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Backgrounder: Saskatchewan university researchers to examine technical, regulatory aspects of small nuclear power plants

Equipping Saskatchewan graduate students with the knowledge required to address complex and inter-related technical, regulatory and legal issues is at the heart of a $1.1 million multidisciplinary project funded by the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation. The aim of the project, being conducted by researchers from the University of Regina and University of Saskatchewan, is to develop expertise in the engineering, geological, geographical, regulatory and economic factors of building a small modular nuclear reactor in a place that has not previously used nuclear power, using Saskatchewan as its case study.

In December 2015, the Fedoruk Centre sought proposals for a collaborative, multidisciplinary project to investigate the issues related to the siting of a small nuclear power plant in a previously non-nuclear jurisdiction as a case study. The resulting project proposal, led by Hussein, involves 14 researchers from five faculties and departments at the University of Regina and University of Saskatchewan.

 The study will be performed independent of industry to ensure academic independence.  Done primarily by graduate students, the projects deliverables include research papers and a series of maps. The project areas are described below.


Geography: Joseph Piwowar, Canada Research Chair in Geomatics and Sustainability,  Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Regina

The selection of candidate sites for a small modular reactor is really a spatial task, involving the compilation and comparison of numerous factors using a Geographic Information System computer model. Many of these factors interact in competing ways. For example, proximity to a populated area could, on one hand, be a positive influence in site selection since it would minimize transmission costs, but it could also have a negative impact due to heightened risk sensitivities and to not-in-my-backyard perceptions. Any reactor siting analysis must follow the principles of sustainable development. Thus, the factors should not only include environmental data, such as geology and climate, but also social factors, such as socioeconomic status and public perception, and economic factors, such as construction and operating costs.

 “Small modular reactors are a new type of electrical power generators that have the potential to provide consistent baseload electricity without the carbon emissions of coal- and natural gas-fired generators, reservoir flooding of hydroelectric dams, and intermittent power supply of wind and solar systems. Saskatchewan is the highest emitter of particulate matter in Canada (principally from its coal-fired generating stations) while having one of the richest uranium reserves in the word, so it makes sense to explore the potential of small modular reactors for electrical power generation.”

-          Joe Piwowar

Transportation Routes: Babak Mehran and Satish Sharma, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Regina

Construction, operation and decommissioning of a small modular reactor, like any industrial plant, requires access to a suitable ground transportation network that can accommodate the size and weight of various components in a safe manner without damaging them. This project aims to develop transportation network analysis methods to identify and rank transportation routes to minimize the travel time between supply locations and the plant site; ensure that routes are suitable for transporting a small modular reactor given its weight and dimensions; and minimize the risks associated with transporting nuclear materials.

“The availability of an efficient ground transportation network is a major parameter for identifying the ideal site for a nuclear power plant as it should provide uninterrupted supply of construction materials, safe transportation of reactor, parts, and nuclear materials. Road geometry (grade and number of lanes) and load bearing capacity of highway infrastructure (such as road pavement and bridges) should be carefully analyzed when identifying the optimal route.”

-          Babak Mehran


Electrical Engineering and Control Systems: Irfan Al-Anabagi  and  Doug Wagner, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Regina; Ramakrishna Gokaraju, College of Engineering, University of Saskatchewan

This part of the project will look at the feasibility of sites in terms of electrical load demand, grid connectivity, back-up power, and secure communications and control systems based on Saskatchewan’s communications infrastructure. The potential to combine wind, solar and SMR-generated nuclear power onto electrical grids will also be explored.

“SMR power can provide a source for safe, clean power to both remote and urban communities. Building long electric transmission lines involves huge capital costs and poses environmental concerns. Renewable power such as wind and solar provide a source of clean energy but do not provide stable and reliable power to customers. SMR power would help in integrating more renewable power in the grid and to develop microgrids for remote communities.”

-          Rama Gokaraju

Legal Aspects: Dwight Newman, College of Law, University of Saskatchewan

This research will analyze how pertinent legal requirements affect site selection for a small modular reactor.  Some of this work will be on general legal regulation of the nuclear industry.  Some will be on how treaty rights bear on the issue.  Some will pertain to the law on the Duty to Consult Indigenous communities and how this might affect site selection processes and choices.

 “This work will be in-depth research on how the law affects the choices of where a small nuclear plant could go.  The work on how Indigenous rights affect the question is particularly important in a province like Saskatchewan in the context of a significant First Nations and Métis population and our developing commitments around reconciliation and working together with our Indigenous communities.  If we get this work right, we can also build expertise to help when other places are considering other technologies and can site them in places through processes that are more respectful of Indigenous rights.  So, it is about doing things right in Saskatchewan and learning how to help other places engage meaningfully on Indigenous rights as well.”

-          Dwight Newman

Geological Factors: Stephen Bend, Kathryn Bethune, Janis Dale, Department of Geology, University of Regina

Researchers in Geology are assessing the geological site criteria required for the safe placement of a small modular reactor in Saskatchewan. Designs for SMRs include surface and partial or full underground installations. Thus an understanding of the optimal desired geological features and those that pose high risks are needed to minimize potential hazards and are required in the design of the structure and of emergency response and environmental protection planning.

“The physical geological properties of a site impact the actual and potential hazards to the integrity and safe running of an SMR. This knowledge will inform the optimal site selection from a geological standpoint, the appropriate safety measures, the monitoring required for the safe operation of the facility, the reduction of physical hazards and the implementation of emergency planning and mitigation in the event of failure.”

-          Janis Dale

Water and Groundwater: Dena McMartin, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Regina; Grant Ferguson, College of Engineering, University of Saskatchewan

The University of Regina team will be evaluating the water needs for various small reactor technology options. This will include options for the use of technologies that enhance both efficiency and benefit. The University of Saskatchewan contribution will look at contamination risks to water supplies from a spill of nuclear materials, delineating areas that are most suitable for a power plant from a groundwater perspective.

“With the pace of economic development and growth of water-intensive commercial and industrial projects in Saskatchewan and across the Prairies, and in the context of a changing climate that affects precipitation volumes, timing, and rates, there is significant need to quantify cumulative water requirements and availability, and to determine how our natural water resources may be impacted.”

-          Dena McMartin


Safety and Emergency Planning: Gordon Huang, Canada Research Chair for Sustainable Communities, and Esam Hussein, Dean of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Regina

This research will help identify desired sites for small nuclear reactors based on socio-economic and environmental effects. It can also provide a basis for mitigating the related risks through emergency evacuation planning. Safety issues will be considered based on technical regulations and international standards related to the normal operation of a reactor and in the event of an accident. It will consider potential sites in terms of the availability of emergency services, and impact of any released radioactivity on habitats and the environment.

“Risks associated with a small nuclear reactor are related to a number of socio-economic and environmental factors. The results of this project will support risk characterization and assessment.”

-          Gordon Huang