IEA report on Canada welcomes SMR developments

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) Canada 2022: Energy Policy Review has found that, since the last IEA review in 2015, Canada has made a series of enterprising international and domestic commitments and has made progress towards transforming its energy system.

Launching the report on 13 January, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said: “Canada has shown impressive leadership, both at home and abroad, on clean and equitable energy transitions. Canada’s wealth of clean electricity and its innovative spirit can help drive a secure and affordable transformation of its energy system and help realise its ambitious goals. Equally important, Canada’s efforts to reduce emissions – of both carbon dioxide and methane – from its oil and gas production can help ensure its continued place as a reliable supplier of energy to the world.”

In his foreword to the 261-page report, Birol noted: “Canada’s electricity supply is among the cleanest in the world, thanks in large part to the dominance of hydro power and the important role of nuclear. Greater interconnections among provinces and territories can ensure balanced progress towards national goals for decarbonising the power sector. Steeper emissions reductions are still needed in other sectors, notably oil and gas production, transport and industry. To this end, Canada has focused its efforts on a number of technologies, including carbon capture, utilisation and storage; hydrogen; and small modular nuclear reactors, with a view to serving as a supplier of energy and climate solutions to the world.”

Chapter 8 of the report on nuclear (18pp) looks in detail at all aspects of Canada’s nuclear industry, including power generation, nuclear power plant refurbishment, energy security, SMRs, uranium mining, waste management and decommissioning, isotope production and R&D.

It concludes that nuclear energy is an important part of the Canadian electricity mix. “Nuclear is the second-largest source for electricity generation after hydropower and with 98TWh of electricity produced in 2020, nuclear contributed to 15% of final electricity consumption.”

The government fully recognises the role of nuclear power as a low-carbon and sustainable technology essential for Canada’s transition to a low-carbon energy mix. The report says: “Achieving ambitious climate targets, and potentially net zero emissions by 2050, will require both long-term operation of the existing nuclear fleet and the development of nuclear new builds. However, decisions on electricity generation in Canada, sources and mixes are the authority of provinces and territories. The expected role of federal funding for nuclear new builds, and specifically SMRs, has yet to be explicitly assessed by the Canadian government. Assessing the role of federal funding will be of central importance to offer the required visibility to the Canadian nuclear supply chain to invest in these innovative nuclear technologies and to support the public engagement processes at the provincial and local levels.”

Refurbishments a priority

IEA says the refurbishment of Candu reactors “is currently Canada’s first nuclear energy priority and stands as one of the largest ongoing infrastructure undertakings in the country”. The projects at the Bruce and Darlington represent CAD 26 billion of investment over 17 years to extend their life “with significant local economic and job spillovers estimated from both refurbishment activities and continued operations”. The refurbishment projects are expected to be completed by 2026 and 2033 and the Pickering nuclear plant is planned to operate until 2025 to supply electricity during the refurbishments.

Canada continues to promote the export of new Candu reactors internationally and to support refurbishment projects in countries that currently operate this technology. However, at home, plans for new Candu reactors remain a long-term option and “such plans had already been deferred at the time of the previous review and have not since been reconsidered further”.

Small modular reactors – a major development 

A major achievement since the previous review was publication in 2018 of a Canadian Roadmap for SMRs, IEA says it “commends the government of Canada for conducting an extensive stakeholder engagement process in order to identify the most promising market opportunities at home and abroad”.  Three emerging streams have been identified and are matched with active interest by several provinces. 

  •  First, near-term on-grid SMRs for the replacement of coal power plants, primarily in Ontario and then Saskatchewan, which would rely on the most mature SMR designs, with potential construction of a demonstration plant at Darlington by the late 2020s, followed by Saskatchewan in the early 2030s. 
  • Second, New Brunswick is pursuing innovative next-generation on-grid SMRs for its Point Lepreau site as well as the export market, including posible technologies to recycle used fuel as fuel for SMRs. 
  • Third SMRs for off-grid applications, with several mining companies having signalled potential interest and carrying out feasibility studies for SMRs to replace diesel generators.

IEA notes that four provinces (Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan) have signed an Interprovincial SMR MOU, agreeing to collaborate on SMR development and deployment. It calls on the federal government to provide funding for SMR projects as well as risk-sharing mechanisms.

At the federal level, NRCan launched Canada’s SMR Action Plan, in late 2020, building on the SMR Roadmap. It acknowledged the role that the government has to play in supporting the advancement of SMR technology in Canada. So far, financial support decisions appear to be taken on a project-by-project basis. “Given the scale of financial support needed to move SMRs to commercial deployment, the next steps of the Canadian SMR policy would certainly benefit from a more integrated approach that develops a clear long-term industrial strategy for the sector,” IEA notes. The availability of sufficient financial support at the federal and provincial levels for the different project development phases should also remain a key priority.

Uranium and fuel cycle

The report says Canada is also a major player in the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle and in 2019  was the world’s second-largest uranium producer, with 6944 tU, accounting for 13% of world production. In addition to uranium mining, Canada is a key player through Cameco in the areas of uranium refining and conversion. Candu fuel fabrication for the domestic and international markets are located in Canada. IEA adds that Canada is also making progress in the area of waste management including plans for a deep geological repository for used fuel.

IEA recommendations

IEA makes four recommendations with respect to nuclear. The government of Canada should: 

  • Assess the long-term contribution that the existing Candu nuclear fleet and nuclear new builds (in particular small modular reactors [SMRs]) could play to meet Canada’s net zero climate goals for 2050 through both low-carbon electricity and heat. 
  • Building on the momentum of the Canadian SMR Roadmap and Action Plan, offer timely federal support for ongoing SMR projects under discussion at the provincial level. A key priority should be to ensure that the required policy reforms are in place to allow for the licensing and construction of the first demonstration projects expected in the late 2020s.  
  • Foster international collaboration, notably for international licensing of innovative SMR technologies and for Candu international prospects, while leveraging its experience in nuclear technologies and first-mover advantage in SMRs.  
  • Support the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation in its mandate to select a site for a deep geological repository by 2023, while continuing strong community engagement and stakeholder involvement. Ensure that options remain open for potential fuel recycling if the need and/or opportunity arises.

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