The Big Idea: Bring Back Nuclear Power

Small modular reactors, also known as SMRs, are a third of the size of traditional ones and open a new road to net zero.

David Novog
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(Illustration by Pete Ryan)

David Novog is the director of the Institute for Energy Studies and a professor of engineering physics at McMaster University.

As a teenager in the ’80s, long before anyone cared much about climate change, I did a science project that showed the tremendous amount of power that could be produced from just a tiny amount of uranium. Even then, I knew fossil fuels were finite and that we would one day need an alternative source of energy. Renewables like hydro, wind and solar are great, but we shouldn’t forget the reliable, low-emissions standby that is nuclear power. People have plenty of reservations about nuclear: it’s scary, it’s costly and what to do with all that waste? And yet there’s no path to net zero by 2050 without it. Excitement is building around one model of reactor in particular. It just might require Canadians to think smaller.

Small modular reactors, also known as SMRs, function in much the same way as larger reactors—but at a fraction of the size. The science remains the same: an atom-​splitting process, known as nuclear fission, generates a huge amount of heat, which is then converted into steam that drives turbines that electrify our cities. But where traditional reactors can generate between 600 and 1,000 megawatts of electrical energy, SMRs generate less than 300—still enough to power communities of up to 10,000 people for a decade. The “modular” part means that SMRs can be made in factories and transported by truck, train or barge and assembled wherever they’re needed. The cores of many SMR reactors aren’t much bigger than the average office desk.

Military aircraft carriers and submarines have been using SMRs for more than 50 years. The new idea is to deploy them for commercial electricity production. Canada’s grids are fairly green already, depending on where you live. (Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, for example, are abundant in hydro and other forms of low-carbon electricity.) But we need to cut fossil fuels in many other areas immediately—especially in high-emissions industries like transportation, agriculture and heating, which accounts for two-thirds of Canada’s carbon footprint. To do so, we’ll need to double or triple our electricity generation in the next 20 to 30 years. Right now, we don’t have the ability to swiftly double Canada’s hydro capacity. That’s where SMRs come in.

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New SMR-centric projects are popping up all over the place. In the States, Portland’s NuScale Power recently got the green light from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build its own model, a billion-dollar design. In the U.K., Rolls-Royce has designed an SMR that could power a city the size of Leeds. 

The Canadian government is also investing in SMRs: in 2020, it released Canada’s SMR Action Plan, which outlined recommendations for nuclear-waste disposal, regulation and partnerships with Indigenous communities. The Canada Infrastructure Bank recently struck a $970-million deal with Ontario Power Generation, or OPG—which is responsible for more than half of the province’s power generation—to build the country’s first SMR right next door to the existing 3,500-megawatt Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario. (OPG estimates that its new reactor will produce 740,000 fewer tons of greenhouse gas every year than existing reactor models, a figure equivalent to the emissions of nearly 160,000 gas cars.) The site is large enough to eventually house four SMRs of a similar size. Provinces like New Brunswick are already busy conducting their own impact assessments. 

There are no silver bullets in the energy world. In large economies with extensive resource and manufacturing sectors, like Canada, you need a mix of power sources. This is how I explain it to my students: you need a fossil-fuel-free backbone of energy that can be your go-to when other sources aren’t available, like solar panels on a cloudy day. In many countries, nuclear power serves as that backbone, and does so with one tenth of the emissions of fossil fuels.

For all of its benefits, nuclear is still a divisive topic. Whenever I speak on the subject, the same two flags get raised: cost and safety. The cost issue isn’t unique to nuclear reactors; many large construction projects are just as expensive and often go off the rails. SMRs on the smaller side could cost anywhere from $300 million to $500 million, but the price tag could drop as low as $150 million for subsequent reactors—especially as production becomes more streamlined. Because SMRs can be fabricated in factories, they won’t be delayed or run over budget to the same extent as other outdoor builds. On the safety side, people are well aware of the devastating impacts of Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. These were tragedies, full stop. But SMR reactors are much more compact, and therefore contain much less radioactive material, so there’s less potential for widespread contamination in the unlikely event of an accident. Put simply: an SMR’s core could never melt in the way Fukushima’s did.

Lots of people have an image in their minds of unsightly reactors protected by barbed wire and armed guards. At McMaster University, where I work, we have a five-megawatt research reactor on campus, which is used to produce radioisotopes for use in hospitals in Canada and abroad. The building is windowless and half of it is underground, so every day, students walk right by it as though it were a city-owned swimming pool. There’s no barbed wire; there are no guards. If more Canadians could experience that small footprint for themselves, they might be more willing to embrace reactors, minuscule or large. In fact, communities with existing reactors tend to be the most supportive of nuclear technology.

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I don’t believe that SMRs should be installed in every single Canadian town. Lots of grids across the country are already well-served by hydro, but SMRs could fill existing hydro gaps in, say, remote northern communities. Whether or not an SMR is deployed depends on what communities want to do with them: one SMR could heat a group of greenhouses to grow food; a larger one could power a fleet of buses, purify water or sell excess steam and hydrogen for industrial use (and extra income).

It’s estimated that the global nuclear industry could gross $150 billion annually by 2040. The first SMRs may be operable within the next five to 10 years, but it will take some time to produce them in quantities large enough to make a dent in Canada’s emissions. To those who argue that the environment will be in much worse shape by the time we’re able to roll out these mini reactors en masse, I would say it’s nonsense to discount any workable technology, especially now. I would have liked to have seen this swell of enthusiasm 20 years ago, but maybe it took widespread acknowledgment of the seriousness of the climate crisis for us to recognize that we need all power sources on deck. 

The government is listening: in June, I spoke about SMRs at a parliamentary committee on nuclear energy innovations. As engineers, we’re not often called to give input directly to politicians, but these tiny reactors have the potential to influence environmental outcomes for the next 30 years. Small, yes, but mighty.

This article appears in print in the February 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.