Yukonomist: A zero-carbon replacement for our LNG plant

Consider small, modular nuclear reactors

The liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at Schwatka has been highly controversial. It has succeeded in keeping our lights and electric heaters running as power demand has grown in the Yukon, but plenty of people were hoping that the old diesels would be replaced with climate-friendly low-carbon power sources.

However, building more renewable power has proven to be a challenge. Wind and solar are getting cheaper, but are intermittent and require battery or hydrogen storage technology that so far has been too expensive. We haven’t invested enough in drilling to fully assess the geothermal potential under Takhini hot springs. No one wants big new dams, and even small micro-hydro projects face daunting hurdles from our extensive approval processes.

Hence proposed Action #68 in the Yukon government’s proposed climate change plan, which charges the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources to investigate small modular nuclear reactors.

This is what the Russians activated last month in Pevek, Chukotka, on the Siberian coast about 2,000 km west of Old Crow. Essentially, it is a barge called the Akademik Lomonosov with two submarine-sized nuclear power plants. It is rated to produce 70 megawatts of power, or up to 300 megawatts of heat for buildings and industrial facilities.

The Yukon’s current winter capacity is 116 megawatts. So if we towed the Akademik Lomonosov up the Yukon River and moored it near Dawson (it wouldn’t fit through Five Finger Rapids), it would boost our electrical capacity by 60 percent. Thousands of Yukoners could buy electric cars and switch to electric heat. Carbon emissions would plummet. The surplus heat could probably serve every building in Dawson with leftover for an extensive outdoor hot springs pool for winter tourism.

Of course, this isn’t likely to happen. “The Russians have been doing it for years,” is not a saying that reassures Canadian nuclear regulators.

Furthermore, Canada has its own plan for small modular reactors. We have a long history of nuclear innovation, going back to the old Candu reactors. These are still generating power from Ontario to Korea and Argentina.

The federal government has been pushing the “Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap” initiative. Nunavut, the NWT and other Canadian jurisdictions were involved in the first phase of work, and it now appears the Yukon will join in. Furthermore, the premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick announced in November they intend to work closely together on the topic.

The concept remains controversial. The recent airing of HBO’s series Chernobyl reminded everyone of the risks of nuclear. On the other hand, Canadian reactors have a strong safety record and the new generation of small reactors being planned has impressive new safety technologies built in.

There are multiple Canadian companies putting their proposed designs through the national nuclear approval process. In addition to big safety improvements, the designers aim to solve some other major problems with nuclear power.

These include size and economics. Older reactors were huge, custom-built beasts. They often went over budget and were too large for anything but the biggest electrical grids. As “small modular” suggests, the new designs aim to be small enough to be built in a factory with economies of scale and freighted to remote mines or communities in shipping containers. You could then stack up as many as you need.

Some designs promise sealed power units that don’t need refueling for 20 or more years. This avoids the need to transport and replace radioactive fuel rods in remote locations. Like a car at the end of its lease, you just give the power unit back to the factory and get a new one.

The biggest push behind the nuclear renaissance is climate change. There are vast numbers of coal, oil and gas-fired power plants that need to be replaced. While renewable economics are improving, many energy experts believe nuclear will be needed as part of the global energy mix. International Energy Agency scenarios include the nuclear industry doubling in size over the next 20 years if we are to meet the Paris goal of keeping global warming to less than 2 C.

Don’t expect a small modular reactor in your neighbourhood any time soon. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories hopes to have one on its Chalk River site in Ontario by 2026. Even if this happens, it will be awhile before versions are ready for the Yukon grid or to replace LNG at a big Yukon mining project. And it will require what will probably be the most contentious YESAB process of all time.

However, someday the Schwatka LNG plant will reach the end of its life. Last year, Yukon Energy suggested building a new 20-megawatt fossil-fuel generating station to open in 2022, although it later cancelled the plan. In the meantime, Yukon Energy is renting diesel units in the winter. This year it will rent nine two-megawatt diesels for $2.2 million.

I don’t envy the Yukon’s energy decision makers. Public opinion to actually do something about climate change is ramping up. So is electricity demand as our population grows. If we keep not getting around to building new renewable power projects, then in a few years the small modular reactor executives will be visiting Whitehorse with a compelling sales pitch.

Assuming, of course, that HBO is not by then running a series called “Akademik Lomonosov.”

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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