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Nuclear power in Sask.: What is a small modular reactor?

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With the release of a strategic plan to explore the use of small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear technology in Saskatchewan, exactly what is an SMR and why is it being looked at?

The group of provinces involved in a strategic plan for the technology released Monday are the governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick.

Small modular reactors are nuclear reactors that “operate at a significantly smaller size than conventional reactors” according to the strategic plan.

The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) defines SMRs as generating 300 megawatts of power or less. For comparison the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station in New Brunswick has a capacity of 660 megawatts according to NB Power.

EASIER TO BUILD

Building the reactors is a much simpler and cheaper process compared to conventional reactors because the parts can be made separately in a factory setting and transported to their point of use. More reactors can also be added as demand increases.

A Saskatchewan project would be the size of the average coal plant and has an estimated cost of $5 billion but Minister Responsible for SaskPower Don Morgan said that’s likely at the higher end of a potential cost.

WHY SASK. IS INTERESTED?

Saskatchewan relied on coal and natural gas for 76 per cent of SaskPower’s grid capacity in 2021, and SMRs are seen as a potential replacement that can reduce emissions while still meeting electricity demand.

The federal government has regulations to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030 and the report said 1,200 megawatts of SMR nuclear power coming online in Saskatchewan between 2034 and 2042 would “help achieve net-zero emissions in the provincial electrical grid”.

The growth of SMRs is also expected to provide new opportunities for uranium mining in Saskatchewan and potentially Alberta.

POSSIBLE TIMELINE

The next steps for SMR technology in Canada will be dependent on a number of factors.

The strategic plan outlines three potential paths:

  • Develop an SMR project at the Darlington nuclear site in Ontario by 2028. Saskatchewan would be next in line, its first SMR projected to be online in 2034.
  • Develop two SMRs at Point Lepreau in New Brunswick by 2029.
  • Build micro-SMRs meant to replace the use of diesel in remote communities and mines. A demo project is expected to be up and running in Ontario by 2026.

Other factors named in the report that also need to be addressed include possible changes and clarifications of nuclear regulations, federal financial support and nuclear waste storage.

The full strategic plan is available through Publications Saskatchewan.

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