In mid-April, 2015, Peter Lang, President of Dunedin Energy Systems Ltd, gave a presentation at the Nunavut Mining Symposium, arguing for a radical shift in the way we provide energy to remote communities and mining operations. Traditionally, northern communities have relied upon diesel generators that produce substantial pollution and require costly infrastructure for fuel transport to maintain energy production.
Lang suggests a new approach, one that utilizes new, small modular reactor (SMR) technology to produce energy from floating nuclear power ships. In this week’s News in Depth, we explore Lang’s idea and the potential opportunities and challenges that are ahead.
An Old Idea Given New Life
As Lang noted in his presentation, the idea of utilizing nuclear reactors in unique contexts is not new: small, self-contained nuclear reactors have been providing energy on military ships and submarines (103 in the US Navy alone), and ice-breakers for decades and have been deployed in northern Russian communities since the 1970s.
Lang’s Dunedin Energy believes that their SMART (Small Modular Adaptable Reactor Technology) system would provide a more sustainable and consistent energy source for remote communities in Canada. They describe the systems as a “nuclear battery”:
When the fuel in a nuclear battery is consumed, the entire reactor module (which contains the spent fuel) is removed and shipped to a processing facility for fuel recycling. A new, freshly fuelled reactor module is installed to replace it. The reactor module is a sealed unit and cannot be opened for any reason at the operating site.
In his presentation, Lang compares diesel and nuclear, using a 16MWe common production rate. Notably, the annual fuel logistics of diesel include moving and storing over 31 million litres of fuel and annual greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be 85,000 tonnes. Compare those figures to the zero fuel logistics and greenhouse gas emissions of their nuclear SMART system. Lang also highlights the issue of carbon taxes, arguing that while diesel may cost up to $1.2 Million for a 16MWe plant, a nuclear SMART reactor would gain a credit of $1.2 Million.
The Challenges Ahead
The incredibly favourable comparison above belies some of the deeper challenges that SMR development may face in northern communities.
The first set of challenges relate to cost and public resistance. Dunedin presents two business cases – a full-ownership option and a “zero-capital cost” option wherein Dunedin handles the operation and logistics of deployment, operation, and decommissioning, and the customer pays approximately 29 cents/kW in return.
However, northern communities and mine operators may be tempted to continue to rely on diesel – owing to the current low price of oil and, in essence, because of the stickiness of the status quo. In addition, northern communities, including many Aboriginal groups, continue to be locked in debates over energy development, mining, and socio-economic development; introducing any new nuclear energy plan may provide more fodder for political debate. Dunedin appears to be aware of these challenges and addresses the regulatory and safety issues on their website. However, as we suggested in a piece on April 23, better public engagement and education would be required to quell any genuine fears or uncertainty that exist.
Lastly, northern communities may demand a clearer set of guidelines and regulations relating to decommissioning and remediation. Lang noted in his presentation that decommissioning funds would be held in escrow, effectively guaranteeing that even if a community or mine is bankrupt, that the money for cleanup and restoration is not subject to claims by creditors or other parties. Dunedin’s approach is unique – in that the whole reactor-in-a-ship concept allows for relatively easy site cleanup – but questions still remain. How much would be necessary for cleanup? What does full restoration look like?
In other words, this ambitious idea is not without issues. However, there appear to be tremendous economic and environmental arguments in favour of SMR development in northern and remote communities. These arguments carry over to other contexts – including Mexico, for example – and may one day translate to a new energy future for Canada’s North.