Canada, like many industrialized countries, has pledged to reduce its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. But what makes Canada unique is how it wants to achieve that goal. Like others, it has been boosting renewables like wind and solar. But it also plans to add to the mix a powerful new source: small modular reactors, or SMRs.
SMRs can generate carbon-free electricity while overcoming some of the nuclear industry’s biggest challenges — namely, cost and lengthy construction times.
They can play a crucial role in helping Canada decarbonize in several important ways. Designed to produce up to 300 megawatts of carbon-free electricity generation, SMRs can step in when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, which can happen for extended periods during Canada’s long winters, marked by a formidable mix of snow, cold and short days. But they can also help provide carbon-free generation in remote areas, particularly in the northern regions, where many rely on diesel generators for electricity.
Highlighting Canada’s long experience with nuclear energy — it was the world’s second country to generate nuclear power — Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s minister of natural resources, said in a statement, “SMRs offer the next great opportunity” for Canada.
SMRs also could prove to be a game changer for Canada’s economy, which already has some of the world’s largest resources of uranium. Being a first adopter of the SMR technology could allow Canada to become a global leader in this technology and spark a whole new industry that could create thousands of jobs in manufacturing, construction and plant operation. Countries like the U.S., Poland and Estonia have already expressed interest in the technology. “In the face of the existential threat of climate change, Canada is investing in the full suite of the energy technologies we will need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Nuclear energy is part of achieving these objectives,” O’Regan said. “We also see tremendous potential to expand safer nuclear technologies — in Canada and around the world.”
The government of Ontario and its utility, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), are currently in the process of selecting the company that will build in its province the first SMR in the world, with plans to bring it online by 2028.
One company that raised its hand to do the job is GE Hitachi, which has been supporting the operation of nuclear reactors around the world for decades. The company is developing an SMR called the BWRX-300 (see video below). The reactor stands on the broad shoulders of true, tried and tested technologies that power many existing nuclear power plants. But it also includes innovative features that would allow it to be deployed more quickly than conventional large reactors. "The pieces themselves already exist, they are basically building blocks that have been pre-designed," says Christer Dahlgren, the principal designer of the BWRX-300. "You are no building them in the field. They are coming to the site already built and pre-tested.
GE Hitachi wants to go further than just build the first SMR in Canada. It wants to help Canada to become the first global center of excellence for this technology. “Canada is taking steps to be first and to start a wave of new builds,” says Jay Wileman, president and CEO of GE Hitachi. “GE has been in Canada for more than 100 years. We can bring our state-of-the-art technology and build a coalition of Canadian partners to support Canada’s SMR Action Plan. That would include building on our local GE infrastructure, bringing and expanding our nuclear resources in Canada and collaborating with Canadian partners that have expertise to help with the development and deployment of the BWRX-300.”
The Conference Board of Canada, the country’s leading independent research organization, reported that in Ontario alone, the technology can generate 2.6 billion Canadian dollars (US$2.07 billion) of gross domestic product, C$1.7 billion in wages, and C$873 million in taxes for the province’s economy. PricewaterhouseCoopers reported, in a study commissioned by GE, that the global market for SMRs is expected to grow to $150 billion between 2025 and 2040. PwC also reported that the SMR reactor in Ontario is expected to create 1,700 jobs during the construction and manufacturing phase.
GE Hitachi is “already building this coalition,” Wileman says. In July, GE Hitachi and another GE joint venture, Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF), announced a memorandum of understanding with Canada’s Cameco Corp., one of the largest providers of uranium fuel in the world. “Cameco intends to be a go-to fuel supplier for these innovative reactors,” said Tim Gitzel, Cameco president and CEO. “We’re looking forward to working with GE Hitachi and GNF to see what opportunities might exist around their novel SMR design.”
GE Hitachi also is working with First Nations Power Authority (FNPA), an organization developing energy projects serving Canada’s Indigenous people, to tap into talent inside Canada’s Indigenous communities. GE Hitachi is currently seeking to hire and train 30 new field service technicians, who could be among the first global operation and maintenance experts trained on the BWRX-300 reactors. The company also plans to open 80 new jobs in Ontario to support the rollout of its SMRs, and it brought on nine interns from Canadian universities this summer. “GE Hitachi values diversity in our workforce, including equal employment opportunities for indigenous people," says Lisa McBride, GE Hitachi’s country leader for SMRs in Canada. “We are working to develop a highly-skilled workforce to serve the current nuclear fleet, with the potential opportunity to service the BWRX-300 SMR fleet when deployed in Canada.”
McBride works with industry partners, suppliers, government regulators, NGOs and other stakeholders to bring the BWRX-300 to Ontario. “Canada has significant nuclear experience and is a global leader in the nuclear industry," she says. "We are looking to leverage the expertise in Canada and build on that for the future of SMRs."
Heather Chalmers, president and CEO of GE Canada, is very engaged in supporting this effort. Chalmers grew up next to a nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Ontario and got her first university job there. “In Canada, we are very comfortable with nuclear power,” Chalmers says. “In Ontario, almost 60% of our electricity in the province comes from nuclear power generation and we’re proud of that. For me personally, I’ve always had a relationship with the industry. Literally from my childhood home, where my parents still live, I could see a nuclear power plant. It was part of our community growing up.”
But like others, Chalmers also is looking beyond her home country. “Canada has a global nuclear vision, and we want to help the country to be the leader in this new SMR industry,” she says. “We know that as soon as OPG starts building the first SMR, that’s going to be the tipping point for other provinces and countries to follow suit. Canada is going to benefit from that, and, with our scalable SMR technology, we can help Canada achieve its vision. GE also has a history of building amazing technology together with Canada for more than 120 years, and this is no different. This is the beginning of something big.”
Top image: A rendering of a facility using GE Hitachi's BWRX-300 reactor.