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Reassessing B.C.’s nuclear option

SFU energy engineering school modelling suggests B.C. may need SMRs
SFU energy engineering professor Taco Niet will give an SFU Public Square lecture Tuesday, January 25, on B.C.'s future energy needs and the role nuclear power might play.

When B.C. first adopted its Clean Energy Act, nuclear power was specifically excluded.

The act clearly states B.C. will achieve its clean power goals “without the use of nuclear power.”

But that was before both B.C. and Canada adopted plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. The federal government has formally embraced nuclear power as a necessary tool for meeting those targets, which necessarily means electrifying almost everything.

Modelling done by the Delta E+ Plus Research Group at Simon Fraser University’s new School of Sustainable Energy Engineering suggests the B.C. government may also need to rethink its policies on nuclear power.

Taco Niet, an engineering professor at SFU’s School of School of Sustainable Energy Engineering (formed in 2019), said the modelling his group has done forecasts B.C. will need to at least double, and possibly triple, its electricity production in less than three decades to meet the “electrify everything” imperative that net zero requires.

While wind, solar and geothermal power may be able to meet some of that new demand, B.C. will still also need a lot of zero emission firm baseload power, and Niet seriously doubts there is an appetite for more hydro-electric dams like Site C in B.C.

Barring a breakthrough soon in fusion power, that leaves nuclear power as the best carbon-free firm energy source.

“We’re talking about electrifying almost everything,” Niet told BIV News in advance of an SFU Public Square lecture, Just Climate Policies, that he will be giving Tuesday.

“To be able to do that, we need two to three times the electrical system we have. Two to three new systems is not just two new dams. We’re looking at 20 to 30 Site C dams in the next 20 years.

“We need firm, low-carbon resources. I don’t see us building another 20 to 30 Site C dams. We don’t really like damming rivers. It causes environmental problems in other ways.”

One of the concerns with Site Dam right now, apart from the ever-increasing budget for it, is that it will produce a surplus of power when its starts producing power.

So worring about B.C.'s future electricity supply now may seem unnecessary, until one considers just how long it takes for a project like a dam or nuclear power plant to get from planning to commissioning, and just how much power B.C. will need between now and 2050.

Currently, 80 per cent of B.C.’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels and 20 per cent from electricity, Niet said.  Getting to net zero in less than 30 years necessarily means a massive switch from fossil fuels to fossil fuel-free electricity.

While it might be possible to meet all of B.C.’s future electricity needs through geothermal power (which is firm) and wind and solar (which is not firm, but which could be firmed up using B.C.’s existing hydro-electric dams), Niet said there are some serious challenges with renewables.

For solar power, it’s the footprint. For wind, it’s the fact that, though wind turbines have become cheap to build, the transmission lines needed to bring the energy to the grid aren't.

“For solar, the land footprint is very large,” Niet said. “We could take all of the Lower Mainland and stick in solar panels. We wouldn’t be able to produce food anywhere, but we’d have energy from that.

“Wind, we’d have to put that up in the north. We’d have to create a whole pile more transmission lines. Building that is a big infrastructure question and it’s not easy to just do that.”

Run-of-river power also has its challenges, Niet said.

“Right now, a lot of the run-of-river that’s currently existing actually just causes us to spill water out of our bigger dams,” he said.

The beauty of nuclear power its high energy density. A very small amount or uranium (or other fuel, such as thorium) can produce enormous amounts of electricity on a very small footprint. And like hydro-power, it’s firm, baseload power that produces electricity around the clock.

“In terms of our modelling, we need a firm, low-carbon sources, and that’s one potential,” Niet said.

There are some good reasons why people are averse to nuclear power. It can be horrendously expensive, and there are safety concerns with the older generations of water-cooled reactors.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) being developed address both cost and safety. Though they would produce comparatively small amounts of radioactive waste, how to store or transport it to storage is still a problem that would need to be addressed.

“I think there’s definitely some challenges dealing with that,” Niet said. “To me, it’s a question of what are the technical challenges with whichever choice you make?”

Niet doesn't think meeting the province’s future electricity needs strictly through renewables – wind, solar and geothermal – is realistic from a land use, cost or energy reliability standpoint.

“If we could get fusion going, that would solve a lot of our problems,” Niet said.

Barring a breakthrough soon on fusion power, however, he thinks B.C. may need to start thinking about small modular reactors (SMRs).

SMRs typically have a maximum generating capacity of 300 megawatts (about one-third of Site C dam’s nameplate capacity). Microreactors are even smaller, producing about 10 to 15 MW, and could be used for industry – remote mine sites, for example.

One advantage of using SMRs in mining is that it’s possible that the radioactive waste could be stored permanently on site, underground, once the mine is exhausted and decommissioned.

Because of the potential SMRs hold for the mining industry, it’s perhaps not surprising that one industry backer of X-Energy Canada, which is developing an SMR, is Canadian uranium miner Cameco (TSX: CCO; NYSE: CCJ).

In a preface to the International Energy Agency’s recent Canada 2022 Energy Policy Review, Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson notes two key policies for meeting Canada’s net zero targets: hydrogen and nuclear power – specifically SMRs.

“We also have a world-leading price on pollution and action plans for promising technologies like hydrogen and small modular reactors,” Wilkinson states in his preface.

“The government recognises the role of nuclear energy as fundamental to achieving and sustaining Canada’s climate change goals, and sees nuclear as a long-term source of baseload electricity supply,” the IEA report notes.

“In 2018, SMRs were identified in the Generation Energy report as key to the sustainable development of Canada’s energy and natural resources.”

Given the lead-times it takes to build either a hydro-electric dam or a nuclear power plant, Niet said the planning needs to start now.

“We need to start making some decisions and doing some things relatively quickly,” Niet said. “We need to make some decisions now that will get us to a low-carbon future in 10 to 15 years.”

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