Westinghouse Electric Canada receives $27.2M from ISED for small modular reactor technology

Kelsey Rolfe
April 6, 2022

Westinghouse Electric Canada received a $27.2-million investment from the federal ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development in mid-March to further the development of its small modular nuclear technology that the government says will bring renewable energy to remote communities.

But the announcement, and the federal government’s broader strategy aimed at commercializing small modular reactor (SMR) technology by the end of the decade, has drawn the ire of numerous public interest, Indigenous and environmental groups that call the technology dangerous and too speculative to make a meaningful difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The investment is going toward developing Westinghouse’s $57-million eVinci micro-reactor. The funds come from the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator Initiative, which funds businesses’ investments in low- or no-carbon technology.

“This investment will play a critical role in fighting climate change, building on Canada’s global leadership in SMRs and securing jobs in Ontario’s energy sector,” said Innovation, Science and Industry minister François-Philippe Champagne in a March press release.

Small modular reactors are an all-encompassing category that refers to any nuclear reactor smaller than a nuclear power plant. Ottawa’s SMR roadmap has targeted three different streams of modular reactor development: large-scale on-grid applications, next-generation molten salt fuel reactors that are roughly 10 to 20 years away from commercialization, and micro SMRs.

Westinghouse’s technology belongs to the third category. The eVinci is a heat pipe reactor technology, which chief executive officer Eddie Saab told Research Money was very similar to the heat pipe technology in batteries.

The nuclear battery technology has been successfully used in the past. Westinghouse licensed the technology from Los Alamos National Laboratory and has been working to scale it up to a commercial size. Saab said the company expects it can design the eVinci to produce anywhere between one to eight megawatts of nuclear power.

The company is targeting eVinci for deployment primarily in remote off-grid communities, as well as at industrial operations that need to bring the power source very close to the application, such as mining and oil and gas sites, according to Saab. He said it could also be used as a backup power source to make existing grid power more robust.

“We saw our technology fitting a need for Canada, and we strongly believe Canada was the right market to invest in developing our technology and working with the government and regulators and our partners to bring something to fruition,” he said.

The company has designed eVinci to fit into three shipping containers — one for the reactor itself, the second for instrumentation and control equipment and the third for a power conversion unit — and to be set up at sites within days.

To date, Westinghouse has completed its electrical demonstration unit. The next stage is a nuclear demonstration unit to prove the technology’s capability and safety.

Federal SMR strategy met with strong pushback

The government’s SMR strategy has received strong opposition from a broad range of Indigenous groups and civil society organizations. In November 2020, roughly 100 groups signed onto a letter from the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) that called SMRs a “dirty, dangerous distraction” from tackling climate change and investing in proven renewable energy sources like wind and solar, objected to the kind of nuclear waste SMRs are expected to produce and challenged the government to share any research that supported its strategy.

The letter also called into question an assertion from former natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan that there was no path to net-zero GHG emissions without nuclear energy, pointing to a University of Sussex study of more than 100 countries over 25 years that found those that invested in renewable energy reduced their emissions much more than those invested in nuclear.

“It speaks fairly badly… of our politicians when they either aren’t listening to their scientists or don’t have the capacity in their departments to give them advice to make sound policies,” said Susan O’Donnell, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick and former federal researcher who’s been outspoken on SMRs through the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick.

“I would like to know why the government is not listening to public interest groups. Canadians need to be listened to, and I’m concerned about where they’re getting their information and why they’re not engaging directly with groups challenging the industry’s claims.”

The Green Budget Coalition, which includes the CELA, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace and other organizations, called for the federal government to eliminate federal funding for SMRs in the 2022 budget, reject calls to roll back accident liability for the technology, and reallocate funds toward other renewable technologies. The coalition also objected to SMRs being exempt from Canada’s Impact Assessment Act.

Saab said unlike the CANDU reactors, which must store spent fuel and radioactive heavy water on site, the eVinci doesn’t use water. Spent fuel will be its only byproduct. Westinghouse plans to refuel units and store spent fuel at a future licensed facility, so end users will not be expected to store the fuel themselves.

“When we look at what the environmental impact is, there really is none because this can be mounted on a concrete pad, and really we can go back to greenfield with zero effect and there’s zero impact, because we’re not using water from the local areas,” he said.

He disputed claims that nuclear energy isn't truly green energy. “I think the focus of these conversations should be around carbon-reducing technology. That’s where nuclear, wind, solar, hydro — they all play [a role].”

A June 2020 study from three University of British Columbia researchers found the potential market for SMRs in Canada is too small to justify investment in the technology. The researchers said that the cost of generating electricity through SMRs is “significantly higher” than the costs of diesel, wind and solar, which suggested the technology will be prohibitively expensive for applications where it's supposed to be most useful.

Saab said he couldn’t speak to other SMRs, but said Westinghouse expected the eVinci’s small footprint and low capital costs could make its levelized cost of electricity — the breakeven price over a system’s lifetime — competitive with transported diesel from the start. He said that as the company ramps up its manufacturing, it could drive down costs to make the unit more competitive with wind and solar.

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