by Matthew McClearn • published 24 March 2023
OPG plans to build the first BWRX-300 reactor by 2028 at its existing Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, placing Ontario’s largest utility in a race against time. Under a new agreement announced in Washington, reactor vendor GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy will contribute $200-million toward the reactor’s continued development. Another $200-million in development costs will be split evenly between OPG and its new partners, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Synthos Green Energy, which previously announced plans to deploy BWRX-300s in the United States and Poland, respectively.
OPG president and chief executive officer Ken Hartwick told The Globe and Mail that by standardizing the reactor’s design, operations and maintenance across multiple jurisdictions, the agreement will reduce the costs of building its reactor.
“That’s really a sharing of costs among four entities,” he said. “So it’s good for us. … If we would have just gone alone to do it, we’d bear all of the cost ourselves.”
Lowering costs will be crucial if reactors are to compete with other generation technologies. Nuclear technology has enjoyed a resurgence of interest as countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet in its latest report on the nuclear industry’s status published in October, Paris-based Mycle Schneider Consulting found that for the first time in four decades, nuclear’s share of global electricity generation fell below 10 per cent last year.
Outside China (which leads the world in building new reactors by a wide margin), reactor closings have substantially outpaced new builds over the past 20 years. A reputation for grave budget overruns and missed deadlines contributed powerfully to this, as did a perceived lack of modern products that were sufficiently mature to pass muster with safety regulators.
Although a growing list of utilities has expressed interest in the BWRX-300, its design is not yet finalized. The agreement formalizes which entities will bear responsibility for further advancing specific aspects of its design.
Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, will run experiments with the U.S. Department of Energy on “steel bricks,” a steel-composite modular construction technique GE Hitachi plans to employ. Mr. Hartwick said OPG will send some employees on year-long secondments to the Tennessee utility, which operates light-water reactors that operate on similar principles to the BWRX-300. (The company’s CEO, Jeff Lyash, previously served as OPG’s top executive.)
OPG has not revealed its cost estimate for the Darlington small modular reactor, but Mr. Hartwick said he expects to do so this summer. Observers have predicted the price tag will be substantially higher than competing technologies, so driving down the cost of subsequent BWRX-300 units will be critical.
“If the sixth or seventh reactor is only 10-per-cent cheaper than the first one, then I would say you’re in trouble,” said Akira Tokuhiro, a professor in Ontario Tech University’s energy and nuclear engineering department.
Mr. Hartwick said the new Darlington facility will be designed to accommodate up to four BWRX-300 reactors. He acknowledged that the first will be the most expensive, but “not by a significant amount.” Since subsequent units would be substantially identical, getting additional regulatory approvals should be straightforward. Furthermore, key aspects of the plant’s layout such as water intakes will already be settled.
“On SMRs, the key is to get to the M – so more of it is modularized,” he said. “The first one, it’s going to be built on-site … but by the time we get to the third or fourth, big elements of the plant will be built in a factory where you can control quality better. And that is where the cost savings come in.”
At the announcement event in Washington, Jay Wileman, president and CEO of GE Hitachi, emphasized that standardization of reactor design will be crucial in earning the nuclear industry a role in the transition to cleaner energy sources.
“We’ve got to be on schedule, on budget, and it’s got to be a competitive cost,” he said. “Not like our sins of the past, where we’ve seen two plants on one site with different designs.”
Prof. Tokuhiro said collaboration will be crucial if the nuclear industry is to compete with other energy technologies.
“Oil companies are 100 to 1,000 times larger,” he said. “How is the nuclear industry going to survive globally? Through partnerships.”