By 2009, smog in China was killing an estimated one million people a year – worse than the infamous London Smog of December 1952, when 4,000 were killed and more than 100,000 sickened. Just as in London, fear and anger gripped the Chinese populace and demands to do something rocked the nation.
The solution in London was to phase out domestic coal fires; in Beijing it provoked a sharp U-turn towards clean energy sources. Coal-fired power plants were scheduled for closure, new wind and solar farms were initiated, and large investments in hydro and nuclear power installations were announced.
A surprising outcome of this crisis was almost overnight support for small, clean nuclear.
People were amazed to learn, for instance, that the U.S. Navy had accumulated more than 12,000 years of small reactor know-how – via the operation, starting in 1958, of hundreds of nuclear powered ships; that no serious mishaps had occurred; and that the military had instituted an effective system for the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Though big nuclear plants were still suspect – especially after the 2011 Fukushima reactor accident – public opinion on Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s) turned sharply positive; they were seen as an important pathway to cleaner air.
The technology China selected was the German-designed pebble-bed reactor, in which thousands of tennis ball-sized graphite pebbles containing micro fuel generate power. In this type of reactor, should a malfunction occur it is shut down immediately without human intervention. The International Atomic Energy Commission has classified the design as “inherently safe.” The units are orders of magnitude more efficient and less expensive than traditional big nuclear. China is set to produce hundreds of such units.
A key attraction of SMRs, beyond their zero-emission profile and much lower cost, is their flexibility. They can be manufactured at a central facility, transported to where they are needed, then operated without refuelling for some 35 years with only a small workforce.
Most significantly, they can be configured to produce hydrogen for fuel cell-powered trucks, buses, locomotives, ships, cars, airplanes and drones. Several automotive manufacturers offer fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s): the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai deliver sports car performance at a fuel efficiency better than the best gasoline engines, and one dissolved hydrogen tank fill-up has an energy density capable of 800 kilometres.
Despite this impressive performance, not all is well in the fuel cell industry. Sales of FCEV’s suffer from an extreme lack of infrastructure: few areas service such vehicles so few are purchased, and unit costs are high. The industry is caught in a classic low-demand trap.
Resolving such traps is a textbook role for government – at least in those instances where significant public benefits are evident. A robust hydrogen economy would improve air quality for everyone, strengthen Canadian energy security by decreasing our demand for imported fossil fuels and greatly lower our carbon footprint. This array of benefits adds up to a compelling case for a public “kickstart” of this struggling industry.
The best channel to get Canada onside in this international move to small nuclear is the recently implemented Supercluster Framework Strategy – that is, select one supercluster district as the demonstration hub of Canadian SMR-hydrogen technology. Such a bold initiative would point the way to a robust hydrogen energy grid. We would begin the great leap forward to a clean and prosperous Hydrogen Age.