MISSISSAUGA — The nuclear industry isn’t flashy; otherwise it might have dreamed up a catchier name than Integral Molten Salt Reactor for what’s being touted as the next big thing.
Doing the touting is Mississauga-based Terrestrial Energy, now pushing its plans to have a demonstration reactor up and running in less than a decade.
The technology isn’t new, chief executive Simon Irish acknowledged in an interview. The concept was developed starting in the 1950s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the U.S.
Nor is Terrestrial the only company pursuing the technology.
But Terrestrial hopes to be first to commercialize it, with a made-in-Canada design that churns out large quantities of heat from a reactor that could be small enough to fit on a truck.
“We know it works in the lab,” said Irish. “The task is to bring it to market.”
To that end Terrestrial, which is backed by private investors, is starting to get its message out. Company chairman Hugh MacDiarmid will deliver a speech to the Economic Club on Wednesday.
Conventional reactors use solid uranium fuel, bathed in either heavy water or ordinary water.
The salt reactors, or IMSRs, dissolve low enriched uranium in solution of a salt such as sodium fluoride.
A moderator is added to control the reaction – in this case, it’s graphite carbon – and the process begins, releasing heat as the atoms split.
Most commercial reactors in Canada today are big beasts, used to power electric generators connected to the main power grid.
Terrestrial is looking at smaller scale reactors that might well be used by companies to heat steam for industrial processes -- perhaps in remote locations like the oil sands, or mining sites. Or they could power off-grid generators.
One advantage of the molten salt reactors is that they use uranium more completely that current reactors, said Irish.
They consume the elements that are among the longest-lived and most troublesome nuclear waste products – dangerous for many thousands of years to come.
The waste from a molten salt reactor, says Irish, is much less potent, decaying to a safe state in about 300 years.
But there are still some hurdles.
Molten salt reactors are not yet licensed, for one thing. Terrestrial is working on that, working through the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.
“We believe we could obtain an operating license for the demonstration plant within a five- to seven-year period,” Irish said.
“We’re looking to have a demonstration plant up and running by early next decade.”
The technology is inherently safer than existing generators, he said – a factor that also lowers costs.
And what are the costs?
Irish would only talk in generalities. Terrestrial’s reactor will cost about the same to build as a natural gas power plant, he said, but will cost “substantially” less to run than a nuclear plant.
That’s the best of both worlds – cheap to build and cheap to operate. But Irish refused to name a price that a molten salt generating plant would need to clear for its power in order to be commercially viable.
How much money will the company need to realize its plans?
“A billion dollars will get us the demonstration plant and the operating license,” he said.
The private investors will continue to fund the company for now he said.
When spending ramps up later in the decade, “it’s our expectation that budget will be met by a consortium of industrial partners that ultimately are going to be the end users.”