It’s always nice to write about technological innovation coming from your own country. So today I’m happy to introduce you to Canada’s current and future contribution to the nuclear energy mix.
Canada produced the CANDU reactor in the 1950s, its contribution to current nuclear energy power plant technology. CANDU was different from other nuclear power plants. It used heavy water, deuterium, as the coolant in its plants. Today massive CANDU reactors are operating in a number of countries. They are, however, expensive to build, require a long regulatory process and require regular refits that can run up a pretty big bill just like all other contemporary nuclear reactor technologies. And unfortunately, as we found out when India became a nuclear power, CANDU technology can be used to create nuclear fuel for bombs. For many years CANDU was the only play in town for Canadian utilities. CANDU was a product owned by a crown corporation, the Atomic Energy Commission. Recently, however, the Commission was directed to sell its reactor business to an engineering company – SNC Lavalin. But in Canada CANDU is no longer the only game in town. There are two others.
One is General Fusion, a Vancouver based private venture capital financed company that is developing what it calls magnetized target fusion with the goal to build a full-scale fusion demonstrator, a precursor to a commercial reactor. It’s probably a decade-and-a-half away from completion so for the moment we will put it aside.
The second company, however, is one that recently announced its plans to build a molten salt reactor, and it is 8 years away from creating a commercial product. This “newbie” is Terrestrial Energy, just founded in 2012, is located in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. The company plans to bring to market what it calls an Integral Molten Salt Reactor or IMSR by 2021.
I have written about MSRs before citing a recently formed U.S. company as well as describing efforts by the Chinese government to build an operational commercial reactor. But what makes Terrestrial different is the size of the technology it intends to deliver. Each IMSR will be small and modular. See the picture below with an IMSR next to a Volkswagen Beetle and you get an idea of just how small these nuclear reactors are. Individual IMSRs may generate as little as 50 Megawatts. Grouped together and you can grow capacity to as much as 600 Megawatts. IMSR is flexible, designed to be a point-of-demand energy solution that can be placed in areas where current nuclear technology would be a “no go.”
IMSR is next generation nuclear power. The molten salt acts as both fuel and coolant. It operates at ambient pressure and can burn a wide variety of nuclear fuels including spent nuclear waste, currently one of the biggest storage challenges the industry faces. Terrestrial intends to run its initial IMSR on uranium (these can be spent rods) although thorium can be used as well. Terrestrial describes its IMSRs cohabiting with renewable energy facilities like solar and wind. In such a combination a utility could produce continuous, clean, fossil-fuel free energy with no carbon footprint. Even oil sands producers are looking at IMSR for local power requirements so that they can reduce their carbon footprint.
Molten salt reactors are safer than any other reactor technology. They operate under ambient pressure so you won’t see a radioactive hydrogen gas explosion like the one that occurred at Fukushima Daiichi after the tsunami flooded the facility causing the pumps to fail and the water in the containment building to drop precariously exposing the core leading to a partial meltdown. In contrast when an IMSR stops working there is no meltdown. Instead the molten salt cools and solidifies with the nuclear fuel safely contained within it.