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Ready to respond to small modular reactor technology

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is no stranger to regulating new nuclear innovations. Since 1946, the CNSC has been regulating activities associated with the nuclear industry in Canada. In recent years, new nuclear technologies that have the potential to supply power to smaller electrical grids have been under development. These new reactor designs are widely known as small modular reactors, or SMRs.

As an agile regulator, the CNSC is ready to regulate SMR technology in Canada. On March 20, the CNSC received its first application for a licence to prepare site for an SMR from Global First Power and is currently applying its licensing process.

What is an SMR?

Just like traditional nuclear reactors, SMRs use fission to create heat that generates energy. SMRs are typically designed to power smaller electricity markets and remote communities where producing cost-effective energy is a challenge. Some companies are considering using the heat generated from SMRs in other ways like removing salt and minerals from water or for providing district heating (space heating and water heating for homes and businesses).

The name SMR suggests they are miniature versions of traditional reactors, but that’s not always the case. SMR designs vary in size and the power they produce. They can be as small as a three-storey building and as large as an entire city block – that’s about half the size of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario.

Some of the innovations seen in SMR designs include new types of fuel, materials that are more durable than traditional reactors, and new manufacturing and construction methods.

A key component to any nuclear reactor design lies in the approach to cooling fuel. Canada’s nuclear power plants use the CANDU design, which cools their reactors with heavy water. In contrast, SMR designs propose several different materials to cool their reactors, including circulating gases such as helium, molten salt and liquid metal.

Regulating SMRs in Canada

Through the pre-licensing vendor design reviews (VDR) process, the CNSC has been working with SMR companies for several years. These reviews allow a reactor vendor to better understand the regulatory requirements and to identify potential design issues early during the design process.

However, the VDR process does not result in a licence or a licensing decision. To make that happen, a company needs to submit a licence application to the CNSC and follow the licensing process.

When it comes to SMR technologies, or any other for that matter, the CNSC’s primary role is to ensure that an applicant can demonstrate they will operate their reactor safely. The CNSC may also engage early with a potential applicant to provide feedback and clarify regulatory requirements and expectations.

The CNSC is working towards the completion of its strategy to ensure readiness for potential SMR deployment in Canada. It includes three key elements that ensure we are ready to respond to these new technologies:

  • a robust and flexible regulatory framework
  • risk-informed processes
  • a knowledgeable and capable workforce with sufficient capacity and technical expertise

No matter the technology, it is the CNSC’s role to regulate the nuclear industry and to ensure the protection of the health and safety of the public and the environment.

Head to the CNSC website for more information about the CNSC’s role in regulating SMRs.

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