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The Drift: Could the mining industry consider the nuclear option to power remote mines?

Laurentian University research institute studies how small-scale reactors could replace diesel generation in the Far North
Small nuke reactors
(USNC Power conceptual)

Is there a viable marriage between mining and nuclear power? Laurentian University researcher François Caron aims to find out.

There are 10 off-grid operating mines in remote areas of Canada, most of them reliant on diesel generation.

That'll be a no-go in the years to come as the mining industry faces mounting pressure from society, government climate change legislation, even environmentally conscious investors, to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions and carbon footprint.

To be able to power potential mining camps in greenfield areas where grid power doesn't reach, the nuclear energy option is being increasingly examined.

Helping to put the pieces together is Caron, the director of the Energy Centre at MIRARCO (Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation, and Applied Research Corporation), a research arm at the Sudbury university.

Caron was the lead author on a new study examining the feasibility of using very small nuclear reactors (vSMRs) to power a mining operation at a remote, off-grid, site.

"The mining companies are very, very curious," said Caron, who also holds the title at MIRARCO of the Bruce Power Chair in Sustainable Energy Systems.

Small nuclear reactors are categorized as generating up to 300 megawatts of power. The very small nuclear reactors (vSMRs), a subcategory of reactors studied in this report, produce up to 10 megawatts per module.

An undisclosed mining company, operating in the Arctic, provided data for the study involving a hypothetical mine with a 14-year mine life.

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The company helped partially fund the research along with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CIL).

Part of putting the economic case together was figuring out if these remote operations can be powered by nuclear energy alone or combined with other fuel sources, such as wind energy and battery storage technology.

Caron's research determined the most cost-effective way is using a blend of nuclear and diesel.

Nuclear energy generated from vSMRs could be used 90 per cent of the time – as the baseload source of energy – with diesel augmenting the peak demands of power, such as for wintertime heating. It's considered a more reliable and consistent energy mix.

Compared to strictly diesel power used by remote mines today, this mix would reduce emissions by 85 per cent. Despite being greenhouse gas-emitting, diesel is considered a more reliable source of power – being easier to switch on – than more environmentally friendly alternatives like wind energy.

The report said emissions could be further lowered by adding other renewables to the mix – rather than using diesel. But the trade-off is that it slightly increases operating costs.

The reactor type they are using in the study was developed by USNC Power, a Seattle-based vendor of micro-modular nuclear reactors.

The reactor's maximum operating life is up to 60 years – possibly outlasting the longevity of an actual mine – with the reactor cores replaced every 20 years. After that, these modules are dismantled and taken away to be properly disposed of.

Among the advantages of vSMRs is that they're easily delivered to a remote site, atop a flatbed truck or by barge on a waterway. The reactor core, Caron said, is the size of a refrigerator. VSMRs are also scalable.

One reactor module could be deployed to serve the actual mining operation, one for the processing plant, and another for the worker accommodations camp. Any excess power, or an added module, could serve a neighbouring community.

Another advantage is nuclear energy also isn't prone to extreme fuel price fluctuations. Then there's always the potential for a spill and the costs associated with soil remediation.

Fabricating and installing a vSMR is an expensive endeavour, so more work needs to be done on the costing side. But the unit cost of energy diminishes over time and by adding more energy consumers.

So far, Caron said, they've had many positive interactions with three mining companies interested in deploying nuclear energy, none of them with mines or projects in this province's Far North.

"The mining companies we've dealt with have no connection to the Ring of Fire."

Prior to joining Laurentian in 2000 to work in biochemistry, environmental and earth sciences, Caron was a research scientist with Atomic Energy of Canada, specializing in waste management systems, environmental research, reactors emissions reduction, and reactor chemistry.

Caron's and MIRARCO's paper builds on other studies assessing whether nuclear energy can work at mining camps in the Far North.

Engineering firm Hatch released a 2016 feasibility study for the Ontario Ministry of Energy on small reactors. NRCan advanced the conversation with its SMR Roadmap study in 2018.

Caron said it'll be a while before people start seeing mining companies adopt this technology for the field.

"We're not quite at that stage. This is still conceptual. We're getting closer to the real dollar figures."

A demonstration plant is in the works to prove out this technology. One is being planned on the grounds of the Canadian Nuclear Laboratory at Chalk River, a two-hour drive east of North Bay.

Ontario Power Generation and USNC are teaming up to build and operate such a model plant for future small reactor placements.

The Global First Power project received Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission approval in May to move to the next phase of licensing with the start of a technical review, moving the test plant closer to construction. Making the project a reality depends on federal government funding.

The project timelines say construction would start next year with the reactor operating by 2026. There's been the suggestion that vSMRs provide such an attractive source of energy that it could deployed in the field by the latter half of this decade.

Caron prefers to wait and see what happens with the Chalk River demonstration project.

He acknowledges wider discussion, engagement and education need to take place on the matter of deploying nuclear power in remote and sensitive areas of Canada. The mere mention of nuclear power has a stigma and fears associated with it.

Caron noted there have been informal discussions about assessing other similar small reactors types, from other vendors, which might be ready in two or three years' time.

OPG's Darlington nuclear plant is being talked about as an on-grid small reactor, and Bruce Power has expressed interest in hosting one as well.

In Russia, state-owned Rosatom placed a floating small reactor on a barge that was put online in northern Russia to power a town a year and a half ago. Rosatom plans to build a small-scale land-based nuclear plant in the eastern Russian Arctic with aims to produce power from a 50-megawatt plant by 2028. It will result in a two-fold reduction in the cost of electricity in that region.

Caron said more study needs to be done on the greater business case such as how power purchase agreements could be structured between mine owners and nuclear operators, the cost and environmental trade-offs in extending power lines to remote mining sites, and the larger issue of how nuclear waste should be disposed of in Ontario, all beyond the scope of his current work.

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.