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Small Ontario reactors under the microscope of the Nuclear Safety Commission

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Each small modular reactor could produce up to 300 MW.

  • Camille Gris Roy (View profile)Camille Gris Roy

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The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is looking this week at the small modular reactor project that Ontario wants to build. A first series of public hearings begins Tuesday in Ajax.

The province and Crown corporation Ontario Power Generation (OPG) plan to install four small modular reactors (SMRs) on the grounds of the Darlington nuclear power plant, east of Toronto.

This is a new technology that has not yet been deployed in the North American network. Elsewhere in the world, a Russian floating nuclear power plant already uses SMRs and more than 80 concepts are currently in development in various countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ontario has chosen the BWRX-300 model from General Electric Hitachi. This reactor could produce up to 300 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 homes. He is very small. The idea is that it could fit almost in one or a few containers, which can in principle be installed almost anywhere, describes Normand Mousseau, scientific director of the Institute of Trottier energy at Polytechnique Montréal.

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The Ford government is trying to respond to a growing need: demand for electricity could more than double by 2050, according to the Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator. About 60% of electricity generated in the province currently comes from nuclear power, with three operating plants: Darlington, Pickering and Bruce (see map below).

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Map which shows the three existing nuclear power plants in Ontario: Darlington, Pickering and Bruce.End of widget. Return to top of widget?

The CNSC is a quasi-judicial and independent tribunal that regulates nuclear activity in the country.

In the case of the Darlington SMRs, the Commission must first decide whether the environmental analyzes are sufficient. OPG already carried out a generic assessment in 2012 for a new nuclear project on this site. At the time, we were thinking of building large-scale facilities, not small modular reactors, explains Neal Kelly, spokesperson for the state-owned company.

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Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, Ontario

We must now demonstrate that we can build this new technology safely and that the environmental assessment we have carried out applies to the construction of PMRs, he summarizes.

For OPG, this is a necessary step to move forward. If the Commission rules in its favor, a second series of hearings must take place this fall, this time on the construction permit requested by the Crown corporation. This is where she could get the final green light.

The general public should also be interested in this process, says Mark Winfield, professor of environmental and urban change and co-director of the sustainable energy initiative at the York University.

OPG is seeking approvals for a reactor design that does not actually exist. There are no examples of this type of reactor in existence in the world. There are no prototypes. And the regulator has no experience in examining this type of reactor, which must therefore raise a series of safety questions, but also on the viability of this project.

Ontarians should care. There are huge issues at stake around costs and risks, and the future direction of the electricity system.

A quote from Mark Winfield, professor at York University< /blockquote>

OPG has already started site preparation work. These are the infrastructures that will support the construction of the four PRMs. So roads, sewers, fiber, ancillary buildings. There is already a lot of activity on the site, says Neal Kelly.

If the CNSC gives it the required approvals, the state-owned company should be able to begin construction of the first reactor in early 2025, for delivery in 2028 and marketing in 2029. We would like the four SMRs to be operational by mid-2030s.

Ontario is also collaborating with other provinces interested in SMRs: New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and 'Alberta.

OPG refuses to comment on the costs of the project until the budget has been finalized. Neal Kelly says it is a competitive technology. Especially since we are going to build all four in the same place. The former will be more expensive since it's the first of its kind, but costs should drop for each additional unit, he argues.

There is a history of cost overruns and massive delays in the nuclear industry, says Mark Winfield. He would like the province to be more transparent about what motivates this project. Right now, there is nowhere Ontarians can ask OPG or the government directly if this is the best choice for electricity and decarbonization.

Normand Mousseau also believes that the sector would benefit from being more open to the public. We are experiencing an important moment because we are in an energy transition. At the global level, we are going to have a certain resurgence of nuclear power. It will not replace all requests. It has a niche role to play, and sometimes the niche is bigger than others. But how much is this benefit worth? We need to be better able to say: are we being fooled? Where do we board?

Darlington:

Pickering:

Bruce (A and B):

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