New ways to split atoms29 November 2018
In Canada, nuclear innovation has been happening for decades through research and development. Now, with further technology advances in traditional Candu plants and small modular reactors, the industry hopes to attract a new generation as it makes its pitch to help save the world from climate change.
THERE IS A NEW SENSE of urgency across the nuclear industry as policy makers, engineers and entrepreneurs work fervently to guide advanced and small modular reactors (SMRs) through regulatory and technical hurdles from drawing board to siting approval.
In Canada, the federal government has its own stake in SMRs. On 7 November, coinciding with a sold-out SMR nuclear conference in Ottawa, Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, welcomed the release of the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap as an “important technology opportunity for Canada, both at home and on the world stage.”
The SMR could help Canada meet its commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, something Ontario did in 2014, largely with the help of its nuclear fleet.
The country’s major utilities, SMR technology vendors and Canada’s national lab, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), are all pursuing SMR demonstration, commercialisation and manufacturing. New Brunswick announced C$10 million toward development of an Advanced Nuclear SMR Research Cluster, with $5 million each from two SMR vendors. The aim is to develop a path to a commercial demonstration plant with potential for a manufacturing cluster in the province that would dovetail into its economic growth plan.
The CANDU Owners Group (COG) has recognised the strong SMR interest of its Canadian members. Using the levers it already has for collaborative Candu technology development, it has created an SMR technology forum to collectively tackle technical and regulatory issues common across the technologies. It is also developing a vendor participant programme for SMRs similar to its well- established Candu supplier participant programme.
Meanwhile, Candu nuclear operators in Ontario and New Brunswick have also been developing innovative approaches to managing the country’s 19 existing reactors. These have completed, are undergoing, or are heading into mid-life refurbishment or major component replacement. Some will continue operation into the 2060s, after up to 80 years of operation, as a result.
In New Brunswick, the single unit, commissioned in 1983, returned to service after a mid-life refurbishment in 2012. This year, it hit some of its best operating performance targets in decades.
Also this year, one of Ontario’s Darlington units began refurbishment, which has been proceeding on time and on budget. Ontario’s 18 units provide about 60% of the province’s power.
In recent years, plants have benefitted from advanced technology breakthroughs like artificial intelligence (AI). Their use of AI includes embedded sensors to monitor plant and equipment condition, and automated machinery and robots that work in high radiation areas while workers oversee the work remotely. Virtual reality is used to train and qualify staff cheaply and with precision. Other digital technologies, including 3D printing of ‘hard to source’ parts, have been employed to improve plant condition, equipment, operations, maintenance and security.
New digital technologies are not the sole reason Candu performance is improving. Research, under way for decades, has brought plant, equipment and human performance improvements. It has also validated safety cases and helped engineers and nuclear scientists understand how to improve conditions for life-limiting components to keep them operating better and longer. In Ontario units have won regulatory approval for additional operation of several years; representing billions of dollars of additional revenue. The research has also demonstrated, and improved, plant safety for workers, the public and the environment thanks to years-long collaborative research projects between utilities, COG, and sometimes in collaboration with international Candu operating partners, and with research labs such as CNL, Kinectrics and Stern Laboratories.
COG will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2019. President and CEO Fred Dermarkar says members collectively achieve breakthroughs that individual operators may not have been able to achieve alone. COG invests more than C$60 million in R&D on behalf of its members each year.
“Often, when people see a nuclear plant from the outside, they see exactly what they have seen since the plant began operating decades before,” Dermarkar says. “What they don’t realise is year over year, inside the plant, we have been innovating our approaches.”
Plant knowledge and work processes have evolved, Dermarkar adds. For example, COG’s databank has more than 44,000 pieces of operating experience available to its members. Industry suppliers are also participating in knowledge-sharing programmes to ensure both contractors and parts come to the job ready, with proper qualifications. “We have strengthened [plant] resilience, improved efficiency and also our own techniques in operating and maintaining,” says Dermarkar. “These are 21st-century operations.”
The Ontario plants have also expanded their mandate beyond electricity generation with further development in areas such as nuclear medicine. Bruce Power has signed partnerships with Kinectrics and Isotopen Technologien München and OPG with BWX Technologies to help develop their reactor by-products, including Colbalt-60, Lutetium-177 and Molybdenum-99.
In addition to collaborative research through COG, the utilities and CNL have recently developed independent centres of research and development in areas including reactor sustainability (CNL), advanced SMRs (New Brunswick) and at innovation centres capturing initiatives across CANDU, SMR and medical technologies (OPG and Bruce Power).
Collaboratively, with the Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD-NEA), COG is working to bring the national labs and utilities from all COG-member countries together to strategically develop and share research to take the innovation agenda further, says Dermarkar. COG and the NEA co-hosted a research symposium in Vienna on this global research collaboration initiative. Dermarkar says COG sees opportunities to share learnings across technologies as well.
Beyond technical solutions, there is a human element. There is increasing collaboration between academia and industry. There are programmes across all of the utilities to understand and integrate Indigenous knowledge, input and culture into decision-making. Organisations like North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN) and Women in Nuclear (WiN) Canada are also taking a greater role in informing policy.
The Canadian government’s choice of a new president and chair for its national nuclear regulator, Rumina Velshi, has set an agenda for greater gender balance in the industry. Leadership sets culture and the industry has taken notice.
There is expectation a new generation will take up the call to ensure nuclear is an important part of the future.
Four innovation incubators
Canadian utilities and the country’s national nuclear lab have each created a mechanism to tap into innovative ideas from their own employees, suppliers, their local community and partners at their individual sites:
• Ontario Power Generation has created X-Lab, an incubator space for exploring new ideas that come out of the nuclear plant and from OPG’s own employees. For example a new monitoring and diagnostic centre offers more effective condition-based maintenance through a cross-functional team that monitors the condition of plant equipment based on data provided from sensors;
• Bruce Power has created the Ontario Nuclear Innovation Institute as an international centre of excellence for applied research and training and has further developed its medical isotope production;
• New Brunswick Power has announced development of an Advanced Nuclear SMR Research Cluster to investigate commercialisation and a demonstration plant at Point Lepreau;
• Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has announced its Centre for Reactor Sustainability, which capitalizes on its 60 years of operation of the National Research Universal reactor and decades of research. It provides R&D and services for Candu/PHWR and light water reactor technologies.
To help the industry leverage the work done at these centres, the CANDU Owners Group is creating a mechanism for sharing ideas and, where it is valuable to do so, will create joint projects to further research done at one site, as a shared project among multiple members.