INN spoke with AECL’s Shannon Quinn about developments in the SMR space, how nuclear energy is perceived and what is next for SMRs.
Countries and companies around the world are beginning to crack down on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, working collectively towards lofty decarbonization goals.
In late April, US President Joe Biden announced the Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of Small Modular Reactor Technology (FIRST) program.
With a US$5.3 million cash infusion, FIRST was established to provide “capacity-building support to partner countries as they develop their nuclear energy programs to support clean energy goals under the highest international standards for nuclear safety, security, and nonproliferation.”
SMR technology looks set to promote decarbonization, while simultaneously helping to reshape the narrative around nuclear energy.
Currently there are several prototype and test model commercial SMRs. These small units utilize the same (but more modern) technologies that large-scale nuclear reactors have been using to power energy grids for the last 70 years.
As America bolsters its efforts to build a domestic framework while supporting global initiatives, Canada has also been working on SMR technologies for a number of years.
In 2018, National Resources Canada unveiled its SMR Road Map. In it, the value of the burgeoning market is pegged in the multibillion-dollar range.
“Conservative estimates place the potential value for SMRs in Canada at C$5.3B between 2025 and 2040,” reads the document. “Globally, the SMR market is much bigger, with a conservative estimated value of C$150 billion between 2025 and 2040.”
In late 2020, Canada’s SMR Action Plan was announced with the goal of “development, demonstration and deployment of SMRs for multiple applications at home and abroad.”
One of the supporting and collaborating groups of the SMR Action Plan is Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a Canadian government organization with both public and commercial policy goals.
AECL is currently running a demonstration program, inviting SMR developers and designers to its licensed nuclear operation sites to exhibit and test their models.
To learn more about current developments, the Investing News Network (INN) spoke with AECL’s Shannon Quinn, vice president of science, technology and commercial oversight. Quinn offered insights on developments in the space, how nuclear energy is perceived and what is next for SMRs.
INN: How has the SMR space changed over the last five years?
Shannon Quinn (SQ): What I would say is that SMRs have been on the radar of those who work in the nuclear sector for the last 10 years at least. But it’s over the last five years that we’ve really seen an interest in SMRs that goes beyond the nuclear sector. So we’re seeing interest in SMRs from those in the mining sector, those who work in other energy-intensive industries and from those in the broader electricity sector who are looking at every possible option to address some of the new imperatives to reduce GHG emissions.
INN: We hear a lot about Biden’s plans for America to lead this global rollout. How will Canada fit into that? Or what is Canada’s role in SMR adoption?
SQ: We are for sure seeing interest on a global scale in SMRs. The US, as you mentioned, is definitely interested. But many other countries around the world are interested, including the UK and many others. The SMR market, the nuclear market in general, is a global market these days, and it’s a competitive global market. And so part of the question that we ask when we look at the SMR opportunity for Canada is, “Can Canada and Canadian industry compete in an emerging SMR market?” And we believe that the answer is absolutely yes.
In Canada, we have a very active nuclear supply chain, partly because the nuclear reactors in Ontario are undergoing significant refurbishment as we speak. We also have a world-class nuclear regulator. And we have a history of nuclear technology development that goes back to the earliest days in the 1940s. So when you put that all together, it creates a competitive advantage for Canada that we believe enables Canada and our industries to be able to compete in what we believe is a race for a burgeoning and emerging market.
Part of what we see in the global landscape is that the US is investing very heavily in SMRs for grid technologies, which really means that their SMRs are at the larger end of the SMR spectrum. But in Canada we have interests in that space for sure. We also have interest in SMRs that are on the smaller side, the ones that are more specifically targeted to mining and other resource-extraction industries. And in that space, which is very much a space that AECL is looking at from a technology point of view, we think that Canada is really at the forefront of the race towards commercialization of these technologies.
INN: There’s a lot of talk around nuclear energy in this push to decarbonization. Could SMRs provide enough power to aid in decarbonization?
SQ: We definitely see a role for nuclear, in general, in working towards meeting the new and very ambitious GHG reduction targets that were recently announced back in April. So given the ambitions in Canada in terms of GHG reductions, as well as global ambitions for GHG reductions, we believe that all non-emitting and low-emitting energy technologies will have a role.
So our view is that it’s not about nuclear or renewables. It’s about nuclear and renewables and hydro. And in part it’s about how do you have these various non-emitting and low-emitting technologies working side-by-side, hand-in-hand to open new opportunities, in fact, for renewables.
INN: Has this push to reduce GHG emissions helped the narrative around nuclear?
SQ: I think it’s certainly helped to make nuclear a topic of conversation more broadly in society. Part of what’s important in terms of getting fact-based information out is to make sure that the conversations around nuclear don’t happen just within the nuclear community. But those conversations about nuclear and about the facts about nuclear start happening in general society, between neighbors, between different industries and at all different levels of government. I think that the real opportunity that SMRs have created (is) that it’s extended the conversation outside of the nuclear sector. So now increasingly we’re seeing conversations about nuclear in general society.
INN: What is next for the SMR space?
SQ: One of the things that we’re very interested in at AECL is seeing SMRs demonstrated here in Canada. So one of the things that is important about really understanding the opportunity with these is actually building one, having it operate, because you test not only the technology itself, but you test the economic viability, you test the social acceptance. And you really understand the practicalities of deploying these sorts of things outside of their traditional markets.
We think that for Canada to remain competitive and really capitalize on the job and economic opportunity around this, in addition to what we believe are the environmental benefits, (is) that if you demonstrate early in Canada, you start to solidify supply chains in Canada, so that you can seize both the economic and the environmental benefits around these. So in terms of the answer of what’s next, we are really working towards enabling a demonstration at the earliest possible time.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Georgia Williams, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.
Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.