The Canadian start-ups pushing for a nuclear revival

In Canada, nuclear power accounts for around 15% of supply in an energy mix dominated by hydropower. No new nuclear plants have been built in 20 years, yet a broad range of small companies are beginning work on the next generation of nuclear technology. Could these projects help lead a nuclear revival in the country and the world?

Courtesy of Trevor MacInnes

Canada's energy mix is the envy of other nations. Its vast river systems power over 500 hydropower facilities across the country, providing 63% of the country's electricity needs. This makes it the third-largest hydropower producer in the world, behind China and Brazil. It also has a solid nuclear industry which provides 15% of the country's electricity.

Nuclear power stations in Canada are mainly fuelled by uranium mined from the province of Saskatchewan. The nation's uranium riches have played a part in the development of the country's nuclear power sector, as well as providing export revenue for the Canadian Government. Up to 2014, the country had extracted 485,000t of uranium, around one-fifth of the world's total.

"A number of small nuclear start-ups are working on new technologies for export and use within Canada"

Canada may be in a comfortable position to meet its energy needs for the moment, but the country's innovators are not resting on their laurels. A number of small nuclear start-ups are working on new technologies for export and use within Canada, taking advantage of favourable research and development regulation and momentum from the COP21 conference. They are building on a long tradition of nuclear research in the country, including the development and commercialisation of the Canada deuterium uranium (CANDU) reactor design.

Old dogs, new tricks

The first CANDU reactor was prototyped in the 1950s. The heavy water reactor was designed to make the most of Canada's uranium resources without the need to export them abroad for enrichment. The commercial version came online in 1971, signalling the beginning of the CANDU revolution; all 18 of Canada's currently operating nuclear power stations are of the CANDU design.

The design has also achieved international success. According to the World Nuclear Association there are 31 CANDU power reactors spread across South Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Argentina and Romania. India is also home to 13 'derivative' reactors, with more in the pipeline as it eventually begins to move away from coal. However, Canada's last domestic nuclear facility came online in 1993. So why the resurgence in nuclear research in a country where the sector is in a steady state with little need for new capacity?

The Canadian Nuclear Association's director of policy and research John Stewart says nuclear start-ups "are attracted to the Canadian the fact that the regulatory regime in Canada is thought by many people to be less prescriptive and more creative and therefore much more suitable to bringing in a radical change in reactor designs."

The regulation of nuclear power research in Canada is conducted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) via a licensing system. Almost all activities surrounding nuclear research require a licence and they are issued if the applicant has met two conditions: they must be qualified to carry out the activity under the licence and in carrying out the activity they are required to adhere to health and safety regulations, protect the environment and play their part in maintaining national security measures agreed to by Canada under international treaties.

The 3,000 licences currently in use are held by a plethora of companies, from power researchers, uranium mines, waste management facilities and transporters of nuclear fuel and waste to medical researchers using nuclear elements. The CNSC also retains the power to amend regulations without consultation of government in the interests of safety, providing a backbone to the otherwise encouraging level of regulation.

"It is not a weaker regime [than other countries], it just is designed a little bit differently, allowing for greater flexibility," says Stewart.

Simon Irish, CEO of Ontario-based reactor developer Terrestrial Energy, agrees. "The CNSC offers a graduated, principles-based and risk-informed regulatory process, and has expressed a willingness to consider advanced reactor technologies," he says. "This approach is relevant and important for the development of advanced reactor systems today."

A favourable regulatory system isn't all Canada has to offer. General Fusion's vice-president of technology and corporate strategy Michael Delage says Canada's entrepreneurial spirit is playing a part. "Even beyond nuclear, we've seen a real surge in Canada of companies looking to take on very big problems building from cutting-edge science - Canada has created companies that are world leaders in quantum computing, carbon capture, biotechnology, and more," he says. "It's this combination of a healthy entrepreneurial culture with strength in science and technology that creates the environment that allows companies like General Fusion to flourish."

New players in the market

An advantage of the start-up model as opposed to academic research is the focus on commercialisation of reactors. Terrestrial Energy defines itself by this measure and recently submitted its fission-based Integrated Molten Salt Reactor design to the CNSC for phase one of its pre-licensing review. "By making this submission, Terrestrial Energy has the distinction of being possibly the first to begin regulatory engagement with a western nuclear regulatory authority for a molten salt reactor system," Irish says. This is an early step in Terrestrial Energy's plan to be providing power to the grid in the 2020s.

Commercialisation was also a factor in General Fusion's choice of reactor design. Delage says the company chose magnetised target fusion (MTF) "because we were looking for an approach that would lend itself to a more practical and economically competitive power plant design."

MTF uses a similar type of plasma to that found in other fusion reactors, but rather than controlling the plasma by outside magnetic coils, it is created by an electric current and then formed into a ring through electromagnetic forces. It also differs from other fusion designs because the plasma is compressed rapidly, producing, as Delage explains, "a burst of energy in ten microseconds that might be equivalent to what a magnetic fusion system produces in one second".

"The focus of the new companies is on creating smaller reactors that can be more easily deployed"

Much of the focus of the new companies is on creating smaller reactors that can be more easily deployed than traditional reactors such as the CANDU. This would solve a number of problems in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Presently, fossil fuels are burned to provide heat for industrial processes like melting the bitumen in Canada's oil sands, while communities in the most remote parts of the country exist near the edge of the grid, or off it entirely. These communities use diesel trucked or flown in at great cost.

Small modular reactors (SMR) could be the answer to these perennial issues, and potentially lucrative for the first company to establish itself on the market. The Northwest Territories case represents the chance to prove SMR technology works as a generator of local energy and heat for industrial processes. That could be in Canada or perhaps, more likely, one of the world's rapidly industrialising nations.

"Terrestrial Energy's IMSR is highly modularised, permitting easy remote transportation, by railcar or on the back of an articulated lorry, and simple site assembly," says Irish. "The main commercial pull today for SMR development is the growth in power demand from the fast growth cities of the developing world, and from the pressing policy need to remove coal generation from grid power provision. That opportunity is of enormous commercial scale."

The approach of these start-up companies is also very different to traditional research. General Fusion has turned to crowdsourcing solutions by issuing challenges to the wider community. "There are so many different technical challenges that need to be tackled to successfully develop this technology, and at General Fusion, we are a team of approximately 50 engineers and scientists, so we have to focus," says Delage. "Crowdsourcing is a way to reach out and perhaps tap a much greater pool of talent, and in an ideal case expertise that we don't have internally, to solve some of those challenges."

Will investors take the plunge on new nuclear?

Canada's start-ups have made an encouraging start to finding new commercial nuclear options. The system has given the sector a fair chance to develop and "with a full supply-chain from component producers up to our own unique power plant platform in the CANDU, [it] has the full suite of capabilities to be active in this field," says Delage. "Canada also has a regulatory environment which is world-class and at the same time flexible for developing new technologies."

There will be issues on the road ahead for these fledgling companies, the most pressing being funding. A combination of government funding and private finance may be the answer here. General Fusion received $19.5m in support from Jeff Bezos, owner of online shopping giant Amazon, as well as a number of private financers. The Canadian state recently announced C$5.7m in government grants for Terrestrial Energy to top up its current investment from venture capitalists. Whether this enthusiasm will last as time goes on is yet to be revealed.

"When you are bringing in this kind of new technology with these sorts of licensing considerations, you are going to need some patient and deep-pocketed investment," says Stewart. "It is not clear who that is going to be even for a prototype. There are players in the Canadian market who have that kind of money and patience but do they want to do this? We don't know that yet."