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Ontario Power Generation plans to construct a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 at its Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ont.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

On the shores of Lake Ontario, about 70 kilometres east of Toronto, something is happening that hasn’t happened in Canada in well over a generation: Workers are breaking ground for a new nuclear reactor.

Ontario Power Generation plans to construct a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 at its Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington. To do that it needs permission from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

The utility’s application to the CNSC, which it submitted in the fall, will be the first real test of GE-Hitachi’s claims about the reactor, a new model that is not yet used anywhere else in the world. The uncertain process could have dramatic implications for what this new reactor will ultimately cost, how long it will take to build – and whether anyone else will want to build one.

The reactor’s design is novel in several respects. At 300 megawatts, the BWRX-300 is marketed as a small modular reactor, or SMR. (Darlington’s existing four reactors each produce 935 megawatts.) In considering the application, the CNSC will be the first regulator in the world to review an SMR for large-scale power generation.

This will be the first large nuclear power reactor the CNSC has reviewed since 1993. And, if built, it would be the first nuclear power reactor in Canadian history that wasn’t of the homegrown CANDU design.

GE-Hitachi has said the BWRX-300 will be 60 per cent less expensive per megawatt than a typical reactor, making it the cheapest SMR on the market, and that it can be built in as few as 24 months. And the company has touted “passive safety systems.” Even if operators walked away, it has said, the reactor would cool itself without power for a whole week, at minimum. The company also claims the BWRX-300′s environmental footprint is less than that of larger reactors. GE says it’s the simplest reactor it has ever designed.

Such claims are common among SMR developers, and are almost entirely untested. The BWRX-300 “has not gone through any licensing review anywhere, in any country,” said M.V. Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs who researches nuclear energy. “When a design is submitted to a regulator for safety review, the regulators ask questions, and the design starts being changed. And so there is going to be this process of evolution.”

But this isn’t GE-Hitachi’s first reactor. The company’s corporate pedigree predates the dawn of the nuclear age, which distinguishes it from many competing SMR vendors. And it says the BWRX-300 is an evolution of an earlier reactor that was successfully certified by the CNSC’s American counterpart, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

OPG and GE have said they are confident the BWRX-300 can be certified quickly. They plan to begin construction by 2025 – which observers say is an aggressive timeline.

In reviewing the reactor, the CNSC will be among the first to weigh key SMR marketing claims.

OPG has said, for example, that the BWRX-300 is simpler and safer than previous reactors, and therefore “can have a much smaller emergency planning zone.” (Also known as a “designated plume exposure planning zone,” this is the area for which plans are drawn up to prevent or reduce exposure to radioactive particles and other hazards, through evacuation or other means.) A smaller emergency-planning zone would imply reduced operating costs.

Allison Macfarlane, director of UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, said SMR vendors have also sought smaller emergency-planning zones in the U.S. And she noted that some vendors argue that SMRs will require less physical security than larger reactors. “The vendors would really like to have basically no guards with guns at a reactor site, if they can avoid it,” she added.

Acquiring regulatory approval to build a newly designed reactor within two or three years is not the norm.

Prof. Macfarlane said there is no hard rule on how long the process takes. The fastest application she has seen before the NRC was a request by the U.S. Navy for an informal review of a reactor for a nuclear aircraft carrier. (The Navy didn’t actually require NRC approval.) The NRC’s review took 18 months, she said.

For a power reactor, the best case scenario before the NRC is three to four years. At worst, the process can stretch out for a decade.

“Usually, there’s just this endless back and forth,” she said.

Prof. Ramana is also skeptical of OPG’s timeline. Most nuclear projects suffer delays, he said. “When it comes to a new reactor design, those delays tend to be much larger. … It should not be a surprise to anyone if this design is going to be quite delayed.”

That accords with GE-Hitachi’s own experiences in the U.S. The company applied to the NRC for final design approval for its Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor in 2005. The reactor wasn’t certified until nine years later, in 2014. In 2011, the company applied to the NRC to renew the design certification for its Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, which had first been certified in the 1990s. That process took about a decade.

Even if the CNSC does grant OPG its construction license in record time, delays are not uncommon after construction has commenced. One notorious example is Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor, which made an outsized contribution to that company’s filing for bankruptcy protection in 2017.

“In the case of the AP1000, the delays happened well after the design was licensed to be constructed,” Prof. Ramana said.

That historical experience notwithstanding, OPG, various levels of government and voices from across the nuclear industry have said that this new reactor will be in service as early as 2028. Meeting that deadline is a matter of no small urgency for the nuclear industry. While a solar or wind farm can typically be built in a few years, nuclear reactors have been known to take a decade or longer. With governments and utilities pondering how to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by mid-century, this has proved to be a significant competitive disadvantage for nuclear power.

A successful, quick application would bode well for further BWRX-300 construction, in Canada and beyond. OPG’s environmental impact statement suggests the utility could deploy up to four at Darlington, with the last one completed in 2035.

Earlier this year, SaskPower, Saskatchewan’s main electric utility, selected the BWRX-300 for “potential” deployment in the province in the mid-2030s. (It won’t make a firm decision until 2029.) A U.S. utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, also plans to build a BWRX-300.

The CNSC is an administrative tribunal that reports to Parliament through the Minister of Natural Resources. While it doesn’t answer to him, that minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, has promoted SMRs in recent statements. By adopting them early, he said in October, “Canada could realize a significant share of the global exports of technology, goods and services.” In its most recent budget, the federal government earmarked nearly $51-million to improve the CNSC’s capacity to regulate SMRs.

CNSC president Rumina Velshi is also a vocal supporter. She declared in October that SMRs “are likely to be an important part of the next generation of nuclear” and that they “will need to be deployed quicker, less expensively and much more widespread than reactors of the past.” The CNSC has established a new group focused exclusively on SMRs, which will “guide the entire organization on SMR readiness.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Velshi told attendees of a summit on advanced reactors that the CNSC would rise “to the challenge of conducting SMR licensing reviews efficiently and effectively.”

Ms. Velshi is enthusiastic about the CNSC harmonizing its codes and standards with those of regulators of other countries. She has said this is “essential” for SMR deployment worldwide, and has signalled her intent to work closely with the NRC.

In September, the two regulators signed an agreement to collaborate on reviewing the BWRX-300.