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which released a report on SMR reactor designs in early 2021. “There is a lot of supply but not a lot of demand because utilities don’t want be guinea pigs. “

Nuclear industry leaders and government officials hope the Darlington SMR will be the first in a long series to be deployed in Ontario and beyond. SaskPower also shops; he’s been working with OPG since 2017 and has said the BWRX-300 is one of his candidates. Canada has a small population, so observers doubt the country can support supply chains for multiple reactor designs.

But OPG’s selection of an American SMR drew strong criticism. Some observers have speculated that Terrestrial has an advantage in its territory, especially in light of the federal government’s decision to invest $ 20 million in its Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR). The Society of Professional Engineers and Associates, a union representing engineers and others working on CANDU reactors, complained that “priority should have been given to Canadian design.”

“It’s a slap in the face for Terrestrial,” said MV Ramana, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. “This is not a good sign for the Canadian nuclear industry.

Prof Ramana added that OPG’s move could prompt a rethinking of government support for SMR developers. In addition to funding from Terrestrial, Moltex Energy received $ 50.5 million from the Federal Strategic Innovation Fund and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to advance the stable salt-waste burner reactor on which it works in New Brunswick. ARC Clean Energy received $ 20 million from the Government of New Brunswick for its ARC-100 reactor.

“If these companies fail to convince OPG, maybe we should stop funding them,” he said.

But observers have said that of the three candidates publicly announced by OPG, GE Hitachi was the conservative choice. While most SMR vendors are startups that have yet to build a single reactor, GE Hitachi has been in the business since the mid-1950s. The BWRX-300 is touted as the 10th generation of the reactor design. light water company.

“I would bet the money that was the deciding factor,” Mr. Lyman said. “Its supply chain is probably better established than these other designs which have very little or no operating experience and which are associated with many other unknowns.”

Other experts have come to similar conclusions. Tractebel, an engineering company that has worked on nuclear projects in 20 countries, evaluated dozens of SMR designs for Estonia a few years ago. The BWRX-300 made its shortlist, promoted as just “proven technology”. (Terrestrial also scored high, but Tractebel concluded that molten salt reactors such as its IMSR are more distant.)

Unlike CANDU reactors, which consume unenriched uranium, light water reactors require enriched fuel to increase the uranium 235 content. Mr. Lyman said that by adopting a design other than CANDU, Canada will become dependent. enriched fuel imported from the United States, Europe or elsewhere.

Industry should also learn how to dispose of unknown waste. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), which is in the final stages of selecting an underground storage site for Canada’s used radioactive fuel, said used BWRX-300 fuel would generate more heat and radioactivity than CANDU fuel, but could be stored in fewer containers. , placed further.

“We will learn from our international partners who already have plans to permanently store this type of waste in a deep geological repository,” the NWMO said in a statement.

All of this assumes that the OPG reactor is built. For starters, the BWRX-300 is actually not allowed to be built anywhere. GE Hitachi is participating in the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission Supplier Design Review, receiving initial feedback from the regulator on its reactor. Completion of this process would confirm that the CNSC has not found any features that are outside of Canadian requirements.

After that, GE Hitachi would need a build Licence. Like other SMR suppliers, GE Hitachi presents its SMR as including “passive” safety features, which means that in the event of an accident, the plant would have enough water and electricity to operate without intervention for a period of time. days, even weeks. A safer reactor might also be a cheaper reactor: for example, the SMR might require less containment than traditional designs, and therefore less concrete. GE Hitachi claims BWRX-300 occupies less than 10 percent the volume of its predecessor. But the CNSC would first have to agree that the reactor did earn inferior guarantees.

“It’s pretty early in the licensing process,” said Manley. “As an operator, we are very confident that we can license this reactor.”

But critics say completing the reactor by 2028 is a tall order. According to Mycle Schneider Consulting, one in eight reactors that have started construction since 1951 has never been connected to the grid. Many survivors, meanwhile, arrived years later than promised.

Mr Manley said 2028 is “an ambitious goal” rather than a hard deadline. The project schedule will strengthen over the next two years.

OPG has yet to release a cost estimate, but according to a report released by PwC, Project SMR “is expected to spend $ 2 billion over seven years.” That’s already higher than GE Hitachi’s promised $ 1 billion price tag for a BWRX-300 in 2019. (In public presentations, GE executives said keeping the price below $ 1 billion US was crucial to its plans for exponential customer growth.)

Even so, Mr. Manley said OPG’s intention is for PMS to be competitive with other clean energy options.

Prof Ramana said escalating costs are almost inevitable. The AP1000 reactor, a Westinghouse pressurized water reactor which produces 1,110 megawatts, was originally supposed to cost $ 2 billion. But the price of Vogtle’s two-unit plant in Georgia was estimated at US $ 14 billion, and then topped US $ 30 billion. Westinghouse marketing materials pointed out that the reactor had been significantly simplified, making it less expensive to build, operate and maintain.

“Historically, supplier estimates have always been well, well below what the actual costs are going to be,” Professor Ramana said. “I don’t think there is any reason to expect it to be any different.”

Mr Manley acknowledged that over the past two decades large nuclear power plants “have been challenged to get on time and on budget”. But that’s one of the reasons OPG decided to build an SMR. They “are less costly in capital, simpler, smaller and therefore faster and easier to build,” he said.

It also won’t be the first time OPG has managed a complex and high-risk capital project. The company says the $ 12.8 billion renovation of its now half-completed Darlington station is on time and on budget. This experience has shown that “when we take the time to plan the job correctly, we are able to come up with a good estimate and a good schedule that we are able to stick to,” said Mr. Manley.

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