Nuclear innovation is making a resurgence as an attractive power source for a net-zero future — from large legacy reactors to small modular reactors (SMRs).

If you’ve seen Oppenheimer, you saw the fundamentals of nuclear, quite literally. And while the science and technology from Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster have not changed profoundly over the decades, new SMR technology promises something very different.

SMRs use compact and moveable nuclear technology and if commercialized successfully, could bring new, non-emitting sources of electricity to big cities and remote communities, while providing flexibility to key Canadian industries that currently use fossil fuels.

The RBC Climate Action Institute recently released a report Think Small: How Canada can make small modular nuclear reactors a priority that lays out the potential for this new age of nuclear.

Our research projects Canada will need to build 85 SMRs at a cost of $102 billion to $226 billion to reach our net-zero emissions target by 2050.

There’s also a huge export opportunity on the table — to lead the world like we did with Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) in the 50s and 60s.

Provinces like Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are exploring this nuclear technology to decarbonize industry and power their grids.

So, how do SMRs contribute to Canada’s energy security and what are the economic benefits to becoming a global leader?

To learn more, we toured the home of the first-ever grid-scale SMR site in Canada at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station.

On this episode, John Stackhouse sits down with three nuclear leaders working to make SMRs a reality in Canada; Nicolle Butcher, COO at Ontario Power Generation; Bill Labbe, CEO at ARC Clean Technology Canada; and Heather Chalmers, CEO at GE Vernova.

One thing is clear: nuclear power can be a key part of a lower-emissions future — and an increasingly promising option is to commercialize SMRs.

To read the RBC Climate Action Institute Report on SMRs, click here.

Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hi. Is John here today? I’m at the site of SMRS. At least in Canada. I’m overlooking the Darlington nuclear facility. It’s one of the world’s largest. And a huge construction site where four SMRS as they’re known, are being built. In fact, I’m looking at a sign that says future home of Canada’s first grid scale SMR. And I’m joined here by Chuck Lamers from OPG. Explain a bit, Chuck, what we’re looking at.

Speaker 2 [00:00:32] Okay, so the area that we have to the south of us and to the east is the area for the new small modular reactors. Four of them will be constructed here.

Speaker 1 [00:00:43] And for those who need a refresher, what is an SMR?

Speaker 2 [00:00:47] It is a reactor that can be constructed in a location and then transported and set up to run. They can be put in place quicker and more economically than a large nuclear facility, such as what Darlington is with four large reactors, each one of them at around 900MW. The small modular reactors that will be built here, each one will only be about 300MW.

Speaker 1 [00:01:13] We’ve got a gorgeous day here looking out over Lake Ontario. Why does it matter that this is being built right next to the lake?

Speaker 2 [00:01:21] Nuclear reactors generate heat and the heat is used to make steam. And the steam turns to turbine. The steam needs to be condensed back into water to be brought back into the boilers. So the lake water is used for condensation of that steam, and it’s also used for cooling of the reactor for some of the operational purposes.

Speaker 1 [00:01:43] So on one side of us, we have this enormous and very impressive nuclear facility that’s helping power Toronto, among other needs here in southern Ontario. And then the future to the left with small modular reactors that will exist here but can be replicated all over the country in remote places as well.

Speaker 2 [00:02:01] Yeah. The possibility and the potential for a small modular reactor anywhere in Canada is originating with the first ones being built here.

Speaker 1 [00:02:08] And it’s not just other provinces that are looking. A lot of the world’s looking here to Darlington and the team here at all the construction. It’s a real hive of activity going on around us, as you can pull this off over the rest of the 2020s, we’re going to see a lot more SMRs across Canada, but also around the world. That introduction was recorded at the Darlington nuclear site just east of Toronto. It’s one of Canada’s largest nuclear power plants, indeed one of the largest in the world. And as we’re seeing in so many places, nuclear innovation is making a resurgence from large legacy reactors to small and modular reactors known as SMRs. We’ll be learning a lot about SMRs in this episode. And one of their key selling points is that they’re cheaper and easier to scale than traditional nuclear energy technologies. SMRs use compact and movable technology wherever it’s needed. So think of remote mining sites or distant communities that need power and are just too far away to transmit it, or even big cities that need extra power in a hurry and don’t want to rely on other flexible but polluting sources like coal or even natural gas. The RBC Climate Action Institute has a new report out on SMRs and what the opportunity is for Canada. We may see dozens of these in the Canadian market in the decades to come, and we’ll need to mobilize well over $100 billion of capital to make that happen. There’s also increasing an impressive global demand for the knowledge and technologies that we’re seeing develop in Darlington, as well as other places in Canada. If SMRs are indeed part of our energy future, how will they contribute to our energy security? What are the economic benefits to becoming a global leader in this new space? And how critical will small modular reactors be to powering a net zero future? This is disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. Our first guest is Nicolle Butcher, chief operating officer at Ontario Power Generation. Nicolle is responsible for all of OPG’s generating fleet, which includes ten nuclear units, 66 hydro stations, two thermal stations, and a solar facility. She’s been named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and Woman of the Year by Wire, which stands for Women in Renewable Energy. If you’re not familiar with OPG, it’s one of Canada’s largest enterprises. It’s owned by the government of Ontario and is responsible for approximately half the electricity generation in the province. It’s the successor to Ontario Hydro, which listeners of a certain age will remember as a flagship company in Ontario. And its legacy includes a massive hydro dam at Niagara Falls and the Bruce Nuclear Power Plant, which is the largest nuclear plant in the world by net capacity. Nicolle, welcome to disruptors.

Speaker 3 [00:05:11] Thanks, John. I’m excited to be here.

Speaker 1 [00:05:13] Let’s start with a bit of OPG’s story and then we’ll look to the future. OPG has an incredible history, including back in the Ontario Hydro days. Why is it now looking at SMRs? And what’s the ambition?

Speaker 3 [00:05:26] Well, I think the ambitions are quite clear from our climate change perspective. We’re looking to really drive the economy to net zero by 2050. And we fundamentally believe you can’t do that without nuclear. So this SMR project is really a natural evolution of where we are in our Darlington refurbishment project and what we thought was next after that, as far as being able to build new nuclear generation.

Speaker 1 [00:05:54] Let’s talk a bit about the refurbishment and the connectivity with SMRs. As I said in the intro, I had the opportunity to visit Darlington and get inside the rather awesome traditional facility and then also see the groundbreaking for where the SMRs will be. So a bit of the past, present and future, if you will. Give us a sense, Nicolle, from OPG’s perspective, of why those are side by side, not just literally, but in terms of the company’s evolution.

Speaker 3 [00:06:22] Yeah. So to answer that question, I probably have to go back a bit in history. In the 2000s, we were actually looking at building a large nuclear site beside the Darlington site. And so we completed the environmental assessment process and had a license to prepare the site with the nuclear safety regulator. And at the time, demand wasn’t there to build a new nuclear plant. So we stopped. Now we’ve come back with electrification and really the drive for climate change. We’re seeing that demand increasing. So there is a need for new nuclear now. And so that’s how we’ve gotten to the point where we’re planning to build not just one, but four SMRs on that site.

Speaker 1 [00:07:07] I wonder if you can explain to all of us laypeople what the key differences are between SMRs and the reactors that most of us have known for the last few decades?

Speaker 3 [00:07:17] Sure. And there’s lots of different kinds of SMRs. So the one that we’re building is really very similar technology to the technology that has existed for decades. But the SMR is smaller, it’s modular. So the components would be built in factories and then shipped to the site. So the work on the site is substantially less than a traditional nuclear construction. And that is really part of the reason why we like the SMRs. It makes it faster to build them, because you’re building big components offsite and just shipping them on site. It also helps with cost certainty. So an SMR is a small enough check size, for lack of a better word, that you can finance it. Ultimately, that’s our goal with SMRs is to get to that point where you can build them as easily as you could build a gas plant.

Speaker 1 [00:08:11] I love that word certainty because it is such a key word in so many climate conversations, but something I don’t think as a society we’ve come to grips with fully in terms of ensuring that there is that certainty in all these new technologies. Tell us a bit more about what you’ve learned and taken from the refurbishment, because it’s an extraordinary project in and of itself. I got to see the mock up, reactor, which was really fascinating. And, that cost tens of millions of dollars, but has saved, much, much more, because processes and practices were tested and improved in that demonstration facility. Give us a sense of how that kind of thinking and management approach applies also to the SMR effort.

Speaker 3 [00:08:57] It is absolutely why we’re confident with taking on the first of a kind SMR, and it comes from that detailed project management. So one thing we have seen is there’s four units at our Darlington facility where each unit has gotten better and better. Because we’ve learned from the last one. We’ve improved the tooling that we use. We’ve improved how we do it. And that’s critical. That’s why it was important for us to build not just one SMR, but four. By the time we get to the fourth reactor, that’s the reactor that will set the baseline cost and schedule for any SMR being built after that.

Speaker 1 [00:09:42] What’s your longer term vision of what this can lead to after that fourth SMR?

Speaker 3 [00:09:48] I think from a Canadian perspective, it’s important that we look at building a fleet that will help the entire country. If we have a fleet of reactors that we have a maintenance crew that knows how to maintain them and can travel across the country and maintain these reactors in the most efficient way. If we have design engineers who are shared across the fleet and are tackling the same problems. And so for that to be successful, one of the key things that we are doing on the project is ensuring that we’re building a standard plant, and we’re working with Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S. and Synthos Green Energy in Poland on that standard design so that we will all align, put our input in now to that design. And then we’ve all agreed we will build that same unit in all the countries, and that will really allow us to be efficient with engineering issues in the future.

Speaker 1 [00:10:47] Listening to you talk there, Nicolle, it’s like listening to a management case study. I’m curious, from a management and leadership perspective, what you’ve taken from this SMR journey.

Speaker 3 [00:10:58] From a leadership perspective, I would say we certainly feel that everyone globally is watching us. We’ve probably had over a dozen different countries come and see us. So if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s to not get ahead of where you are today and to focus on what we first need to accomplish. And that is executing this first SMR on time and on budget. So, you know, one of our key lessons has been don’t get distracted, which is very difficult because there’s lots of people interested.

Speaker 1 [00:11:33] I want to turn to a couple of other issues that I’m sure you’re thinking through. One is community engagement. And then secondly, indigenous engagement. Let’s talk first about community concerns. There’s a ton of support in the Darlington area for nuclear. People who live closest to the site are quite confident in it. As you think of expanding, building that fleet, of taking nuclear technology, even in small modular forms, to different parts of the country. How are you thinking about engaging communities and helping us all understand nuclear a bit better?

Speaker 3 [00:12:05] Yeah, I think we’re already starting to see shifting public attitudes towards nuclear. I think in particular in Canada, we seem to have a good understanding that nuclear has to be part of the solution. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into being a good neighbour, making sure people understand what we’re doing, how we do it, the role we play in the energy system, and really the critical role that we play in keeping the lights on as a baseload generator.

Speaker 1 [00:12:38] Let’s shift also to indigenous communities. And indigenous conversations are about much more than community engagement. There are equity considerations and also partnership opportunities. Tell us a bit about what OPG is doing and where you’re hoping to go in terms of indigenous engagement with your nuclear build out.

Speaker 3 [00:12:57] It’s important to recognize that it is very different. The indigenous are rights holders, not stakeholders, and we need to acknowledge that and make sure we’re treating them that way. And our approach has really been approaching it as a partnership from the very first step. We’ve been working with the Williams Treaty, First Nations. It’s interesting. They have lots to learn about nuclear, but I would say we have even more to learn from them and really about the land in the environment and how we think about the impact that we have on it. It’s been amazing how that truly is a partnership and in understanding their point of view. And I think that’s the only way we’re going to have a true partnership. You can talk about equity, you can talk about community support agreement. But fundamentally we have to understand their perspective and make sure we’re listening to that and engaging in that. We certainly would like to see, at the end of the day, them to be not just a partner in the community, but an equity partner. That’ll be their choice as we work through the project.

Speaker 1 [00:14:08] Where do you think the applications will be most exciting for Canada?

Speaker 3 [00:14:12] We see it in three categories. There’s the grid scale SMR, which is the one we are building at DNP, which is really meant to supply grid load. There’s industrial SMRs, which are a bit of a different technology, but they enable high temperature steam, which is a big advantage in an industrial application where you can use not only electricity but the steam in process. That’s the second type. And then the third type is a micro reactor, which is really meant to supply off grid communities, off grid mines where you need something that you can ship in and essentially ship out.

Speaker 1 [00:14:55] So a lot of options there and a lot of opportunities from all that you’ve laid out, certainly for Canada. Nicolle, if I can ask a final question, as we all think ahead through the 2020s and into the 2030s and see nuclear playing a greater role in our energy systems. What do you think is most important for us to come to grips with?

Speaker 3 [00:15:17] I think from a climate change perspective, being able to build nuclear as your key baseload supply is going to be critical. You need your solar and wind, your renewables, you need your baseload hydro, you need your gas for peaking at this point until another technology comes around. But most importantly, you need the baseload nuclear. And so what’s most important is to, prove that it can be built on time and on budget, and then secondly, gain the support of communities to be able to host nuclear plants, because those two things are really critical for our path to net zero by 2050.

Speaker 1 [00:16:01] Those are great ambitions and definitely within our reach. Nicolle, thanks for being on Disruptors. Our next guest is Bill Labbe. He’s the CEO at Arc Clean Technology in New Brunswick. Arc is developing the Arc 100. It’s an advanced small modular reactor. And their technology has been selected by New Brunswick Power for one of the few planned SMR projects to be used at their Point Lepreau site. Its modular design provides electricity and industrial heat that promises to be cost competitive with fossil fuels and, of course, carbon free. Bill, welcome to Disruptors. Let’s start with the Arc story. Bill, tell us a bit about the company and about your technology.

Speaker 2 [00:16:47] Certainly Arc was established in 2006. Our headquarters are in Washington, DC, and we came to Canada in 2017 to develop this generation for small modular reactor. The Arc 100 is a sodium fast reactor. It is technology that was developed by the Department of Energy, and it’s a pool type reactor with an intermediate loop. That just means it transfers heat from the pool to a balance of plant, where that heat is used to make electricity.

Speaker 1 [00:17:23] So this technology has been developed over the decades, largely in the US. Why New Brunswick?

Speaker 2 [00:17:29] Yes. You know, I’m really excited about what Canada has done. And that was from an initiative through, the ministry Natural Resources Canada. They thought, okay, where where do we go from here with our future energy source? And they really came together around a SMR roadmap, and it really moved this industry forward. And so Canada really got the pole position as I think about it. And Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power got engaged in that roadmap and put together the action plan.

Speaker 1 [00:18:07] There’s a lot of excitement, as you know, around SMRs and nuclear more broadly. There are also concerns, especially at the community level. We’re curious what some of the questions you’re being asked in New Brunswick and how you’re addressing them at the community level.

Speaker 2 [00:18:24] There’s a lot of interest around what is the technology. What are the environmental impacts? And then what is the plan for waste? And I do believe that their interest is genuine around, you know, how do we protect the planet. And they’ve learned about ways that ARC can really support that. And then we have a conversation about the waste, how the waste is stored and how that is currently done today, and that we would continue around that process. So stakeholder engagement, community involvement will continue there. We believe that we are working our way through, alleviating those concerns.

Speaker 1 [00:19:04] Tell us a bit more, Bill, about the indigenous component. They’re very big and ambitious indigenous communities all over New Brunswick. What engagement are you trying to develop?

Speaker 2 [00:19:15] Yeah, it’s a learning opportunity for me to participate with the First Nations. There are 15 communities in the province, and so we have tried to spend time with all of those communities to make sure their interests are well understood. We’ve had an equity investment by the North Shore community as a way to participate in the projects here in New Brunswick and beyond. So very encouraged to see their leadership in this way. And we find that their support is very helpful to our progress, and we believe it’s the collaboration that has just started. We are at the starting line, not the finish line, and this engagement will be just part of our business going forward.

Speaker 1 [00:20:06] Bill, as we move towards closed for this part of the conversation, I wonder if you can pull back and give us a wider aperture view of the economic promise of SMRs for Canada as a whole, you bring an international perspective. What should we as Canadians be thinking through?

Speaker 2 [00:20:25] It’s a really exciting time for new nuclear, for SMRs in general and for the advanced reactors. When you look at what is the potential opportunity, we describe it in two ways. You can use these advances SMRs to make electricity, or you can also use them for industrial applications. There’s a significant opportunity to deploy many here that’s in the range of 18 to 20, just in the province of New Brunswick and then across to the rest of Canada. What our challenge will be is to optimize the regulatory process so that we can find the sites and get into the early permitting, and then allow us to get into eventual construction. Well, for what needs to be done between now and 2050. Decarbonize the heavy industry. These advances SMRs can play a role in that space in a very significant way. And I’m really excited about what ARC can do here Canada.

Speaker 1 [00:21:29] Bill, this has been a great conversation. I love your reference to being at the starting line, at the finish line with respect to indigenous engagement, but, one could use the same reference for SMRs generally. And an important part of leaving the starting line is to get out of the blocks really fast. And it’s exciting to see so many people moving out of the blocks fast in Canada. Thanks for being on Disruptors. Our last guest is Heather Chalmers. She’s the Canadian head of GE Vernova. It’s a multinational company focused on driving electrification and decarbonization. Heather is also responsible for global growth markets. GE, as you may know, has deep roots dating back to Canada’s first nuclear plant in 1962 and continues to be a driving force in the country’s nuclear energy industry. They’re also taking the next step in the nuclear energy evolution by implementing SMR designs to help Canada achieve a net-zero carbon electrical grid. Heather, welcome to Disruptors.

Speaker 3 [00:22:32] Thanks for having me, John. It’s great to be here.

Speaker 1 [00:22:34] As I mentioned, Heather GE has got deep roots in Canada, but in some ways you’re sprouting new branches, if I can put it that way with SMRs. Why the focus on this in Canada?

Speaker 3 [00:22:45] First of all, in terms of the market in itself, Canada already has an electricity grid that’s over 80% carbon free. And in terms of solving for that, we’ll say last mile of decarbonization, it’s going to require new technologies in order to do that. So that would be my first remark. The second one is we have a history in nuclear. We’re a tier one nuclear country, and we’re really good at it.

Speaker 1 [00:23:15] Lots of other countries are in the same race, and GE is active in a lot of other countries. Who else is catching your eye in terms of the SMR race.

Speaker 3 [00:23:26] Other countries that are interested in small modular reactors? The US, Poland has stated their intention to decarbonize a lot of their industrial operations through small modular reactors. Another country that’s very active is the UK, and we are involved in a country wide competition to be one of the first technologies that they launch in their small modular reactor program.

Speaker 1 [00:23:54] What do Canadians need to think through and even come to grips with in terms of the SMR opportunity, but also challenges that we should be mindful of.

Speaker 3 [00:24:05] From an opportunity perspective? I am incredibly bullish on what this could mean for Canada. Without question, any time you are first of a kind mover in a technology, there’s always additional challenges that are presented because you are, in a sense, learning as you go. But we have this opportunity to continue to be a leading edge, tier one nuclear country. At one point, we had an independent report done that estimated that the first small modular reactor deployed with Ontario Power Generation was going to generate approximately $2.3 billion of gross domestic product. And then every subsequent reactor after that in Canada would generate over $1 billion. And that’s just for deployment in Canada. But as we start to scale this, that economic value creation starts to extend well beyond the borders of Canada. I am incredibly excited about the opportunity for Canada to be a global leader here.

Speaker 1 [00:25:10] We’re still in the early days of this, but what have you learned so far?

Speaker 3 [00:25:14] I would start with the fact that it takes a team approach, the opportunity to deploy this at speed and in a cost effective manner means involvement from many different parties, but all solving for the same outcome. The team involvement is inclusive of federal government, the provincial government. Municipal governments are indigenous partners, the project partners, and in this case it’s Ontario Power Generation. Obviously GE, Hitachi. We’ve got Akon, we’ve got Atkins, Realis, and I’ve been wonderfully impressed with what we’ve seen thus far in the deployment of this Western world’s first small modular reactor.

Speaker 1 [00:26:04] SMRs, as you mentioned earlier, are also part of a system. Energy systems tend to be complex, and in Canada’s case, we have the benefit of having multiple sources of energy that can fit into our grids. How do we need to think about SMEs as part of that broader energy system?

Speaker 3 [00:26:21] It is a system, and there’s no one technology that can provide both the sustainability aspect along with the affordability and reliability piece. Renewables are wonderful, whether that’s solar or wind. But when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, you’re not generating the energy that’s required. And that’s where having power generation that is flexible becomes incredibly important. And it’s all these puzzle pieces coming together. And in Canada’s case, and in a lot of other countries place, they are looking to nuclear power generation as part of that puzzle piece to provide that flexibility, that baseload, that reliability piece to the grid.

Speaker 1 [00:27:13] Heather, as we wrap up, I wonder if I can take your imagination ahead into the 2030s and ask you what Canada’s energy systems look like then, and what role does nuclear play?

Speaker 3 [00:27:27] I would start with the hope that Canada’s well on its way to meeting its stated energy transition goals in terms of emission reductions. Number one. Secondly, I would share that nuclear plays a significant part of us being able to do that and that we have seen the deployment of small modular reactors, not just with Ontario power generation, but in other provinces as well. And thirdly, we’ve done it in such a way that it has secured and solidified Canada’s place as a small modular reactor global leader that has manifested itself in supply chain and expertise that is subsequently supporting the energy transition goals of other countries, but doing in a way that brings in economic growth for Canada and for Canadians.

Speaker 1 [00:28:26] That’s a great ambition, Heather, and thank you for being on Disruptors. We began this episode at a construction site where Canada’s first small modular nuclear reactors will be built through the back half of this decade, and those reactors will provide a template and a bit of a playbook on how we can scale this new technology to power Canada’s energy needs and also help other parts of the world shift to lower emissions and ultimately, emissions free energy sources. Today, you heard from three nuclear leaders working to make SMRs a reality in Canada, and you can find out much more in our new report on SMRs from the RBC Climate Action Institute. You can download a copy at our RBC.com/Climate-Action-Institute or follow our work on the RBC Climate Action Institute page on LinkedIn or other social media channels. I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.

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