Capital Power Corp., which currently generates electricity using a diversified portfolio featuring natural gas, wind and solar, announced Monday a new partnership with Ontario Power Generation (OPG), operator of a large reactor fleet.
Over the next two years, the companies will jointly assess the viability of building small modular reactors in the Western province. If actually constructed, those SMRs might be jointly owned and operated, OPG says.
The announcement is the latest indication that Alberta’s dalliance with nuclear power is gaining momentum. Talk of using reactors to generate steam for industrial processes goes back many years, but none were built.
But the government of Premier Danielle Smith has consistently expressed interest in SMRs, and the province has collaborated with Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick on a plan to deploy them nationally.
Avik Dey, the chief executive officer and president of Capital Power, said in an interview that if his company is to meet its goal of reducing its greenhouse-gas footprint, it needs to decarbonize its natural-gas fleet by capturing carbon while also seriously considering nuclear. And it can’t wait for 10 years of SMR-specific operating history.
“It’s not so much about being first,” he said. “But if we have an ambition to decarbonize our own fleet before 2045, and advance the province and the country’s ambitions on their net-zero and decarbonization goals, it requires companies like us to step up.
“In my mind, if not us, then who?”
The partnership also highlights OPG’s growing ambitions to leverage its decades of experience with nuclear technology outside its home territory.
The utility, which operates 10 reactors in Ontario, has begun preparations to construct up to four BWRX-300s – an SMR developed by American vendor GE-Hitachi – at its Darlington Station in Clarington. If completed on schedule by 2028, the first unit would be among the earliest SMRs built worldwide.
Ken Hartwick, OPG’s president and CEO, said his company will focus in Alberta on the technical work involved in identifying appropriate sites for a nuclear plant. If Capital Power decided to construct one, he says, OPG might help complete an environmental impact assessment, assemble a skilled work force, and manage relations with stakeholders and regulators.
OPG would be interested in operating the plant (potentially lowering its involvement over time) and also assuming partial ownership. “Is that 50 per cent, 20 per cent, 30 per cent? Whatever it is, I think it’s something we have a high level of interest in doing,” he said.
OPG is also negotiating with New Brunswick Power about the possibility of assuming an ownership stake in that utility’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. And it’s collaborating with SaskPower to assess the potential for deploying the BWRX-300 in Saskatchewan. (SaskPower has said it won’t make a decision until 2029.)
Saskatchewan is also pursuing the demonstration of a microreactor. Much smaller than the BWRX-300, the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) says what’s known as a “rechargeable nuclear battery,” developed by Westinghouse, would be a boon for remote mining operations and Indigenous communities that currently rely on diesel. It would make power more reliable and substantially reducing carbon emissions.
Ultimately, the province wants to bring the first commercial unit to Saskatchewan, SRC president and CEO Mike Crabtree said in an interview. In November, the government gave the SRC $80-million dedicated to the task.
Mr. Crabtree said the quantity of spent fuel from the microreactor over a 10-year period would fit in three 200-litre drums, replacing one million drums of diesel and 500,000 tonnes of carbon.
“So you can see how, globally, nuclear power – including microreactors – is seen as being a real core part of that renewables and energy transition mix. That’s why we’re so excited about this,” he said.
Yet many of those reactors remain at early stages of development. No SMRs are fully designed, nor licensed for construction by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
Analyst Mycle Schneider Consulting, in its latest annual assessment of the global nuclear industry, concluded that the prospects for SMRs are “questionable at best.”
It pointed to the recent travails of NuScale Power, a leading SMR developer. NuScale terminated a major reactor project in November that it had undertaken with a partner in Utah, and announced last week that it was laying off 28 per cent of its work force to cut costs.
Such pessimism about SMRs does not trouble Mr. Dey, who said the technology is based on 50 years of established science.
“It’s just taking the best of what we have globally in nuclear, and making it modular,” Mr. Dey said.
Still, he acknowledged that it’s too early to say whether SMRs will be a slam dunk for Alberta. Nuclear rules and regulations don’t exist in the province, so the company will first have to work with the government to go through the arduous task of developing permitting processes.
Mr. Hartwick said that regardless of whether Capital Power selected the BWRX-300 or another reactor design, a first Albertan SMR would benefit Canada’s entire nuclear industry.
“We think that the more [utilities] that go down the nuclear path for power production, the better it is for the supply chain,” Mr. Hartwick said.
“If your supply chain ecosystem is better, your long-term operating costs of any facility will be cheaper.”