The potential of nuclear-powered oilsands has picked up steam, with Terrestrial Energy opening a nuclear technology development office in the former Suncor building in downtown Calgary.
Development of an energy-producing facility in northern Alberta is still years away, but the office will help form a base for engagement in the province.
The company is headquartered in Oakville, Ont., but Simon Irish, CEO for Terrestrial Energy, said Alberta offers opportunity with a private energy system that is not available in other parts of the country — namely Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, who all signed a memorandum of understanding in 2021 to develop small modular reactors (SMR).
This is the first SMR company to open an office in Calgary.
“The nuclear solutions for Eastern Canada are very much focused on a traditional nuclear system in a traditional application. This is on-grid power generation,” said Irish. “The $1-trillion market opportunity here for nuclear innovation is in the form of these new Generation 4 systems that provide the big missing ingredient, which is high-quality heat for industry . . . which is clean, cost competitive, secure, reliable.”
Calgary chosen for concentration of energy companies, low cost of operation
The $18-million investment by Terrestrial will create 29 jobs over the next two years. It is currently working on developing its zero-emission Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) heat and power plants, which will have a direct use in oilsands projects.
Irish pointed to the concentration of energy companies in Calgary, the low cost of operation in the province and the skilled workforce as reasons for setting up an office in the city.
Rick Christiaanse, CEO with Invest Alberta, has been working on bringing Terrestrial Energy to Calgary for a few years.
“If you can build a facility anywhere in the world, at some point you got to engage with the regulators, you got to engage with the customers and you got to redesign or finalize the design on your project,” he said. “That takes local feet, local knowledge on the street, local relationships.”
Terrestrial’s technology is a key to the energy transition
Terrestrial Energy is developing an SMR designed specially for industrial consumers.
SMRs have been identified as a key tool in reaching net zero emissions.
Brad Parry, CEO of Calgary Economic Development, called the move an important part of the energy transition taking place in Calgary.
“Calgary will always be the energy capital of Canada, it will just have a different look to it. This is just one more step in that direction,” he said. “You see these other companies that are major players understanding the opportunity that’s presenting itself in Calgary, especially in working with the traditional oil and gas sector and looking for these new kinds of solutions.”
Other companies in Canada are working toward the same goal.
In January, X-Energy signed a memorandum of understanding with Invest Alberta to develop economic opportunities to support the potential deployment of its Xe-100 SMR in Alberta, while GE-Hitachi and ARC Energy have a foothold in other provinces. Meanwhile, the provincial government sent Jobs, Economy and Northern Development Minister Brian Jean and others to South Korea last week to attract further investment in the sector.
Nuclear facility in Alberta at least seven years away: expert
The technology, however, is still roughly a decade away from being in the field.
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University and author of Canada, the Provinces and the Global Nuclear Revival, said it will be at least 2030 before a facility is built and operational in the province.
He says it is still worth pursuing amid the push for net zero by 2050.
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Bratt noted public opinion has changed dramatically over the past decade on nuclear energy, moving from below 50 per cent with a large chunk of the population not knowing enough about it, to his research showing 70 per cent approval in Alberta.
He said the understanding about what an SMR is has grown dramatically and noted it is not like a traditional nuclear facility when it comes to size, waste or safety, while some critics point to the fact that no facilities have been licensed.
“Critics will say, ‘Well, if it hasn’t been licensed, it never should be licensed,’ which is kind of a ridiculous argument,” said Bratt.
While the main application for SMRs in Alberta is the oilfield, Bratt said they could be further developed to displace other non-renewables such as natural gas in the future, and produce energy for export and remote communities in the north.