The small nukes will go to Estevan first, then the big ones to Elbow. And we’ll be “buying local”

Anywhere in this foreground could be a possible site for SaskPower’s first nuclear reactors. This area, just northwest of Estevan, was one of the areas identified as having some of the highest suitability, as identified by SaskPower. in the top left is Estevan. To the top right is Rafferty Dam. The transmission lines in the centre connect Estevan-area power stations to Regina, and are a key factor in site selection. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

 

As the premier, minister and SaskPower officials have clearly indicated, if the federal Clean Electricity Regulations come to pass, this province has essentially no choice but to go big into nuclear. This is how I think we’re going to do it.

In late August, the Saskatchewan government started serious dropping hints that this province is going to be going into nuclear power generation in a big way, a lot bigger than when it was first proposed early in 2022.

The initial announcement was for up to four reactors of the General Electric-Hitachi BWRX-300 (300 megawatt) model. That would be enough to almost replace our existing coal fleet, but wouldn’t be nearly enough to also replace our natural gas-fired power generation fleet, nor allow for any dramatic expansion in demand growth expected in the next few decades.

First off, Don Morgan, who was Crown Investment Corporation and SaskPower Minister until a cabinet shuffle a week or so later, said this on John Gormley Live on Aug. 22:

“Depending on availability of money, we should be looking probably at four or six,” he said, regarding building General Electric-Hitachi 300 megawatt small modular reactors (SMRs). But in the same interview, he added, “We should be probably planning for seven, eight or nine.”

Two days later, Premier Scott Moe was in Estevan. There, I asked him about Morgan’s comments, and what the actual number of reactors was being planned. Moe responded, “I don’t think that that number certainly has been decided on, as of yet. But as we look ahead, through the decades, and not the next number of years, but through the decades, you know, we’re embarking down that path with going through the regulatory process on where you may locate and a small modular reactor, and how many you can ultimately locate at that.

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“So I won’t surmise as to what the end number would be of small modular reactors, because other are other options, and larger 1,000 megawatt reactors and such. There’s other, options that we have that can play into this as well, with some of the other generation infrastructure that we have. However, I did note one comment that that SaskPower had made, is that when you’re looking at the economies of scale, it might be more affordable and cheaper if you were to build two at a time, and I did take note of that,” Moe said.

He added, “And so, many decisions to be made with respect to small modular reactors, how many, but I think we’re getting a fairly narrowed in on where the location is. It’s down to Estevan and Elbow. And most of the discussions that I’ve heard is about utilizing the transmission capacity, long term, that we have here in Estevan.”

His comments about 1,000 megawatt reactors made my mind go “Ding! Ding! Ding!” This was the first reference I’ve heard anywhere about such larger reactors in Saskatchewan in recent years. And I know why he’s now talking about that. You see, there was a major development in the nuclear space between the time Morgan made the initial announcement in the spring of 2022, and today.

That was Saskatchewan’s corporate darling, Cameco, buying 49 per cent of nuclear reactor builder Westinghouse, on Oct. 11. It went for a song, with Cameco’s portion coming in at $2.2 billion. Chump change, these days.

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Even though no Westinghouse reactor has been designed or built in this province, Cameco’s new ownership of half the company effectively means buying Westinghouse means buying local for Saskatchewan.

Westinghouse got itself into financial difficulty and bankruptcy building two 1,000 megawatt reactors in Georgia, Vogtle 3 and 4. (They’re actually 1,117 megawatts electric, but referred to as 1,000-megawatt class) They took 17 years to build, in large part due to every form of opposition being thrown at them. They had some issues in building them, but they appear to have sorted that out now, and those two units went online in late spring, 2023. It’s known as the Westinghouse AP1000.

 

Four Westinghouse AP1000 units are also four being built in China and are in consideration for Poland (3 units) and Turkey (2 units). Ukraine is also looking at them, down the road, once peace allows it.

Westinghouse is now offering its own small modular reactor to compete with the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300. It’s known as the AP300. I think SaskPower is too far down the road with GE-Hitachi and Ontario Power Generation to switch now, but if Westinghouse can come in considerably cheaper than GE-Hitachi, all bets are off.

Here’s what I think is most likely to happen: Estevan will see the construction of the GE-Hitachi SMRs. They will be built roughly 10-20 kilometres northwest of Estevan, on the north side of Rafferty Reservoir. This puts them within easy reach of primary highway and mainline rail. The main grid transmission lines running from Estevan to Regina go right through this area. And Estevan has the industrial and population base to build and operate these facilities.

I think that we’ll see not two, but four, maybe even six, of the 300 megawatt units built at Estevan. And we won’t see any of them built at Elbow, on Lake Diefenbaker.

That’s because SaskPower’s going to get its feet wet with the small stuff at Estevan, developing its nuclear capabilities, before it goes big at Elbow.

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Lake Diefenbaker, with its huge water volumes, is really the only place in southern Saskatchewan one could consider putting a major nuclear reactor facility on other than perhaps Last Mountain Lake. But more importantly, it’s central to almost every major power load in the province. If you go on Google Earth, as I have, you’ll find that within 170 kilometres, or less, you have Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Belle Plaine, and almost every major potash mine except for Esterhazy and Rocanville. That includes the upcoming BHP Jansen mine, with its expected 200 megawatt load. And it includes the Regina steel mill. Putting these reactors at Elbow minimizes both transmission like construction and line loss due to electrical resistance.

I expect SaskPower will build two to three AP1000 units at Elbow, once they’ve got the first 300 megawatt units going at Estevan.

 

Anywhere in this foreground could be a possible site for SaskPower’s first nuclear reactors. This area, just northwest of Estevan, was one of the areas identified as having some of the highest suitability, as identified by SaskPower. in the top left is Estevan. To the top left is Rafferty Reservoir. The transmission lines in the bottom right connect Estevan-area power stations to Regina, and are a key factor in site selection. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

The argument against large reactor has always been that SaskPower’s grid is only producing around 3,000 megawatts on a typical day, meaning if one reactor went down for maintenance or otherwise, you lost a third of the grid. But in reality, our grid is called upon to produce up to 3,910 megawatts at times (Dec. 30, 2021). And the federal government, through its Clean Electricity Regulations, is now saying they expect electrical demand to grown 2.5x by 2050. That’s in 26 years, four months and 21 days from the announcement of the regulations.

So you take 3,910 megawatts x 2.5 and you get 9,775. All of a sudden, 1,000 megawatt-class reactors aren’t that large of a fraction now, are they? And you’ve got to build a LOT of SMRs to get to that 9,775 megawatts, since you can’t depend on a wind turbine any further than you can throw it.

(And if you do go that far into nuclear, is there really any point in building all this unreliable wind and solar?)

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There’s one more thing – Westinghouse also offers a micro reactor, known and the eVinci. These five megawatt reactors are meant for industrial applications, like mines. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the first eVinci reactors will be implemented at Cameco’s own mines in northern Saskatchewan, putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak. It’ll provide Westinghouse with its own showcase for these seacan-sized reactors. And then SaskPower will look at deploying them in northern communities.

So if we absolutely must abandon both coal and then natural gas for power generation, Saskatchewan must go all-in on nuclear. I have no idea where the dollars are going to come from for this, but this plan is basically the only way I can see it happening that makes any sense.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of Pipeline Online. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

 

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Advertising

SaskPower provides a lot more detail for possible small modular reactor locations, with Rafferty and Lake Diefenbaker showing most promise

Scott Moe on Clean Electricity Regulations, a lot more nuclear power, and first mention of 1,000 megawatt reactors as a possibility