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Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science - Dean's Message

Leading the way in Small Modular Reactors

As my term as a Dean of the Faculty ends this June, I will be leaving with a sense of pride that I was able to lead this progressive and modern school. Perhaps one of the achievements that I hope will have a lasting impact is placing the Faculty as a leader in Western Canada in nuclear engineering for small modular reactors (SMRs).

I have to confess that this was not on my radar when I joined the Faculty as a Dean in July, 2013. As I arrived in Regina, there was some tentative talk of introducing SMRs to Saskatchewan as a means of decarbonizing the electric grid. This made a lot of sense. The province exports uranium to the rest of the country and the world, but does not make use of it at home. As a nuclear engineer myself, I felt an obligation to explore this opportunity further. I put together a team of 14 faculty members from both the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan to look into the first step of introducing nuclear power to a previously non-nuclear jurisdiction, which is to find a suitable site for a reactor. With funding from the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, the team investigated the technical criteria for selecting sites for SMRs. In addition to producing maps for the best suited sites in the province, based on various selection criteria, the project trained 25 highly-qualified personnel with related expertise. When the Province decided in May, 2019 to “look to small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in the future as part of its goals to lower carbon emissions”, we were in a position to lead the related academic work. I took a six-month leave to do a critical study of technology, which led to a featured article assessing the viability of SMRs. I was also approached for interviews in the media and was featured in a Titans of Nuclear podcast. As I retire, I am pleased to let you know that the Faculty was allocated a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Small Modular Reactor Safety and Licensing. The chair holder will lead the Faculty’s research and education efforts in this area. The Faculty is at the leading edge of energy research thanks to this chair being announced, our faculty researchers contributing in clean energy, and our new program in Energy Systems Engineering being in place. 

What are SMRs and what makes them different from conventional reactors? The smallness applies to both the footprints of the reactor and its power level (300 megawatt electrical or less). The modularity refers to either the ability to build a power plant from small units installed incrementally as needed, or to the segmentation of the reactor to modules that can be manufactured offsite and assembled on site. Emerging SMRs also incorporate features of Generation IV reactors that provide inherent and passive safety. The goal of these designs is to reduce the cost overruns and construction delays associated with mega projects. From an economic point of view, SMRs offer an economy of multiples, versus an economy of scale, allowing a lower upfront commitment of capital, and flexibility in meeting future power demands as needed. In a relatively small jurisdiction like Saskatchewan, a SMR will constitute a fraction of the Province’s peak power, ensuring grid stability and reliability. A SMR will also provide a baseload that is available most of the time, allowing intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, to play a bigger role in energy production. When renewable sources are available, SMR-power can be used for other purposes, such as producing hydrogen fuel. As systems engineers, we have a big role to play in the integration of all these energy resources in a system that provides reliable and sustainable energy resources. 

Opponents of nuclear power point to the radioactive spent fuel and nuclear waste, while some advocate that we should rely fully on renewable energy. One should keep in mind that the capacity factor for a nuclear plant is about 90%, while it is only 25% for solar and for 30% for wind. As such without reliable long-term battery storage or baseload power, renewable energy alone will not be sufficient to meet electricity demands. Nuclear and hydro power are currently the only low carbon-emitting electricity generating sources that provide baseload power. As for nuclear waste management, the small amount of generated nuclear waste and spent fuel can be stored reliably for many years; please visit www.nwmo.ca to explore Canada’s plan for managing used nuclear fuel. This fuel can also be processed now or later to extract plutonium and unburned uranium for use as a nuclear fuel in future reactors, along with precious and noble metals such palladium, rhodium and ruthenium. I am glad to see the Faculty paving the way to the introduction of nuclear power to Saskatchewan and being a leader in Western Canada in this area of research and development. 

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