There is little to no disagreement about the fact that mitigating the long-term impacts of climate change must remain at the top of our collective priorities from a global perspective. Canada has stated time and time again its willingness to play a leadership role in efforts to decarbonize the global economy.
As part of its 2021 budget, the Trudeau government announced several bold commitments toward enabling a greener future, including its first-ever net-zero strategy via Bill C-12 (armed with legally binding provisions and targets), a nationally mandated carbon tax and the potential ban of single-use plastics across the country.
It is also apparent that Canada remains steadfast in its commitment to advance nuclear energy and, more specifically, small modular reactors (SMRs) as part of its clean energy transformation. In December, Natural Resources Canada released Canada’s first-ever SMR Action Plan, signalling its intentions to firmly position SMRs as part of the country’s energy portfolio and a tangible avenue to transition economies away from their dependence on fossil fuels.
In Canada, COVID-19 has accentuated long-standing issues of regional economic disparity and inequitable access to resources, including health care and energy, particularly for northern and remote communities.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the Canadian government and their provincial counterparts have made it a priority to ensure that those living in remote communities with limited access to local health care were well-supported, in some cases through the deployment of Canada’s Armed Forces. Though, much of that attention only breeds a short-term solution. It is important for us to think about the bigger picture and try to comprehend the underlying issues that will undoubtedly continue unless we address them.
By encouraging an intersection between technological innovation and nuclear energy, we’ll be able to empower remote communities to become self-sustainable. We have an opportunity to reimagine the way we power people’s lives through sustainable energy development. For example, U-Battery’s advanced SMR design has the potential not only to deliver significant environmental benefits, but enable a plethora of value-added economic and social benefits.
With promise comes risk, and one of the key concerns among some climate change experts has been the time necessary for SMR technology to demonstrate its viability and make its way from innovation to commercial use. The criticism being that waiting for the SMRs to move through the regulatory process, while demonstrating their capabilities in a commercial setting, will drag out the very urgent climate crisis that needs to be addressed immediately.
It is imperative to understand that advanced nuclear is simply one part of a broad-reaching solution to move away from dated fossil fuel generation and toward zero-carbon energy projects, and we must include renewables like solar and wind as well as hydrogen in addition to SMRs. While there is no doubt that SMRs will likely take longer in comparison to renewable sources that are already being deployed, we must think bigger picture and longer term when striving to achieve our net-zero ambitions.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said: “Canada can be a world leader in this promising, innovative, zero-emissions energy technology, and this is our plan to position ourselves in an emerging global market. There is no path to net-zero without nuclear power.”
Another criticism raised in the same National Observer article revolves around nuclear waste and our ability to manage its environmental impact. While this is certainly an area where a lot more work needs to be done, it is important to note that advanced SMRs like the U-Battery would need to use a significantly lower amount of fuel in comparison to today’s CANDU reactors, meaning that the refuelling cycles would also reduce drastically.
Relying on renewable sources alone without leveraging the benefits of advanced nuclear technology is not the answer to tackling the existing climate crisis, writes Steve Threlfall of @U_Battery. #NuclearEnergy #NetZero #SMRs
Additionally, Canada is home to a leading nuclear waste management organization, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is dedicated to designing and implementing Canada's plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel. This plan, known as adaptive phased management, will require used fuel to be contained and isolated in a deep geological repository, thereby mitigating its long-term environmental impacts.
Given that climate change mitigation remains at the forefront of the Canadian government’s agenda, we must look to marry the intangibles of clean energy technologies like SMRs with broader regional infrastructure development initiatives. The true potential of SMRs could be unlocked by integrating them into larger infrastructure hubs that concurrently provide other value-added applications for remote communities, including water purification, hydrogen production and district heating. As a result of accessing these capabilities, remote communities could become more self-sufficient and have their own greenhouses, hospitals, recreational facilities and much, much more.
The sheer size of Canada makes access to energy challenging in many parts of the country, and this inability to access energy results in a number of unintended consequences. We must look to leverage SMRs to tackle more than climate change. As well, we must understand that relying on renewable sources alone without leveraging the benefits of advanced nuclear technology is not the answer to tackling the existing climate crisis — a threat which only continues to increase. We have an opportunity to enable significant economic and social benefits as a byproduct of establishing locally embedded, low-carbon, clean-energy infrastructure in Canada’s northern and remote communities.
Steve Threlfall is the general manager of U-Battery, leading the development of its advanced modular reactor (AMR) and small modular reactor (SMR) design and technology.