SaskPower: How small modular reactors fit in the mix

When the Saskatchewan government was handed a defeat at the Supreme Court of Canada in its battle against a federal carbon tax, Premier Scott Moe spoke of the implementation of small modular reactors, or SMRs, taking the nuclear power route to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

On March 24, Darcy Holderness, project manager, asset management and planning with SaskPower, spoke to the Saskatchewan Suppliers Energy Update, hosted by the Saskatchewan Industrial and Mining Suppliers Association Inc. (SIMSA). He spoke about how small modular reactors might fit into the Saskatchewan power mix.

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Holderness said, “The major challenge for SaskPower and the province is transitioning from our reliance on fossil fuels, especially for our power system. We need to get away from high-emitting sources and make that transition in the most economically way possible. Federal and provincial regulations are coming into effect and are starting to impact bottom lines on how we operate our grid and our power system.”

Carbon tax impact

He noted by 2030 all conventional coal plants will have to be transitioned to carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities or shut down and retired. He pointed out the federal carbon tax will eventually reach $170 per tonne of CO2 by 2030.

“It’s all driving towards a net zero emissions grid by 2050 that is our target and that’s where we see the potential for small modular reactors or nuclear power to fit into the picture,” Holderness said.

SaskPower has a goal of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. Holderness said we’re probably going to be closer to 50 per cent by that time. He said that has been done primarily through the retirement of the conventional coal fleet, as well as ramping up renewables as the price of renewables have come down.

Holderness said SaskPower is a big supporter of the Deep Earth Energy Production (DEEP) geothermal project, which will potentially have an impact on the grid. SaskPower has also been transitioning to a lot of natural gas generation.

Holderness explained that the carbon tax, at $170 per tonne for CO2 equivalent, does put a price on what those emissions are. At that price level, he noted there could be $12 billion, paid at $170 per tonne, in the cost of the emissions. He also said the carbon tax will likely not go down, and it could go up.

“Between 2030 and 2050 is really where we see the opportunities for SMRs and striving towards a net zero grid. To get to net zero, we have to be evaluating all the options that are out there, and nuclear power is definitely one of those. SMRs are relatively new technology, and the smaller size of the reactor market would fit into the Saskatchewan market quite well, a market of our size.”

Holderness said SaskPower is looking at renewables with battery storage to a high degree.

He said that building SMRs could have an impact on the gross domestic product for the province, based on building four SMRs between 2034 and 2042.

300 megawatts each

Small modular reactors are in the range of 50 to 300 megawatts of electrical power generating capacity, whereas large conventional reactors are 750 to 1,000, or even more, megawatts. Those larges sizes are just too big for Saskatchewan.

As for “micro” modular reactors, smaller than 50 megawatts, he said, “We don’t see a huge opportunity there but, but there are some projects being attached to develop this technology in Canada as well.”

“The size of the technologies we’re evaluating is right around the 300-megawatt mark, which is similar to what our larger-sized coal facilities are right now,” he said.

Holderness alluded to the possibility of nuclear facilities replacing some of the coal-fired power generation at Estevan and Coronach, saying, “This could help offset some of the economic losses in the province, as we retire our conventional coal fleet. So CCS is still on the table and it’s something we’re looking at. Those facilities, the conventional coal, has been retired by 2030, and that impact on the mining operation near those facilities in southeast and south central Saskatchewan is going to be realized by the province, and so maybe this is an opportunity to help offset some of that loss.”

He said it would also reduce reliance on natural gas, which has “the obvious risk of the carbon penalty.”

While natural gas is “very cheap today,” there is added risk of cost, especially with regards to the carbon price.

“We don’t view SMRs or nuclear power as competing with renewables at all, at least right now,” he said.

SMRs, compared to conventional nuclear power plants, are much more flexible when it comes to dispatching power.

“We’re really looking to explore and evaluate all low-emitting options for 2030 and beyond.”

SaskPower has been looking at how SMRs could fit into its system for the last decade. Saskatchewan has an interprovincial agreement with Ontario and New Brunswick, and Alberta is looking to sign onto that agreement, he noted.

Saskatchewan won’t be first

While Saskatchewan is looking hard at SMRs, it will not be the first to build one. Holderness said, “We will want to see a first mover project in another jurisdiction in Canada.”

He said Ontario is developing the Darlington New Nuclear Project with Ontario Power Generation (OPG). The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station is already one of Canada’s largest nuclear power plants, producing 20 per cent of Ontario’s power. OPG’s website states, “On Nov. 13, 2020, OPG announced resumption of planning activities for Darlington New Nuclear, with the goal of hosting a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) as early as 2028.”

SMRs are built in a shop, off site, which significantly reduces the cost of construction as it is shipped to the site in one piece. This is an important consideration as nuclear projects have been known to go over budget and long in their schedules.

While Saskatchewan has a lot of experience with uranium mining, we don’t have a lot of experience with nuclear power. “And that’s going to take significant investment on our part and on the government of Saskatchewan’s part,” he said.

“Indigenous participation is a huge opportunity we feel for, for SMRs and Saskatchewan. It’s a newer industry, so there’s going to be a lot of learnings required, and development of capacity and competence and an Indigenous participation is a huge opportunity,” he said, reflecting on Indigenous engagement with uranium mining.

There’s also a hope the federal government “will come to the table and help offset some of the initial risks as we develop ourselves as a nuclear jurisdiction, and develop this project.”

He continued, “But ultimately, it all comes down to how competitive the cost of power is, with or without nuclear in the mix in Saskatchewan. And that’s a key driver. Our rates are something we try keep as competitive as possible. And so that’s a key requirement for this project to be successful.”

Three designs

SaskPower is working with OPG, which has shortlisted three different designs for Darlington New Nuclear, with a goal to reduce that down to one design by the end of this year or early 2022. The three candidates are the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300, Xenergy Xe-100, and Terrestrial Energy Integral Molten Salt Reactor.

Holderness said the first two things that need to be done are finding a site and picking the technology. There are three key licenses that need to be acquired, as well as the federal Impact Assessment Act, formerly known as Bill C-69.

Construction decisions won’t be made until 2028-2029, he said. A final investment decision may be in 2029, with commercial operation around 2033 as the earliest possible date. Darlington New Nuclear Project would be in operation by 2028, about five years earlier, allowing for SaskPower to benefit from Ontario’s experience.

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