"The mine has to be cost competitive in order to secure financing and too often with mining projects the pivot point is cost of energy at minehead."
What inspired the founding of Terrestrial Energy?
Looking at the big problem the world faces, we are seeking to decarbonize by removing fossil fuels from the global energy basket, which at the moment contributes 84% of supply. One of the questions that led me to form Terrestrial Energy was: How do you deliver vast quantities of clean energy at a cost competitive price? What struck me very clearly is that nuclear energy is capable of out scaling fossil fuels. We have vast quantities of fissionable material in Canada and if you include foreign sources, there is millennia worth of efficient fuel.
The second question for me was: What technology is going to realize the nuclear energy future? These technologies must solve an economic problem and they must be competitive. With conventional nuclear its problem is cost related. New plants are unaffordable to construct, even by sovereigns. Plus, the power that it generates is uncompetitive against many alternatives, particularly natural gas. I was looking at these technologies and the molten salt reactor (MSR), which is part of a class of a group of next generation nuclear technologies called Generation IV, stood out very clearly.
What are the characteristics and capabilities of the molten salt reactor (MSR)?
In terms of differentiating characteristics, conventional reactor systems use water to cool. This has a profound impact on the economics of the power plant. Using water to cool a reactor core may be okay in a military application on the back of a submarine, which is where it originated, but it creates a very thermally inefficient machine. For example, with a conventional reactor system, you generate 100 units of heat and you can only sell 30 units of electricity. The plant that creates that 100 units of heat is very expensive. In contrast, with molten salt, you have reduced capex and higher revenues. The reason for this is your machine is far more efficient at creating electric power. The machine runs at a much higher temperature than other technologies and Terrestrial Energy operates its MSR at 700 degrees Celsius. We are able to do this because molten salt is thermally very stable. It is a superior coolant for a nuclear reactor compared to water, so you can operate a hot, high thermal efficient machine for power generation.
With Terrestrial’s machine, for every 100 units of nuclear energy that is created in the reactor core, you can sell 45 of those units as electric power. That puts Terrestrial Energy on an exciting path to create a nuclear machine that can compete in commercial markets and our first step is with power generation.
How might Terrestrial’s IMSR technology be a useful solution for miners looking to decarbonize?
As global demand for metals increases, the mining business is increasingly looking to develop mega projects. If a mega project holds US$50 billion of in situ metal value over a 50-75-year period, if you were to commit the many billions to develop that project, it would likely be economically productive for generations. The mine has to be cost competitive in order to secure financing and too often with mining projects the pivot point is cost of energy at minehead.
If you can bring vast amounts of industrial energy to minehead through a 1,000 km extension from an existing, big electric grid, the moment you do that, you turn that US$50 billion of in situ industrial metals from an economic curiosity into something that is very real, because you have now a mechanism to develop and mine the project. This is where SMR’s (small modular reactors) come in. Our SMR is very capable of being situated close to one of these deposits, increasing reliable, cost competitive power.
Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has expressed strong support for the development of next generation nuclear technology. What is the current state of Ontario’s grid and how will it look in the future?
Ontario’s grid has a carbon footprint of 77 g/kWh. In comparison, the US carbon footprint is about 450 g/kWh, while Australia's is even higher. Ontario has led the world for 50 years and is pointing the way forward for the world now to show that ideas can become reality. As a result, it has the cleanest grid in the world today and that is achieved through a backbone of nuclear in addition to hydropower. Only Sweden and France have achieved a similar feat.
How do you allay concerns over waste generation?
Fortunately, the nuclear industry is the model, in terms of waste management for every other energy sector globally. From cradle to grave, every gram of material is scrutinized to make sure it is of a certain waste character and it is treated appropriately. Furthermore, if it must be treated under regulation, the industry pays for that waste disposal.