As the world grapples with climate change and seeks to transition to a low-carbon future, small modular reactors (SMRs) have emerged as a promising solution to meet the increasing global demand for clean and sustainable energy.
Recently, Western signed a significant partnership agreement with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to advance collaborative research in clean energy, nuclear safety and health and environmental sciences.
Western’s expertise in nuclear research encompasses various faculties – including Western Engineering – which will contribute to the partnership and will position Western as a key player in shaping nuclear technology and policy in the coming years.
Western Engineering researchers, through three separate projects. are actively exploring the potential of SMRs. These projects aim to address the challenges associated with traditional nuclear reactors while unlocking new possibilities for safe, efficient and scalable nuclear power generation.
Professors Jing Jiang and Dennis Michaelson from the department of electrical and computer engineering believe SMRs can provide carbon-free clean electricity and will contribute to Canada’s net-zero goal.
“Because they are relatively small in size and power levels, they can be integrated with other energy resources, particularly renewable ones, into a standalone power grid, known as a microgrid, to support small and remote communities to off-set diesel generators currently in use,” said Jiang, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Resource Council (NSERC)/University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE) senior industrial research chair of control, instrumentation and electrical systems for nuclear power plants.
Achieving a stable power supply
The research by Jiang and Michaelson aims to study and develop efficient and sustainable ways to organize and manage future power systems, particularly in remote areas not connected to the main electricity grid. While renewable energy sources are becoming more affordable and can help reduce carbon emissions, they have limitations such as being intermittent and requiring specific locations for installation. SMRs are seen to offer an effective solution to work with renewable energy resources to achieve a stable power supply for such remote off-grid areas.
“To facilitate this research, we require tools that allow us to investigate the best sizing, control and operating strategies for SMRs and batteries. One promising approach is the concept of a digital twin,” said Michaelson.
“This is a simulation model that closely mirrors the behaviour of the actual physical system in real-time. To create a comprehensive research environment, the digital twin will be connected to a physical microgrid in a laboratory where the integration allows for information exchange between the virtual and physical systems,” he said.
Permafrost and heat transfer
Professors Bing Li and Tim Newson in the department of civil and environmental engineering are looking into the impact SMRs might have on permafrost degradation in remote towns and northern communities of Canada.
“While there are a few designs floating around for how big a reactor will be, the components inside of it and other elements, not much has been said about the effect on permafrost soil or bedrock under the reactor,” said Li.
One of the important factors to consider when installing an SMR in remote communities is the impact of climate change on permafrost, ground that remains frozen year-round. Due to climate change, permafrost is starting to thaw, which can cause issues.
“We’re thinking about the foundations of these SMRs. When heat is transferred from the nuclear reactor, the permafrost may thaw further leading to a loss of strength in the ground, which can result in problems such as settlement or instability of the structure,” Li said.
They will join Pooneh Maghoul, associate professor at Polytechnique Montreal, to conduct fieldwork in the Northwest Territories this autumn.
High-temperature performance of advanced metal alloys
Hamid Abdolvand, associate professor in the mechanical and materials engineering department at Western asks a different question.
How will advanced metal alloys behave and perform when exposed to high temperatures under the operating conditions of SMRs?
“The metal alloys used in SMRs will experience high temperatures, mechanical stress and exposure to neutron radiation. This can cause the alloys to deteriorate over time, potentially shortening the lifespan of the reactor components,” said Abdolvand.
His research will focus on developing a numerical computer model and conducting experiments to understand how the combination of radiation and mechanical stress affects the performance of metal alloys considered for SMRs.
SMRs are an emerging technology with the potential to greatly impact various sectors. Western Engineering researchers agree that the work requires gaining an understanding of the conditions, load characteristics and community and industrial environments where SMRs may be deployed. This will be gained through exchanges with industry partners and Indigenous community members who have lived experience in these settings, recognizing the importance of addressing community concerns such as fuel, safety and waste within the research program.
Michaelson, a member of the Métis-Cree community, said, “We have a responsibility to engage with community members through outreach, knowledge transfer and mentorship. Our goal is to increase the participation of Indigenous peoples in STEM fields, especially in electrical and computing-related areas where our participation is especially low. This engagement will benefit our communities directly and also benefits the profession by adding Indigenous perspectives, which can contribute to the broader goal of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”