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The trouble getting 'up and atom'
Mini-nuclear power option won't make NWT debut, says energy division director

Evak Kiyoshi French
Northern News Services
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Coun. Niels Konge's dream of a tiny nuclear reactor powering the city sounds great, but the territory won't be the first trying out the technology associated with "costs, security and safety risks," according to the director of energy services for the territorial Department of Public Works.

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The Bilibino Nuclear plant, located north of the 60th parallel in northeastern Russia, is the world's most northern nuclear plant, which operates the world's smallest commercial nuclear reactors, according to online power publication - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Stewart - formerly director of business development with NT Energy, which was absorbed by public works in March - said miniature commercial nuclear plants are attractive. NT Energy, which was the the sister corporation to NWT Power Corporation, carries out research into alternative energy options and works with power corp. on implementation.

The city has become increasingly dependent on diesel for power following persistent low water levels in the hydro system that powers Yellowknife. This increased dependence is costing between $30,000 and $50,000 a day in diesel, and has led to nearly $50 million of subsidies from the territorial government this year and last to avoid that cost being passed onto consumers.

Konge told Yellowknifer a softball-sized chunk of depleted uranium could power a small community for many years - but Stewart said the territory isn't going to be the first to build one. He said he heard about comments Konge made at the councillor candidate forum at Northern United Place prior to the municipal election - that the territory ought to build a miniature nuclear plant to provide electricity and reduce power cost. But Stewart said the energy division won't seriously consider the technology until it's been established elsewhere.

"We've met with a couple of groups that have come through town in the last six months or so (pitching nuclear power)," said Stewart. "Nothing that we've been introduced to is actually operational or at the scale that the Yellowknife area might need. We'd like to see a proven technology and actual living examples of where those things are operating before we get too serious about it as a technology."

City resident Dan Gillis pitched molten-salt reactor nuclear technology to the department this year. The reactor is similar to those developed and then abandoned by the U.S government at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1970s. Stewart said he's heard about other small reactors designed by companies like Hitachi and Toshiba but none of those have "gone any further from the prototype."

"But those (Hitachi and Toshiba products) are certainly part of the discussion," he said. "We're not going to take the leading edge on that kind of a technology. There's a lot of cost and certainly security and safety risks. We're certainly watching it closely but we're a little bit concerned about being the first to market."

The history of small-scale nuclear reactors goes back as far as nuclear power itself, according to M.V. Ramana, a physicist working at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory at Princeton University. In an article published online in April, Ramana states most of the world's large reactors are scaled-up versions of smaller installations. Ultimately, economics forced nuclear power generators to upscale to compete with fossil fuels.

Tiny reactors have come back in favour, as concerns about climate change begin to take centre stage in international politics. Toshiba would have been the first to build a tiny power plant in Galena, Alaska -which could have been online in 2013. But the project was abandoned and the company didn't complete application to certify its design.

The village of about 600 considered nuclear after rising fuel costs made it expensive to live in the diesel-dependent community.

On Monday, Ramana told Yellowknifer Toshiba discussed the idea for a long time, and even considered giving the Alaskan town the reactor for free, but the company lost interest at the certification stage.

"My reading of this is that the main challenge is that any such new reactor would have to go through a fairly detailed and complicated safety review."

He said nuclear regulators - like the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission - require companies to hand over detailed safety information about their products and demand lengthy and expensive tests.

"Unless some government is willing to come and subsidize this process, most private companies typically balk at spending those hundreds of millions of dollars," said Ramana.

Toshiba advertises its new generation of small 20-foot-by-9 foot reactors as being able to produce power at a rate of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. But Ramana said the huge cost of building a reactor plus an estimated hundreds of millions in tests is what puts the technology out of the ballpark for small governments like the GNWT.

Without huge government subsidies, including those for severe liability accidents, the cost of a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear reactor is around US $9, he wrote. If or when the technology becomes established and proven, the cost would be dramatically reduced, said Ramana.

Right now, Yellowknife customers pay per 28.9 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. In an e-mail, Ramana stated, "when comparing nuclear power to diesel, which has to be shipped long distances, even an expensive reactor would probably still produce power at competitive prices - if it works."

"This is one of the unknowns about these radically new reactor designs," he said. "One has no idea how efficiently they would operate."

Ramana said he isn't surprised the territory is reticent to be the first mini-nuclear operator.

"You guys will have to do a lot of tests, and that's going to cost a lot of money," he said. "Many developing countries, they all say the same thing. 'We want some other place to build this and operate it for a while and we want to see how it works before we consider.'"

He said in the unlikely event an accident occurs, evacuating the population would present a huge problem for the GNWT.

"You can't possibly airlift 10,000 people or something like that," he said.

Currently the world's smallest operating commercial nuclear reactor is the EGP-6. Four have been in operation since the mid-1970s, at the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant - the Northernmost nuclear power station on the planet - located in Bilibino, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Russia, a town of around 5,000 people, situated north of the 60th parallel, in the eastern-most corner of the country.

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