Western Engineering to advance technologies in Small Modular Reactors


A microgrid with Small Modular Reactors and renewable energy resources. (Image by Dennis Michaelson/Western Engineering).

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 University 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 to position Western as a key player in shaping nuclear technology and policy in the coming years, aligning with the university’s strategic plan, Towards Western 150. 

This is why Western Engineering researchers are actively exploring the potential of SMRs, aiming to address the challenges associated with traditional nuclear reactors while unlocking new possibilities for safe, efficient and scalable nuclear power generation. 

Professor Jing Jiang and assistant professor Dennis Michaelson, both from the department of electrical and computer engineering at Western believe that SMRs can provide carbon-free clean electricity generation and will contribute to Canada’s net-zero goal in the fight against climate change. 

“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 who is an NSERC/UNENE Senior Industrial Research Chair in the field of control, instrumentation and electrical systems for nuclear power plants. 

SMRs and Digital Twin Technology

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 that are 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. Consequently, SMRs seem to offer an effective solution in such circumstances 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,” shared Michaelson. 

“A digital twin 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 explained.   

Permafrost and Heat Transfer

Bing Li, assistant professor and Tim Newson, associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering are concerned about the impact of SMRs in relation to permafrost degradation in remote towns and northern communities of Canada.    

“While there are a few designs floating around for how big the 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 these remote communities is the impact of climate change on permafrost. Permafrost refers to the frozen ground that remains frozen year-round. However, 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 in the fall. 

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 small modular reactors (SMRs) will experience high temperatures, mechanical stress and exposure to neutron radiation,” shared Abdolvand. 

“This can cause the alloys to deteriorate over time, potentially shortening the lifespan of the reactor components.” 

Abdolvand’s 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. 

He added: “The computer model will be tested and validated using data gathered from experiments conducted at different scales, from very small to larger sizes. By creating this model, it is expected that we can accurately determine the safety margins of the metal alloys being considered, which can reduce the need for expensive trial-and-error experiments.” 

Abdolvand has been collaborating with the nuclear industry in Canada and remains focused on understanding the relationship between manufacturing parameters, materials microstructures and the performance of the metal alloys used in the core of reactors. Graduate students are also doing their part to unearth new insights. Some have published papers that speak to the development of an experimental method for the consistent characterization of nano-sized crystals in dual phase zirconium alloys and others have worked to create a greater understanding of the effects of fretting induced flaws on hydrogen diffusion and cracking of zirconium alloys. 

Through his research group, the data collected from experiments conducted at high temperatures will provide valuable information to make informed decisions about the performance of the metal alloys and understand why and how they degrade over time. 

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/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, who is a member of the Métis-Cree community, added: “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.”