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Saskatchewan could have a small, modular nuclear future

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be the future of clean energy. SaskPower is exploring the possibility of bringing SMRs to the province by the early 2030s
wind power and a nuclear stack (Sylvain Sonnet - The Image Bank - Getty Images)
Nuclear power could be the perfect complement to renewables. Nuclear is the safest, most efficient power source in the world. With zero emissions, its only by-products are water vapour and a relatively negligible amount of waste - waste that is increasingly easy to recycle or store

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be the future of clean energy. SaskPower is exploring the possibility of bringing SMRs to the province by the early 2030s. spoke with Doug Opseth, SaskPower’s director of generation asset management and planning, about how SaskPower is evaluating a possible nuclear future.

“It’s a really unique time in the development of SMRs because there is a wide variety of different types of designs out there,” Opseth said. “The designs that we’ve tended to focus on are in the 300-megawatt range.”

SaskPower carried out a joint evaluation process with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Bruce Power and NB Power in New Brunswick at the request of the provincial governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick, respectively. Three design companies were shortlisted for further assessment:

  • X Energy is developing an 80MW design that is scalable to 320MW
  • GE’s Hitachi design is 300MW
  • Terrestrial Energy’s SMR design could generate 195MW

“The GE Hitachi is a more traditional boiling-water reactor,” Opseth explained. The other two are more advanced reactors. “In the case of the X Energy, that’s a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor, and then the Terrestrial Energy design is an integrated molten salt reactor. Two interesting designs, and probably considered some of the more advanced reactor designs being looked at in the world right now.”

Nuclear energy is completely clean in terms of emissions. Opseth said Saskatchewan needs zero-emission baseload generating options, especially with the 2050 goal of net-zero emissions. Solar and wind are becoming more and more viable, but both are dependent on weather conditions. Nuclear could fill the gap with steady, reliable power.

“One of the challenges that was always inherent with nuclear power when we’ve looked in the past was that the reactors were just so large, far too large to be integrated here in Saskatchewan,” Opseth said.

The advantage of SMRs is that they don’t need a unique site design. Traditional nuclear power plants are designed specifically for the site they’ll be placed in. The design can’t be standardized, so parts can’t be mass-produced. That usually leads to overruns in both timeline and cost.

SMRs have a small footprint, standardized parts, and a modular design that would allow for SaskPower to scale the size of the plant to what the local grid needs. The standardization also simplifies training and policy implementation. Personnel wouldn’t have to train for years on procedures specific to the site.

The longest section of an SMR timeline is the regulatory one. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is still developing SMR regulations. SaskPower is in year two of its planning process. That process will conclude somewhere in the 2028-29 range with a decision on whether to begin construction. If construction started in 2029, the first reactor could be online by 2033.

The economy would receive a boost from any investment, as well. “If you start developing a new generation option, such as SMRs, there’s going to be lots of side industries that will need to be developed here in Saskatchewan, to help support a nuclear business. That’s one of the things that’s also very attractive.”

Opseth said Europe and the US are moving forward with SMR technology. “In the United States, there are a lot of SMRs that are proceeding down that path to construction.” With that kind of production and manufacturing capacity being developed, SMRs could become ever more viable.