Uncovering downstream opportunities for small modular reactor technology

By Mario Pieries | February 12, 2021

In our last blog on the topic of small modular reactors (SMRs), my colleague introduced the idea of sourcing clean energy for the future with small and modular nuclear technology. SMRs continue to gain a lot of traction in the marketplace, especially with the release of the recent SMR Action Plan. This nuclear fission technology has been pegged as the next wave of innovation, having the ability to displace fossil fuels while bringing baseload carbon-free power to remote residential communities and industrial areas. But what’s often overlooked are the abundant use cases beyond the provision of electricity—co-generation and district heating—for residential communities and industries.

Here are four downstream opportunities you won’t want to ignore as this emerging technology takes off!

  1. In oil and gas, which represented 26 percent1 of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced in Canada in 2018, SMRs can replace conventional industrial processes in the production of process heat and steam required to extract oil sands through SAGD and support the production of refined products that can be used for various applications from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Not to mention the potential application of SMRs in the production of hydrogen, helping with hydrocracking in refining and upgrading, as well as blending the hydrogen with natural gas to make a cleaner by-product2.
  2. When applied in the production of hydrogen, SMRs can also play a major role in transportation, accounting for approximately 25 percent1 of Canada’s GHG emissions. When combined, this presents a viable carbon-free source to produce hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles to serve the transportation sector. With Canada’s recently published Hydrogen Strategy, SMRs will play an important role in creating hydrogen economies.
  3. SMRs can help create greater opportunities for equitable water resourcing through the desalination of seawater, urban wastewater, or mineralized groundwater. With decades of experience, nuclear has successfully been integrated into desalination plants in various countries such as Kazakhstan, Japan, and India3.
  4. The last use case for an SMR is its use in the commercial marine vessel propulsion. For over half a century, military vessels such as aircraft carriers and submarines have been successful in using nuclear propulsion. However, apart from icebreakers, nuclear has not been deployed widely for commercial and civilian use. This presents an opportunity to reduce the international shipping industry’s overall carbon footprint4. Take for example the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, who were recently awarded a contract by Transport Canada to develop an assessment tool to examine clean technologies that could reduce GHG emissions and the release of other pollutants from marine vessels.

While it’s true that barriers continue to exist for this up-and-coming technology—overcoming public concerns around safety and waste, first-of-a-kind applications, and regulatory licensing which the industry is working to address through pilot programs in local electricity generation—solutions are completely within reach. As these barriers are removed, the flood gates for this technology will open. We’re ready to tackle this challenge with our clients and partners.

Government of Canada, “Greenhouse gas sources and sinks: executive summary 2020”, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/climate-change/greenhouse-gas-emissions/sources-sinks-executive-summary-2020.html

Tirone, Jonathan, “Atomic Heat in Small Packages Gives Big Industry a Climate Option”, Bloomberg Green, December 5, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-05/nuclear-power-in-energy-transition-small-modular-reactors-challenge-natural-gas

World Nuclear Association, “Desalination”, https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/non-power-nuclear-applications/industry/nuclear-desalination.aspx

International Maritime Organization, “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships”, https://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Pages/Reducing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-ships.aspx