Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is working towards the future of nuclear by enhancing existing technology; developing advanced technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMRs); and assessing how all low-carbon technologies can be integrated within 'microgrids', CNL President and CEO Mark Lesinski said today. The use of hydrogen for microgrids is CNL's "highest aspiration, the Holiest Grail", he told delegates at the International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power being held this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency's headquarters in Vienna.CNL's Mark Lensinski speaking at the IAEA conference (Image: J Cobb)
"If we have an SMR by 2026, our belief is that the next step is to really clearly understand what a low-carbon micro-grid would look like and how it would actually work, not on paper, not a computer simulation, but an actual micro-grid," Lesinski said. "So our vision, beyond SMRs, is that we would have wind, solar, hydrogen production, biomass, all those components, working together at our lab in a microgrid providing power in our communities. Only then can we understand what the efficiencies that we can create by an integrated system is by having a test integrated system that we can play tunes on, so to speak, that we can adjust, which then can be more bespoke for each of the communities out there and their particular needs as to what they are going to be able to bring on board for their microgrid in a low-carbon fashion.”
Lesinski commended the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol, for the report the Paris-based agency had published in May. That report, Nuclear power in a clean energy system, highlights the importance of nuclear energy in tackling climate change. Referring to Birol's keynote address to delegates during the opening session of the conference, on 7 October, Lesinski said: "I would agree with Fatih Birol when he was saying on Monday that we don’t have the luxury to pick one technology now." That is why, Lesinski added, CNL's Clean Energy Demonstration, Innovation, and Research (CEDIR) park is "so important so that we can work our way through the technical questions that are needed".
He also cited William Magwood, director general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, who had told the conference that, "Increasing variable renewable energy sources is good, but there are a lot of questions from a technology standpoint that need to be answered." Lesinski said: "That would be an important step forward for us to understand not only nuclear energy but all the things that it can do to have a micro-grid and grids that are more efficient and green in the future."Hydrogen
"The next big question is how, when we have extra capacity during a sunny day and a windy day, we are going to deal with those peaks so that we can even things out, and it comes down to storage. We believe hydrogen is the right way to go," Lesinski said, adding that CNL has a "deep history" in hydrogen.
"We have a great knowledge base because of the reactor design that we’ve had - heavy water reactors. We've had to understand hydrogen in all its isotopic forms, how to mitigate it, recombine it, create it. We have bespoke facilities - hydrogen facilities, tritium facilities, deuterium clean-up facilities - so we have hydrogen knowledge in a deep, deep way at CNL. We also have a new process which at a lower temperature can produce hydrogen in a more economical fashion and, when combined with small modular reactors and the high temperatures that those advanced reactors are going to be producing, we believe we have a very efficient system so that we can take that excess energy in an integrated variable system and that is key to an efficient system in the future, a low-carbon process."
The vision for the CEDIR park is to advance the technological readiness of low-carbon hybrid energy systems enabled by SMRs. The CEDIR park will be a demonstration platform of clean energy technologies including a nuclear-renewable hybrid energy system (NR-HES). Within an NR-HES, SMRs synergise with renewable power generation, hydrogen generation, energy storage and distribution techniques, and low-carbon technologies to become a comprehensive clean energy solution. CNL says these systems can provide clean, reliable power and services to support remote or isolated communities, manufacturing and resource management industries, and urban demands.
Some examples of the benefits of an NR-HES include, it says, a reliable microgrid powered locally by low-carbon energy; efficient district heating; hydrogen powered transportation; desalination and water treatment; heated greenhouse to enable agriculture in cold climates; and heat for industrial processes.SMRs
Lesinski recalled that, at end of the IAEA General Conference in 2017, Kim Rudd, parliamentary secretary to Canada's minister of natural resources, had challenged 'Team Canada' to create a plan for Canada to participate in the development of SMRs.
That "kick in the pants" led to 10 months of working with many different stakeholders to create Canada's 2018 SMR Roadmap, Lesinski said, and they are now working on an updated version of that plan.
CNL is not itself producing a design for an SMR because there are "at least a 100" of them, Lesinski said.
"Some are on the back of a napkin, but some are at the point where they are ready to be developed and deployed. What we do want to do is to be the host site."
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission received the first licence application for an SMR in April. The application - from Global First Power, with support from Ontario Power Generation and Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation - supports a proposal to deploy a Micro Modular Reactor plant at CNL's Chalk River Laboratories. CNL also has a site in Manitoba, at its Whiteshell Laboratories.
"We have 10,000 acres," Lesinski said. "We’ve analysed out site in Chalk Rver, as well as our site in Manitoba and between the two we have 22 locations. So, if there's enough funding out there, we could demonstrate 22 different SMRs at our sites across Canada."
He added: "We want to be that incubator, that demonstration site, where a test reactor can be sited, where scientists can help you answer your questions. We have services that can provide radiation protection, the waste handling, the security, the fire protection, whatever it might be, in order for you to focus on your technology and make it happen."
That preparatory work is going on in parallel with the SMR regulatory process, he said.
"We're working through a four-stage process to do our due diligence with different proponents and then eventually be able to award them a site and have a contract. We have a number of proponents that are now into the process: Global First Power is at the third stage and we’re having discussions on the contractual parameters,” he said. SMR developers also include U-Battery Canada, Terrestrial Energy and StarCore Nuclear. Others involved in the process will be made public in due course, he said.
"Building momentum revolves the financing," he said, "and that final deal for some of those proponents to start construction has not occurred yet. We're not breaking ground yet, but we're not sitting on our hands and waiting. The lab itself is working on a number of areas - we're funding our own research, building capability, hiring the right individuals to understand the questions that are going to be coming from an SMR perspective.
"We have many commercial agreements going on with a lot of developers right now and in fact we are doing work for them to help them answer some of their technical questions, and we're working on siting and also on engineering siting, for information that can help anyone come with their technology and then go through the environmental impact process."Existing fleet
Nuclear energy accounts for over 15% of electricity production in Canada and has a 60% share in Ontario. An "incredible statistic" for the province, Lesinski said, comes from Health Canada, which estimates that there are CAD4.4 billion in healthcare savings annually because Ontario doesn’t use fossil fuels anymore.
"That’s just astounding," he said, "and it's really important that we keep those assets going for many decades. We're in the middle of a major refurbishment, one of the biggest in the world, so that for decades more we’re going to enjoy that good clean energy."
Lesinski highlighted three areas CNL is involved for the life-extension programmes at the Bruce and Darlington nuclear power units - hydriding due to deuterium ingress; iodine stress corrosion cracking; and fuel inspection.
"Hydriding, which occurs simply by continuing to operate the plants and hydrogen being driven into the metal is causing embrittlement of the pressure tubes, which is that critical boundary that must be watched," he said. "At the laboratory, we are examining samples to understand where we are in the lifetime of the pressure tubes in the reactors in Canada and we've been doing this for decades, building up an incredible amount of knowledge to understand the mechanism of what's happening, which is applicable to many reactors around the world."
On iodine stress corrosion cracking, he said, "Many operators would be familiar with the fact that the ability to ramp up and ramp down is very important, to be able to have peak performance and run the reactors at the highest temperatures." He added: "But there are limitations, such as iodine stress corrosion cracking, which occurs because of the interaction between the pellet and the zirconium cladding around that fuel, is a limiting factor that needs to be understood. It’s been studied for many years but we still don’t completely understand that mechanism. If we do, then that flexibility is going to increase; if we do, we're going to be able perform at a higher level and [produce] more clean energy."
Periodic inspection and post-irradiation examination (PIE) of fuel is "critical to the safe operation of reactors as we go forward", he said. "We've been very focused on Candu up until recently and we are now accepting this year lightwater reactor fuel as well and are able to do PIE examinations at our laboratory."
Life-extension work is a core part of CNL's clean energy strategy, he stressed. "The clear signal from the Canadian government is that we're a tier one nuclear nation," he said. "And we intend to stay."
Researched and written by World Nuclear News