Think Small: Could SMRs Be Nuclear Power’s Next Big Thing?

SMRs, or small modular reactors, have been creating buzz in the nuclear industry for some time now.  That buzz got noticeably louder in 2017 when Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology organization, set the ambitious goal of establishing an SMR on its Chalk River site by 2026.

What is an SMR?

SMR stands for small modular reactor. An SMR is significantly smaller than a conventional nuclear reactor, with output ranging up to 300 megawatts. As a comparison, Canada’s largest nuclear power plant, Ontario’s Bruce Power plant, produces 6,400 megawatts of energy at its peak. SMRs can be manufactured off-site and shipped to the reactor site fully constructed.

There are a variety of different types of SMRs under development. The main differentiator is the type of fuel or coolant they use. The Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ recent Request for Expressions of Interest drew submissions from across the globe for a variety of proposed technologies, including:

  • Pressurized Water-cooled Reactors
  • High-temperature Gas-cooled Reactors
  • Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors
  • Gas-cooled Fast Reactors
  • Molten Salt Reactors
  • Fusion Reactors

One example of SMR technology is Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR). The company expects its first IMSR power plants to be operational at some point in the 2020s and capable of providing 190 MW of power and 400 MW of heat that is virtually free of carbon emissions. Terrestrial Energy’s reactor has successfully completed the first phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s pre-licensing vendor design review, marking the first time an advanced reactor has achieved this milestone.

“Small modular reactors have great potential as an emerging technology that could supply low-carbon energy for a range of users, including remote communities, mining operations and the oil and gas industry.”

Jim Carr, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources

Canada is not alone in its belief that SMRs could be a key strategy in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, Russia, France, and China are also very interested in the technology.

What are the benefits of SMRs over traditional nuclear reactors?

Many of the advantages that SMRs could offer over large-scale nuclear reactors are related to the fact that they can be purchased and constructed in a modular fashion. This reduces up-front capital costs, makes for simpler plants, and can reduce labour requirements. It also makes it easier and more affordable to scale up a site with additional modules over time as energy demand increases.

The fact that SMRs have a smaller energy output also makes them a more suitable solution for locations with lower power requirements. This could be particularly promising for northern and remote communities and large mines where SMRs could replace dirty and expensive diesel generators.

SMR developers also suggest that the technology is safer than its larger counterparts, as the modular units house less radioactive material in their core, meaning less energy is potentially released in the event of an accident. SMRs can also be installed beneath the ground, making them less vulnerable to hazards such as extreme weather or sabotage.

Another advantage of SMRs is the fact that their capability extends beyond energy production. SMRs could also be used in applications for district heating, co-generation, energy storage, desalination, and hydrogen production.

Adoption of SMR technology could create an exciting next chapter for nuclear energy in Canada and across the globe. Even at moderate deployment levels, research suggests that the economic impact could be significant. One 2010 U.S. study estimated that a prototypical 100 MW SMR costing $500 million to manufacture and install would create nearly 7,000 jobs, including high-paying factory, construction, and operating jobs.

If you are job seeker interested in opportunities within the nuclear sector, review our current power and nuclear opportunities. If you are currently looking for technical talent with specific nuclear experience, connect with one of our experienced recruiting experts.

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