Atomic Energy of Canada Limited

Science &
Technology

Small Modular Reactors

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear fission reactors that are being designed to be built at a smaller size but in larger numbers than most of the world’s current nuclear fleet.

SMRs use nuclear fission to produce energy for electricity, hybrid energy systems, district heating, water desalination, and high quality steam for heavy industry applications.

In Canada, SMRs have the potential for three major areas of application:

  • On-grid power generation, especially in provinces phasing out coal in the near future. Utilities want to replace end-of-life coal plants with non-emitting base-load plants of similar size.
  • On- and off-grid combined heat and power for heavy industry. Oilsands producers and remote mines would benefit from medium-term options for bulk heat and power that would be more reliable and cleaner than their current energy sources. Small or medium SMRs are likely to fit this need.
  • Off-grid power, district heating, and desalination in remote communities. These currently rely almost exclusively on diesel fuel, which has various limitations (e.g. cost, emissions). Renewables and batteries can mitigate these limitations to some extent for residential power, but may not supply building heat, nor are they likely to offer reliable bulk energy to open up economic development. Very small SMRs may address these needs.

The opportunity related to small modular reactors is noteworthy given Canada’s expertise in nuclear technology, including its existing supply chain and potential market. However one of the challenges facing small modular reactors is the number of designs – there are currently over 100 different designs. AECL believes that expertise at the Chalk River Laboratories could be leveraged to advise both the government and commercial companies on the technology.

To that effect, as part of its long-term vision, CNL has set out an objective to become a hub for SMR research and technology, including to have a demonstration unit built at an AECL site by 2026. CNL has already taken steps to further explore this opportunity. In 2017, CNL issued a Request for Expression of Interest, which prompted input from small modular reactor technology developers, potential end users, and other interested parties and stakeholders, including host communities, the nuclear supply chain and research and academic institutions. Responses received showed areas of general agreement on small modular reactors, including the positive economic benefits to Canada, alignment with Canada’s commitment to fight climate change, important applications for remote communities, and the potential to enhance nuclear safety through next-generation nuclear technology.

More recently CNL issued an Invitation for Application meant to invite proponents of SMR demonstration projects to participate in a process that further evaluates projects based on a set of established criteria. One possible outcome of this process would be for CNL to recommend to AECL the establishment of one or more SMR demonstration projects on one or more sites owned by AECL (including the Chalk River Laboratories and Whiteshell Laboratories). More information on this can be found on CNL’s website.

These activities are aligned with the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap, which was published in November 2018. The Roadmap was developed by interested provinces, territories, power utilities, Indigenous communities and other stakeholders, which had been convened by Natural Resources Canada.  Following a 10-month engagement process with the industry and potential end-users, including Indigenous and northern communities and heavy industry, the Roadmap presented over 50 recommendations in areas such as waste management, regulatory readiness and international engagement. It also highlighted the need for ongoing engagement with civil society, northern and Indigenous communities and environmental organizations.

Specifically on demonstration technologies, the SMR Roadmap Steering Committee recommended that “Governments, utilities, industry, and the national laboratory support demonstration of SMR technologies, preferably more than one, at appropriate sites in Canada.”