Alberta Pledges to Help Develop Nuclear Reactor Technology

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Alberta joins three other provinces in supporting the advancement and deployment of nuclear power through Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).Premier Jason Kenney announced Friday that his United Conservative government would sign an existing memorandum of understanding with Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.

In a pre-recorded statement with Energy Minister Sonya Savage, Kenney said the province hopes nuclear technology will allow the government to provide electricity to remote communities, diversify the economy, create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This will help Alberta stay at the forefront of the latest developments in SMR technology and will ensure that we have the proper regulatory framework in place, should private industry decide to pursue it in the future,” he said. Kenney said.

The Canadian Nuclear Association issued a statement on Friday saying that Alberta’s involvement in the development of nuclear power means that “another key window for emission reduction technology is coming into play.”

“The potential to harness clean electricity and heat to further accelerate emission reductions could have a huge impact on the economies of Alberta and Canada – and on our ability to reach net zero by 2050,” said the president of the association, John Gorman.

SMR vs traditional nuclear reactors

Traditional nuclear reactors used in Canada can typically produce around 800 megawatts of electricity, or about enough to power 600,000 homes at a time (assuming one megawatt can power about 750 homes).

SMRs, on the other hand, can generate between 200 and 300 megawatts.

The technology is also small enough to be transported on a truck, ship, or train, and has been touted by the federal government as safer than traditional nuclear reactors.

An illustration shows a NuScale power module on a truck. NuScale is one of the smallest modular reactor companies whose designs received pre-clearance approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in 2019. (NuScale Power)

SMRs are designed to produce less nuclear waste than larger reactors, but waste disposal remains a problem.

Canada does not yet have a permanent repository for nuclear waste, although the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is in the process of selecting a site.

Waste issues

Theresa McClenaghan, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, told CBC New Brunswick in December 2019 that this factor – along with national security – made technology too unpredictable.

“You are always creating radioactive waste,” McClenaghan said.

She said that having more reactors, especially if they are in rural areas, means that there is a higher chance that reactor waste or fuel will be stolen for malicious purposes.

“You would scatter radioactive material, potentially attractive for diversion, much further across the country. ”

Savage acknowledged the security concerns during the announcement.

She said appropriate security measures would be in place and the technology would go through rigorous federal and provincial environmental approval processes.

“Safety is still our # 1 priority… and although they are still in the early stages of their design, the SMR researchers reiterated that the smaller scale, in terms of power and physical size, helps mitigate the risk. ”Said Savage.

Canada’s SMR Roadmap

Natural Resources Canada announced that it will study the application and commercialization of SMRs in 2018, when the Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors is launched.

The federal government has said nuclear innovation plays a “critical role” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as Canada moves towards a low-carbon future.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs have committed to collaborate on the development of SMR technology in 2019.

At the time, executives said this could be an opportunity for economic growth, estimating the Canadian energy market at $ 10 billion and the global market at $ 150 billion.

Emissions for different types of fuels: coal, heavy fuel oil, diesel, natural gas, biomass, solar, wind, hydro and nuclear (CBC News)

But technology is still evolving; Minister Savage acknowledged that this was not expected for about ten years.

“This is still an emerging technology. It is in its early stages of design and development, ”said Savage.

“Although the deadlines are different on a lot of things… we think they could be available worldwide within 10 years. “

Alberta rich in talent – and uranium, says Savage

According to Savage, there are several reasons why Alberta is a great place to develop and explore SMR technology.

She said the province has a long history of responsible energy development, a respected research sector, a highly skilled workforce and an established regulatory system.

And Alberta also has uranium – in large quantities, Savage said.

“A lot of people probably don’t know that Alberta is also home to one of the largest uranium resources in the world,” Savage said.

“The Athabasca Basin straddles the northern border of Alberta and Saskatchewan and has a huge and reliable supply of fuel for these types of reactors.

Nuclear power industry ‘wanted Alberta’, says expert

The announcement did not surprise Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University and author of Canada, the provinces and the global nuclear renaissance.

He attended CNA’s annual conference in February, where he said intentions to expand the MOU beyond the first three provinces were clear – and Alberta was first on that list.

“Everyone was looking for Alberta to join, because of Alberta’s resource mix, the role it plays in other forms of energy development – they wanted Alberta to be on its side.” , Bratt said.

Conversations about harnessing nuclear power to strengthen the tar sands have been going on in Alberta for more than a decade, Bratt said.

Potential applications of SMRs in Canada include traditional on-grid electricity generation for communities as well as resource extraction sites, such as mining and oil and gas.

Traditional nuclear reactors were ultimately deemed unsuitable, but SMRs could be a game-changer because of their size.

“There has been a lot of talk about deploying traditional nuclear reactors in the oil sands between 2007 and 2011, to produce steam as part of this… process to obtain bitumen,” said Bratt.

“They realized that conventional nuclear [energy] didn’t work very well in the oil sands… SMRs are very different because they are smaller which means they can be used much better in the oil sands. ”

A project could unite Kenney and Trudeau on energy

Federal government involvement will be an integral part of the project, Bratt said.

It was the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that developed the roadmap to explore PMS as a way to reduce carbon emissions, Bratt said – and so the project could get Kenney and the Liberals to work as a team in the energy sector.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaches out to Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 2, 2019 (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

“The key will be the commercialization of the reactors, and that’s why it’s going to require a partnership not only… between the provinces, but also the federal government and industry,” said Bratt.

“I think it’s positive for federal-provincial relations. This is an energy area the Kenney government could work on with the federal government, not just like-minded provinces. “

COVID-19, oil spill prompts must diversify

This all follows a tough economic task for Alberta.

The province’s economy has been crushed since global oil prices fell in 2014 and has seen its projected deficit climb to more than $ 20 billion in the wake of the pandemic.

In his announcement, Kenney said his intention was to explore all options in the hopes of causing a reversal of fortune.

“As we continue to take action to support Alberta’s economic recovery to overcome the COVID crisis, the Government of Alberta promises to explore all opportunities that could diversify our economy and create jobs,” said he declared.

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