Canadian study sees role for very small modular reactors in mining areas

29 June 2021

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) said on 23 June that very small modular reactors (vSMRs) could provide clean, economic and reliable power and heat to remote northern mines and surrounding communities, reducing or eliminating reliance on diesel, according to a recent study completed by OPG, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), and Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation, and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO).

“Nuclear power and SMRs play an enormous and critical role in meeting Canada’s climate change goals. This study demonstrates that not only can a vSMR dramatically reduce emissions in an industry that currently relies heavily on diesel, but it can do it in a cost-effective way,” said Robin Manley, Vice-President of New Nuclear Development at OPG.

The feasibility study found that the most economical energy mix was for vSMRs to provide 90% of the baseload power required for mining operations and associated uses, with only peak demand periods managed through use of diesel generation, reducing emissions by 85%. Emissions could be lowered further by adding other renewables to the mix, decreasing the diesel component, at a slightly increased cost.

Advantages of a vSMR, producing less than 10 megawatts of power, include:

  • Their small size, making them easier to transport and install in remote communities, and scalable to meet changing needs;
  • Their ability to safely, reliably produce power;
  • Long operating life without the need for an onsite inventory of fuel; and,
  • Short installation period due to their modular construction and factory fabrication.

Global First Power, a joint venture between OPG and USNC-Power, is the most advanced vSMR project in Canada. The project recently received Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approval to begin a technical review. Subject to federal government financial support, the next step in the process is to construct a demonstration vSMR at CNL’s Chalk River campus.

This demonstration project will serve as a model for future SMR deployments as called for in Canada’s SMR Roadmap and Action Plan, by producing competitively-priced clean energy ideally sized for remote communities and heavy industry such as mining and resource projects.

SMRs are defined as producing up to 300 MWe, while vSMRs produce up to 10 MWe per module. OPG said are more flexible than conventional reactors, better enabling them to work within a diverse energy grid alongside intermittent technologies such as solar or wind. They can also be used for applications such as process heat or hydrogen production, which help enable further industrial sector decarbonisation.

In 2018, CNL launched an invitation process, inviting SMR vendors to indicate their interest in siting a demonstration reactor at a CNL-managed site. There are currently four projects in various stages of this process. There are 10 off-grid operating mines in Canada. Most are served by diesel generators, which offer reliable, fast-acting, easy-to-vary output but are greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting.

"This study paves the way for the future of mining: not only does it show that vSMRs could provide a cost-effective and reliable energy source, it demonstrates that vSMRs are a long-term solution that can help diversify and intensify a mining operation while also providing a surplus that will benefit communities in the area,” said François Caron Director of the Energy Centre and Bruce Power Chair for Sustainable Energy Solutions, MIRARCO, Mining Innovation.

“This study clearly demonstrates the incredible potential of vSMR technology,” said Greg Rickford, Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry. He added: “vSMRs have the potential to change the game and further reduce GHG emissions in the mining sector and beyond. I am excited by these results and hopeful that this technology can play a meaningful role in providing affordable, clean energy in the future.”

Todd Smith, Minister of Energy said SMRs represent one of the most exciting areas of new nuclear innovation in Ontario and are a potential game-changer for the energy industry. “As this study indicates, vSMRs, with their versatility and ability to generate clean, low-cost energy, could provide the perfect solution for unique energy challenges, such as powering remote communities and mines that currently rely on expensive diesel power.”

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