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Are nuclear power and small modular reactors a good option?

Al Shpyth, a pro-nuclear environmentalist with more than 30 years of consulting, government and industry experience related to the minerals and nuclear sectors, led an information session on SMRs and nuclear power.
Al Shpyth spoke about small modular reactors and nuclear power during his presentation at the Southeast TechHub on Friday.

ESTEVAN — A short answer is yes, said Al Shpyth, a pro-nuclear environmentalist with more than 30 years of consulting, government and industry experience related to the minerals and nuclear sectors. Small modular reactors are a good option, and if chosen to be built near Estevan, will be good for the area.

But Shpyth had a longer and more detailed response to that question during his presentation Nuclear Power and SMRs – A Primer at the Southeast TechHub on Friday.

Shpyth – who noted that he is not a nuclear expert but is experienced in the field, was not affiliated with SaskPower, was not speaking for any other company or organization, and all opinions were of his own – took those present as well as those watching online on a tour about science and contemporary technological progress, as well as governmental regulations and environmental and other concerns, explaining what SMRs are and how they work. During the two-hour event, he also touched on approval processes, issues and concerns, and actions to support nuclear.

"We have a good chance to have nuclear energy put into our community. I know that for some this is an emotional thing," said TechHub executive director Gord More, opening the event. "Al and I were approached by SaskPower about this, but we didn't want this to be a SaskPower event. We wanted this to only be about nuclear energy.

"And there is one important piece in all of this, if these nukes are built here, it would be terrible if at the workyard they're all Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba or B.C. plates, and they're not Saskatchewan plates. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to do this event. The other part is GE-Hitachi and the Sask. Government really want our community to be a part of the supply chain.

"So, with the college, we are collecting as much information ... for the community, so that you can be a part of the supply chain whether you need to be certified to work it or run it, or if you have boiler maker skills or welding skills, there are opportunities for you," More added.

Opening his presentation, Shpyth said he's been in the mining industry for over 30 years and acquired a lot of experience in nuclear, and uranium in particular. Introducing himself, he noted that he has family roots in the southeast, as both his grandfathers were coal miners and their families lived in the Bienfait area. 

"I'm the only one in the family not born here, but I have memories of coming here for summers with grandparents and swimming in the coal pits, tobogganing down the hills and rocks per se, when I was old enough going across the line to Portal," Shpyth shared.

"And I'm very happy to share with you my thoughts and experience on nuclear and small modular reactors."

Proceeding with his presentation, he said SMRs are the technology that can play a role in Saskatchewan's future.

"SMRs, in ways, are like the coal plants that have been down here for a long time. They're also like natural gas plants, in that they are thermal electric sources of electricity. Heat is generated, creates steam, steam turns turbines, and we get electricity," Shpyth explained. "SMRs can be baseload like coal. They can also load follow like natural gas. And that's the attractive part of the SMRs. The large nuclear power plants, the ones that are in operation today, are predominantly baseload plants. That's where they run best. SMRs, again, are different because of their size and other features. They can act both like a coal plant and a natural gas plant.

"The difference, of course, is unlike the fossil plants, the fuel [uranium] that goes in to generate the steam is not burned. It's not combusted, so there aren't combustion gases that come out the other end."

He noted that small means they are less than 300-megawatt electric units, which is comparable to the Shand Power Station. The modular in the name means the reactors or parts for them are going to be built in manufacturing centres, multiples at a time, and largely, if not entirely shipped to sites, Shpyth said, which is key to helping bring SMRs' cost down in the future.

SMRs are also attractive because they require lower initial capital, have greater scalability, allow for siting flexibility for locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors, provide enhanced safety and security compared to earlier designs and can readily "fit" into the infrastructure of fossil fuel plants that are being closed.

Shpyth also spoke about GE-Hitachi BWRX 300 – a SMR discussed for Saskatchewan. Being a boiling water reactor, this model uses uranium to boil water to make steam, which turns turbines to make electricity. It uses low-enriched uranium fuel pellets assembled into bundles. Each uranium fuel pellet provides up to five years of heat for power generation, and uranium is not burned so no combustion by-products or greenhouse gases are produced.

In his presentation, Shpyth touched on uranium enrichment and explained its types, including natural, low enriched and high enriched, and what it means, as well as nuclear fuel cycles.

He also addressed the approval process, including the federal and provincial regulations. On the federal level, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which protects the health and safety of the public and the environment, requires to license the design of the full life cycle, including site preparation, construction, operation and decommissioning, and spent fuel management and disposal. The technology chosen by SaskPower will also be subject to an impact assessment.

On the provincial level, they will have to undergo an environmental assessment, a results-based process used by the Government of Saskatchewan to understand and evaluate the potential environmental impacts of a project before any irreversible decisions are taken that may lead to negative effects on the environment, natural resources or public health and safety.

Shpyth also went over SaskPower's SMR timeline, which plans for local SMR(s) to become operational by 2035. (The timeline is affected by ongoing Indigenous, stakeholder and public engagement).

Talking about issues and concerns related to SMRs, Shpyth touched on radiation and radiation safety, security and waste management.

He noted that radiation comes from many natural sources, like the sun and various elements in the earth, and technologies we use, such as X-rays and other tests to diagnose diseases or treat cancer. He explained different kinds of radiation and how they penetrate various materials, and compared levels of radiation people are exposed to during daily procedures to the effects of the presence of an SMR in the area, which is low. He also talked about how such variables as time, distance and shielding affect levels of radiation exposure.

Shpyth noted that contemporary SMR fuel and/or reactor designs are different from most other reactors to be the safest in the sense of radiation and susceptibility to emergencies, making nuclear energy the second safest and almost as safe as solar. He pointed out that nuclear is also the cleanest source of energy.

There are many options for dealing with nuclear waste, such as canisters or deep geological disposal. Around 95 per cent of all radioactive waste has very low or low levels of radioactivity.

Shpyth also talked about what people can do to become supporters of nuclear energy, including self-education and engagement of others, advocating for nuclear, encouraging energy literacy and more.

The recording of Shpyth's presentation as well as up-to-date information about future SMR supply chain events can be found on the website.