Cameco aims to be the fuel supplier of choice for small modular reactors

Saskatoon-based Cameco has recently signed several memorandum of understandings to collaborate on the potential deployment of small modular reactors. Liam Richards / The Canadian Press

Cameco believes the future of nuclear energy is small modular reactors (SMR). So do federal and provincial governments and some Indigenous communities.

The Saskatoon-based company, one of the world’s largest uranium miners, has recently signed several memorandums of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on the potential deployment of SMRs.

The company believes nuclear power will play a role in shifting to zero-carbon energy and it aims to become the fuel supplier of choice for SMRs.

“We’re really excited about the prospect that’s represented in terms of market growth in the small modular reactor and advanced reactor market,” said Jeff Hryhoriw, Cameco’s director of government relations and communications.

“We think that holds a lot of promise for expanding nuclear energy in countries that currently have nuclear power like Canada, and even into some new markets that would like to explore nuclear power as a carbon-free baseload alternative.”

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Click to play video: 'Cameco excited about small modular reactors prospects'
Cameco excited about small modular reactors prospects

However, opponents of SMRs have concerns and say the deployment of SMRs will be too slow to deal with climate change.

“It’s going to be a decade or more before we know whether the small modular reactors are going to be commercially feasible, and it’ll be more than a decade before they’ll be in a position to make any impact on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ann Coxworth, who sits on the board of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

“So the climate really just can’t wait.”

What are SMRs?

SMRs are nuclear fission reactors that are slated to be built at a smaller size but in larger numbers than most of the world’s current nuclear fleet.

Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources said SMRs have lower up-front capital costs and enhanced safety features. Some SMR designs are small enough to fit in a gymnasium.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency defines “small” as under 300 megawatts of electricity, and up to about 700 MWe as “medium.”

Natural Resources Canada, in partnership with interested provinces, territories and power utilities, has developed a roadmap on the future of SMRs in Canada.

SMRs will have three major areas of application, according to the roadmap:

  • on-grid powers to replace end-of-life coal plants with non-emitting base-loads plants of similar size
  • on- and off-grid heat and power for heavy industry, such as oil sands producers and miners
  • off-grid power, district heating and desalination in remote communities

SMRs represent a “paradigm shift” for nuclear reactor technologies — akin to the shift of steam engines from mineshafts into ships and vehicles, or the movement of computers from mainframes to desktops then laptops, according to the roadmap report.

Saskatchewan advancing SMRs

Part of Saskatchewan’s growth plan includes the development of SMRs.

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The province has said SMRs provide clean nuclear energy that will provide the tools to address climate change.

As part of the mandate, the government has established a nuclear secretariat, whose mandate is the development and execution of a strategic plan to deploy SMRs in the province.

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In 2019, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick signed an MOU to explore the feasibility of SMRs as a clean energy option. They were joined by Alberta in 2021.

Under the proposal signed by the provinces, Ontario will install the first 300 MWE SMR. Saskatchewan could have the first of four grid-scale SMRs in service by 2032.

Hryhoriw said Ontario Power Generation has shortlisted three SMR developers that it is interested in considering for the province — GE Hitachi, X Energy and Terrestrial Energy.

“Cameco now has MOUs in place to explore further cooperation with each of those SMR developers,” he said, adding that all the MOUs are non-binding and non-exclusive.

“We’re intending to position ourselves to take advantage of future opportunities that manifest themselves in Canada, across North America and really, around the world.”

Click to play video: 'Cameco excited about small modular reactors prospects'
Cameco excited about small modular reactors prospects

Hryhoriw said this would benefit the province, especially northern Saskatchewan.

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Cameco is heavily invested in the north, where it mines and mills the vast majority of the uranium it produces for the world.

The company also relies on an Indigenous workforce for its operations.

“Roughly half the workforce of employees and long-term contractors that are working there are residents of Saskatchewan’s north, the vast majority being of Indigenous heritage,” Hryhoriw said.

“These are communities that are very familiar with uranium mining and all that goes with the industry.”

Three Indigenous companies in Saskatchewan are also exploring SMR investments.

Kitsaki Management, Athabasca Basin Development and Des Nedhe Group have supported uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan and want to ensure its voices are heard as SMR research advances.

Earlier this year, they signed an MOU to further explore the feasibility of SMRs.

“We think if you’re serious about climate change and you want to make a difference on the decarbonizing the power-producing aspects, small nuclear reactors is the way to go,” said Sean Willy, chief executive of Des Nedhe Group, in an interview with Global News earlier this year.

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“We look at this as a made-in-Canada approach because all the uranium that’s coming out of Canada is coming from northern Saskatchewan.”

Hryhoriw said while Cameco is not an equity investor in any of the SMRs under development, it is supportive of all partnerships.

“Northern indigenous communities have been involved in the sector for the better part of 60 years in some way, shape or form,” he said.

“But I think the SMR developers that are coming forward are going to be very interested in finding partners, particularly Indigenous partners, as they seek to advance the expansion of SMRs.”

Opposition to SMRs

One group opposed to SMRs is the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES).

The SES said replacing coal-fired power stations with traditional, large nuclear reactors or SMRs is inappropriate for the province as it is too slow of an approach to dealing with climate change.

“Not only are they extraordinarily expensive to build, but nuclear power stations take 12 to 15 years to plan and construct,” the SES said in a position paper.

“We must start reducing emissions as quickly as possible. We cannot wait a decade or more.”

SES board member Ann Coxworth said there are cheaper and safer options already available that should be explored other than SMRs.

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“The potential in Saskatchewan for renewables is really huge,” she said.

“We have the best solar regimes in the country, so there is really huge potential for solar and in some cases, wind.

She acknowledges that storage technology will be the key to developing those resources.

Click to play video: 'Climate can’t wait for small modular reactors: Saskatchewan Environmental Society'
Climate can’t wait for small modular reactors: Saskatchewan Environmental Society

Radioactive waste

The disposal of radioactive material is a concern for Coxworth.

Coxworth, who previously worked as a nuclear scientist in California and the United Kingdom before moving to Canada, said it could be 30 years before a disposal site is in place to handle any radioactive waste from SMRs.

She said the kind of waste that will be produced will, in some cases, be different from radioactive waste that comes from Candu reactors.

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“Until there is a disposal facility, the system set up for collecting waste, those wastes will have to remain on-site at the reactor sites,” Coxworth said.

“And if these are in, say, remote northern communities, there are concerns about security and the technical resources that will be locally available to manage.”

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is tasked with designing and implementing Canada’s plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

Under the plan, fuel will be contained and isolated in a deep geological repository.

The NWMO, which is fully funded by the nuclear industry, said its site selection process started in May 2010 and will take many years to complete.

It will be followed by an estimated 10-year period to construct the facility. Subsequent phases involve the transport, handling, and placement of used nuclear fuel, followed by an extended period of monitoring.

Hryhoriw said there is no perfect form of electricity generation, with each having its pros and cons.

He said there are concerns with managing the disposal of components used in both wind and solar energy.

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“The wind turbines and solar panels take quite a bit of raw materials in their construction,” he said.

“Once their 20- to 30-year lifespan is completed, many of them are disposed of in landfills, where there is a potential for leaching of various toxic substances.”

Hryhoriw said a mix of various solutions is needed to achieve a green energy future.

“We think the surest way to have a decarbonized and net-zero power grid going forward is renewables like wind and solar backstopped by carbon-free forms of electricity generation, such as hydro and nuclear power,” he said.

“That’s the surest way for major economies and countries to decarbonize and achieve net-zero.”

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