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Canada’s nuclear industry wants to build reactors in the Arctic

Small Modular Reactors proposed as alternative to diesel fuel at Arctic Development Expo June 16
Concept art of a Small Modular Reactor being transported to its destination, as opposed to being build on-site like traditional nuclear reactors. An emerging technology, these scaled down reactors are being proposed by Canada Nuclear Laboratories as a possible solution to northern energy needs. Photo courtesy of NuScale Power

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is pushing for the use of Small Modular Reactors in remote Arctic communities.

During the Arctic Development Expo hosted in Inuvik June 15-16, both the keynote address by CNL president and CEO Joe McBrearty and a presentation by CNL vice president of science and technology Jeff Griffin made the case for the fission reactors, which are similar to the ones used in nuclear submarines, to be deployed as a solution to energy needs.

McBrearty said he’s been around nuclear reactors for much of his adult life, first serving in the U.S. Navy as captain of the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Dallas, and later in the nuclear power industry. He said the technology could be a useful tool in both the fight against climate change as well as promoting energy security.

“The province of Ontario gets about 60 per cent of its energy from nuclear power,” he said. “The International Energy Agency (IEA) sees a growing role for nuclear energy to achieve net zero emissions by the year 2050 and over the next decade, nuclear capacity could grow as much by 40 per cent and double by 2050. We believe these SMRs can help northern communities. SMRs work in much the same way as a conventional nuclear reactor. Uranium, which is mined here Canada, is made into fuel and undergoes fission in a reactor. That’s used to produce heat to heat water and produces steam. That steam in turn drives the turbine, which produces electricity .”

“SMRs produce heat. This heat could be used to warm homes or buildings. The heat could be used to supply greenhouses for agriculture. The heat and electricity be used for hydrogen production so you can power vehicles. It can be used for desalination, turning salt water on the shores on a remote island into fresh drinking water to service a community. They can be part of critical infrastructure to attract new business to the north, such as the construction of data centres which is happening in other Arctic nations.

“If we intend to seize the competitive advantage, we have to take action. Clean energy solutions that include nuclear are a priority that needs more investment, more collaboration and more clear commitment to make these technologies a reality. If we fail to commit, then this SMR opportunity will likely pass us by, other countries will step in and they will realize the benefits that come with it. Canada should and must have a seat at the table.”

Small Nuclear Reactors are scaled down and simplified systems designed to work in isolation and with minimum technical expertise. The idea is the smaller scale potentially reduces the problems commonly associated with nuclear reactors, such as substantially less water requirements for coolant, which expands where they can be built. There are numerous designs in various stages of completion — but only three reactors currently in full operation. All are in Russia with one scheduled to cease operation this year.

In remote communities, Griffin suggested SMRs could replace diesel power generation to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions — particularly at mining sites. Other uses proposed for SMRs include using the steam produced by the reactions in oil sands extraction and electricity for bitumen upgrading in Alberta, as well as retiring the coal power currently in operation, and also in chemical production in up to 85 heavy industrial parks across Canada.

“It’s small in power,” said Griffin. “Generally less than 300 megawatts electrical, with many designs less than 50 megawatts electrical. It’s modular, meaning that is generally manufactured and easily transported to a location. That’s in contrast to a typical grid-power nuclear reactor that are build up over many years at a particular site.”

“The reactor technology itself varies with some relatively well advanced and familiar to people, and other more innovated technologies still under development, but all of them are designed to be inherently safe and versatile with applications such as electricity generation, local area heating, provision of industrial steam, hydrogen production, desalination, and the ability to integration in a hybrid energy grid.”

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL,) It employs roughly 3,300 people. Griffin stressed CNL is acting solely as an advocacy group for Canada’s SMR vision and is not designing or selling any reactors of its own. Instead, he said their mission is to “demonstrate the commercial viability of the SMR, be recognized globally as a leader in SMR prototype testing and scientific support, and be a recognized hub for SMRs, where multiple-vendor-supported prototypes are built and tested.”

Instead, he explained CNL is intending to test SMRs at their Chalk River Research site, with plans underway to conduct a demonstration of a Global First Power-built reactor in 2026. CNL is also involved in the development of SMR Roadmaps and Action Plans. Global First Power is a business partnership between the Ontario government and Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation.

During McBrearty’s keynote address, solar-power entrepreneur Klaus Dohring asked what considerations were being put towards nuclear waste. McBrearty said northern communities would need to ship their waste back south to be buried.

“The question on waste is an incredibly pertinent one and one that sometimes gets forgotten,” he said. “Communities would just need to be ready to have the ability to ship that waste to a final disposal site. It would not be the expectation that waste remain in communities at all. “

"The goal of these reactors is once they are done, once their fuel cycle is complete that fuel is removed and moved to a long-term geological depository far away from the Arctic.”

A memorandum of understanding to “committing to collaborate on the development and deployment of innovative, versatile and scalable nuclear reactors, known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)” has been signed by the governments of Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole previously told NNSL Media he supports building SMRs in the Arctic.

Canada’s last commercial nuclear reactor came into operation in 1993. Worldwide, 31 Canadian nuclear reactors, known as CANDU reactors, have been built in China, Pakistan and South Korea, and are under construction in Argentina and Romania in a partnership with China National Nuclear Corporation. CANDU reactors were also built in India, but further development was frozen in 1974 was the Indian government detonated an atomic bomb.

Originally developed in the 1960s, CANDU sales declined in the early 2000s as newer technology became available. Initially developed by the crown corporation AECL, the design for the CANDU reactor was licensed to SNC-Lavalin along with the marketing and reactor-development rights.

Canada’s biggest nuclear contribution globally is the production of radioisotopes, which are important for medical diagnoses and cancer treatments.

About the Author: Eric Bowling

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