Canada has big climate goals and we need ambitious solutions to meet them. The federal government is banking on a new generation of nuclear technology to help us clean up power grids and reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But will it work?

As part of a new Canada’s National Observer series breaking down climate basics, we delved into some common questions about the next phase of nuclear tech — SMRs.

What is an SMR?

An SMR, or small modular reactor, is a nuclear power unit used to produce energy. As of now, SMRs don’t technically exist; no unit has been fully built. But like nuclear energy in general, the tech is especially polarizing: while many — including the federal government — tout SMRs as a way to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and achieve our climate goals, others say the risk they pose heavily outweighs any potential reward.

SMRs create energy through nuclear fission, similar to traditional nuclear reactors. That process creates heat, which generates electricity but doesn’t create greenhouse gas emissions, unlike fossil fuel energy sources such as coal and natural gas.

What does SMR stand for, and how are they different from existing reactors?

SMR stands for small modular reactor. Here’s a word-by-word definition.

Small: SMRs have a smaller energy output compared to traditional nuclear reactors. For example, the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station in New Brunswick has one reactor with a power capacity of 705 megawatts of electricity (MWe) and supplies around 40 per cent of the province’s power. SMRs, on the other hand, will have a power capacity of up to 300 MWe per unit, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Take, for example, one SMR that's set to be built in Ontario: at its maximum output, the unit could power 300,000 homes, according to Ontario Power Generation. However, not all SMRs in Canada will have that much power — another planned SMR in New Brunswick will produce just 100 MWe.

Physically, the size of SMRs will vary depending on power output, according to Ontario Tech University. Small SMRs will be the size of a large SUV situated on a gas station-sized lot. Larger ones could be as big as a semi-trailer and require a lot the size of a football field.

Modular: According to the federal government, this means the reactors “are factory constructed, portable and scalable.” Compared to traditional nuclear plants, which are built from the ground up, SMRs can be constructed in a central factory and shipped elsewhere as a whole. However, that process will rely on how much demand there is for SMRs and how feasible it is to ship the units once they’re built. Because SMR technology is still in its early stages, this is still to be determined.

Reactor: The type of reactor an SMR uses can vary. According to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, SMRs can use different types of fuels to power their reactors. In Canada, all existing nuclear power stations have CANDU (Canadian Deuterium-Uranium) reactors, which use natural uranium mined in Saskatchewan as fuel and heavy water (which differs from regular water because it has significant amounts of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen) to cool and moderate the reactors.

The feds are banking on SMRs to help us clean up power grids and reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But will it work? This is part one of a climate basics series we're working on. Let us know what else you'd like us to break down.

SMRs, on the other hand, could use a number of reactors. One company in New Brunswick is slated to build a molten salt reactor that uses spent nuclear fuel, usually stored as nuclear waste after being used by reactors. As part of the process, the company would recover plutonium mixed with other substances to fuel the reactor, a process that has never been accomplished commercially, which critics have raised proliferation concerns about.

Another company in New Brunswick is developing a liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor, which will use liquid metal (sodium) as a coolant rather than water. The port authority in Saint John, N.B., is also eyeing the model to support hydrogen production.

The SMR planned for Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington nuclear site is a boiling water reactor. It uses light water (which is normal water, unlike all reactors in Canada, but like most others in the world) so it will need enriched uranium fuel, which will have to come from outside Canada. Saskatchewan has selected the same model with a goal of using it sometime in the 2030s.

Why do we need SMRs?

Canada has vowed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to the federal government, that means we must lower our emissions to between 407 and 445 megatonnes of greenhouse gas pollution. The latest data from 2020 shows we are currently at 672 megatonnes.

Part of reaching our climate goals will be changing our power sources from fossil fuels to clean energy. SMRs don’t release emissions while generating electricity, so they are seen by some as a viable alternative as we shift off coal, oil and gas.

According to the federal government, SMRs could be used to help achieve our climate goal in three ways: by replacing coal plants, powering heavy industry operations in places like the oilsands and remote mines, and providing electricity for remote communities reliant on diesel.

While the fossil fuel industry is touting SMRs as a way to decarbonize Alberta’s tarsands, which typically use fossil fuels to power operations, experts have stressed that oil and gas production needs to wind down if the world is going to reach its climate goals.

An analysis published in Policy Options found that as of 2018, 24 remote mines reliant on diesel were potential candidates for SMRs by 2030. However, the authors concluded the cost of producing an SMR was too high to justify an electricity demand of this magnitude. Rather, wind and solar are more affordable.

The role of SMRs in powering remote, mostly Indigenous communities that now rely on diesel has also been contested. Research has shown SMRs to be one of the least desirable energy options to those communities, who are concerned with being left with nuclear waste and the high costs of SMRs compared to cheaper renewables.

Why are people against SMRs?

Those against SMRs often oppose them for three main reasons:

1. They will be in operation too late to address the climate crisis.

In Canada, the first SMR is supposed to be ready by 2028 for the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario. However, some say that goal is unrealistic. An early SMR built by Oregon’s NuScale was originally supposed to generate electricity by 2016, but the completion date has since been pushed to 2029 or 2030. A new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis described the project as “too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain.”

Meanwhile, renewable sources of energy like wind and solar already have technology that is developed and proven.

2. They’re too expensive.

Since SMRs haven’t yet been built, it’s hard to say how much they will ultimately cost, but it’s in the billions. Don Morgan, minister responsible for SaskPower in Saskatchewan, said a small reactor would cost around $5 billion. And the costs of projects underway have often ballooned: the NuScale project went from costing $3.1 billion in 2014 to $6.1 billion in 2020. As a result, the power generated by SMRs is expensive. A 2015 report from the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency found electricity costs from SMRs are predicted to be 50 to 100 per cent higher than typical nuclear reactors.

3. They create harmful nuclear waste.

According to research from Stanford University and the University of British Columbia, SMRs are actually set to produce more nuclear waste than conventional plants. As of now, Canada’s nuclear waste is stored on site at facilities, but all of the locations are designed to be temporary. There is no waste disposal plan for nuclear waste from SMRs, and Canada has been struggling with where to dispose of the nuclear waste already created from existing and past reactors for around a decade. The Canadian Environmental Law Association notes: “SMR wastes will also have higher concentrations of radiation and the SMR designs that claim to ‘burn up’ existing radioactive waste will create new, even more toxic waste streams.”

Who is building SMRs in Canada and how far along are they?

In Canada, the federal government is currently backing SMR technology through its action plan, as are the provinces of Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, all of which signed a memorandum of understanding expressing support for SMRs.

According to provincial SMR plans, the first one in operation will be at the Darlington nuclear site in Ontario in 2028. Plans are also underway in Alberta and New Brunswick, where ARC Clean Energy is aiming to have an SMR in operation by 2029, and Moltex Energy says its spent fuel recovery system and reactor will come online in the early 2030s. Four more SMRs will follow between 2034 and 2042 in Saskatchewan.

In the plans, they also note another type of SMRs which would be smaller and have less power generation. Rather than supplying grids, they’re designed “primarily to replace the use of diesel in remote communities and mines.” The plan also notes the nuclear research facility at Chalk River, Ont., which is aiming to be in operation by 2026.

Are SMRs viable?

That is the biggest question surrounding SMRs. Although the plans for these next-generation nuclear units might hypothetically work, their viability hasn’t been proven anywhere. Proponents of the tech don’t let that get them down: they say the proposals are strong and are the key to reducing emissions.

But there is no sign that opponents will back down, either. In Canada, numerous Indigenous, scientific, environmental and citizen groups have called the technology a “dirty, dangerous distraction” from real climate action.

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amazing how this fantasy source is touted by right wing fossil backing groups with no comment on absurd cost and dangerous waste
and then the same groups scream bloody murder over the damage of wind turbines to people’s health and the crime of “disturbing the views”;and it gets taken seriously as valid comment and amplified in right wing press ( National Post.. the Pravda of conservatives) as if it were Armageddon to have a wind farm nearby
we are screwed if this delusional so called reporting does not change to accurately discuss alternatives to fossil

A recent National Observer piece on “reprocessing” says the federal government already gave $50.5 million to a New Brunswick company “to build a molten salt reactor that uses spent nuclear fuel” and to “recover plutonium mixed with other substances to fuel the reactor.” This was an incredibly stupid waste of tax dollars given the weapons proliferation implications of mass-producing plutonium-fueled reactors.

The statement could mean the new SMR will recover plutonium from the spent fuel from conventional reactors and burn it as a fuel itself, rendering it down over and over and reducing its radiation significantly. The statements -- pro and con, each distributing BS in equal parts -- regarding using existing nuclear waste as a fuel in new SMRs needs to be given detached, scientific analysis by experts who do not have vested interests, and the results submitted to public scrutiny.

This otherwise balanced article does point out the fact that Canada has a huge problem with existing, highly toxic radioactive waste. Rejecting SMRs out if hand will not address this issue. Other countries have recently made the very hard and controversial decision to bury their own waste in canisters set in deep repositories carved out of granite. Finland is one of them, and they will leap to defend their decision when questioned. The choice seemed to be deep burial, or let it accumulate in tanks at the power plants on the surface, just like Canada, to build SMRs to *potentially* render down the existing waste, or ramp up combusting fossil fuels to maintain their economy.

Canada also has a decision to make on Arctic navigation as the sea ice continues to melt. Currently, Russian, Chinese and American nuclear powered subs loaded with nuclear missiles are crawling under the ice in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Likewise, commercial shipping, namely the EU-Asia route, is eyeing the Northwest Passage ever more keenly with every passing warm year and hopes to lop several thousand kilometres off their current Panama Canal route. How is Canada supposed to monitor -- let alone regulate and control -- this intrusive traffic without some kind of emission-free small scale nuclear propulsion that refuels just once every 25 years? This has already been done for 50 years by several navies, yet Canada is commissioning diesel powered icebreakers that may prove inadequate.

The article correctly points out the cost and timing challenges of SMRs. I would rather see geothermal power given equal attention along with existing renewables having the opportunity to send gigawatts of clean energy into a national smart grid permeated with all kinds of non-lithium mass storage battery banks. The funny thing is that it can be done within the decade if the Kid had a spine, and it could catalyze the full electrification of our domestic economy a lot quicker and more cheaply than building a few SMRs, one or two of which could be used to controversially melt the tar out of the Alberta sand, all justified by ignoring stage three emissions and new radioactive waste altogether.

Nonetheless, the problem of what to do with the existing radioactive waste and actively enforcing Canada's sovereignty over its quadrant of the Arctic without carbon pollution or spilling bunker fuel remain unresolved.

If we stare at our nearest celestial neighbour for too long we will be blinded. The sun showers us with enough energy in a single day to power the whole earth for a year. Solar and wind have already won the race and are the cheapest sources of energy. Battery storage has improved to the point where large batteries are a better choice for backup power than gas and are currently employed in California and Australia. Battery technology continues to improve and solid state batteries are being developed that will hold and deliver much more energy. There is nothing small about small nuclear, it just happens to be the most expensive and worst choice possible. How are lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry able to gaslight politicians so easily while scientists and energy experts are ignored.
Reference: What if the wind doesn’t Blow? Prof. Mark Jacobson YouTube 2022
Skip the long intro

The problem, and what most of the "others" are "saying" is not that "the risk they pose heavily outweighs any potential reward." It's that there's no potential reward. SMRs are a non-solution looking for a problem.

Or rather, they're a solution, but not to any problems the rest of us have--they're a solution to a problem the nuclear power industry has: It is, gradually, shrinking. Despite its significant political clout and highly effective PR, its many negatives are catching up to it: Its absolutely terrible cost structure, the long time from project initiation to project completion and the great uncertainty that projects will get completed at all, plus the safety stuff and so on, has caused more and more governments to shy away from financing the stuff. And of course, the nuclear power industry doesn't want to die, it wants to keep making money (largely from public subsidies) and grow. But it's product has accumulated such a crappy track record that it's hard to find buyers.

So the industry needs a new product, one that it can say is different. Whether it really is different isn't the point, the point is to scrape up a couple more decades of flogging white elephants and riding high on the gravy train before customers and governments realize that this, too, is an expensive boondoggle that doesn't deliver anything like value for money. Enter SMRs.

SMRs will never be produced in sufficient volume for the much-touted modular thing to make much cost difference. And the basic physics of nuclear power makes large reactors more efficient than small ones, so small ones are going to cost even more per unit of energy. And most of them seem to have screwy designs that are begging for horrible failures--like, the one mentioned in the article that's gonna go with liquid SODIUM for cooling. Oh, I'm sure THAT will go well--using a corrosive, flammable metal at high heat to cool radioactive materials couldn't POSSIBLY be a maintenance and safety nightmare. Others plan to use fuel pellets coated with graphite--I thought we learned about not putting coal in your nuclear reactors after Chernobyl. There are tons of other problems, like none of the designs even seem to be finalized, and by the time any of these things get made we should already be most of the way through the energy transition, but the fundamental problem that they're just going to be more expensive even than normal nuclear reactors is enough to make them worthless. The nuclear industry doesn't care as long as it can flog a few before people get it all figured out. Heck, even getting paid a mint to build some, half finishing them and abandoning them while keeping most of the money would be a win for the industry.

But not for the rest of us. For objectives like generating power, much less doing so in time to help save the climate, SMRs are a very expensive distraction. We should spend that money on stuff that actually works and is much cheaper, like solar, wind, storage, and upgraded grids.

I can live with that. And with burying the existing high-level radioactive waste and future waste from decommissioned nuclear plant components 2,000 m down in the granitic Canadian Shield forever.

Canada's oil has about the world's highest production cost. Using SMRs to add to that cost is an even stupider idea than doing carbon capture to make blue hydrogen. We need to stop throwing money into this pit.

Well written with good explanation of relevant facts

Calgary Herald article on December 22nd, noted that on the longest night of the year, solar was obviously at zero for 17 hours, it was -31C, and wind was near-dead all across the prairies. So, while Alberta could meet 20% of its needs with solar, and 6% with wind, it was getting 0% from solar, 1% from wind, a few percent from hydro, and 96% of its electricity from natural gas.

We would have needed nearly 10GW of storage output to meet all needs with no carbon output. We would have needed that for four whole days, about 100 hours. That's one terawatt-hour of storage. At the prices targeted by Form Energy, for their new iron-air batteries that may drop to $20/kWh of capital outlay, you'd still need $20B of batteries to see Alberta through that particular worst-case scenario.

It's not like they could buy power from anywhere across a strengthened grid, either - BC was maxxed out on hydro, and cutting off the crypto miners to keep the lights on. The nearest wind was 1500 km away.

And it would have been "99% gas", if we'd been running on heat pumps, instead of everybody having a gas furnace. That would have added another 3GW to the 12GW we were using.

I've listened to the DR.Volts podcast, where the guy touting the "Wright's Law" improvement curves said that SMRs will be "too late" as renewables and batteries are getting cheaper too fast. But he didn't mention a solution for this problem.

Reconfiguring gas plants to run on stored green hydrogen, maybe? Requiring every EV to be able to run the house it's charging from, creating, oh 80kWh X 1 million cars = 80 GWh .... nope, we need 1000 GWh.

Roy, you are hitting the nail squarely on its head. Most people just don't get the scale of the problem we have, nor the very practical problems with wind, solar, and storage.

Nuclear tech is something Canadians are actually really good at--we have the people who can make SMRs a real solution. The "nuclear waste problem" may turn out not to be a problem at all given some reactor types have the ability to use spent fuel (the other term for nuclear 'waste') as a fuel source.