Under the guidance of 30-plus-year nuclear industry veteran Louie Shoukas, PCL has become what the industry refers to as a “nuclear-skilled trades group,” one of a limited group of contractors that has earned the certifications necessary to undertake nuclear projects in Canada. And, as the chief nuclear officer tells it, PCL’s esteemed safety and quality record is already leading the way on nuclear projects unfolding in Ontario.

“The ‘nuclear way’ of executing work is quite different from the typical industrial construction in oil and gas and other sectors,” Shoukas explains. “There’s nothing different than you would otherwise do in a regular power plant from a technical standpoint: you’re going to weld pipes; you’re going to erect steel. The differences come in quality programs that layer on requirements we don’t normally go through, at least at that level of stringency.”

Nuclear facilities have traditionally been high-output stick-build projects that are very costly to construct. The large up-front expense of a facility meant it would need to produce massive amounts of energy to make the economics work.

But thanks to new fuel types, today’s nuclear plants can operate at an inherently safer level, allowing reactors to operate with less complex systems and respond more effectively to unexpected events.

“When I say safer, I mean that these plants are designed where in case of any accident that can happen at the plant — like a pipe breaking or a seismic event disrupting a unit — the unit will just safely shut itself down because of these new fuel designs,” Shoukas says.

The nuclear industry has changed dramatically in recent years. Zero-emission goals have boosted demand for decarbonized power generation, and the introduction of small modular reactors (SMRs) has made nuclear energy more versatile and accessible for power grids and industries alike.

According to Peter Tawfik, a business development manager, their smaller size and modular construction makes them particularly suitable for mass-scale deployment.

“Some SMR designs are as small as a few sea containers, so they can be placed virtually anywhere,” Tawfik says. “Older nuclear technologies are almost entirely site constructed because of the reactor size, but SMRs are simpler and portions can be fabricated off-site, similar to what we’re seeing in many other industrial projects.”

In Canada’s remote north, for example, bringing in diesel for power generation can cost upwards of $1,000 per megawatt hour. A small modular reactor can cut that price by more than half, and the core will last approximately 20 years. This technology is also useful for operations like mines, campuses, and airports that require sustained power solutions. Larger reactors (75 to 100 MW) that also generate high-pressure and high-temperature steam are attractive to the oil and gas, petrochemical and agricultural sectors that require steam for industrial processes.

Even larger reactors (300 MW, for example) are hitting the market for on-grid power generation as well. Natural Resources Canada has published an SMR Roadmap to guide the industry as the demand for this new power increases. PCL is part of Canada’s SMR Action Plan and has partnered with several engineering firms and nuclear developers as the appetite for SMR technology grows.

By safely removing redundant systems and building the plants modularly in a shop environment, the economics of smaller scale reactors make more sense and have opened radical new markets for nuclear technology.

PCL has been looking at SMRs for several years and has invested a lot of time in ensuring the company is well-prepared and permitted to execute projects.

“Entering the nuclear space is an extremely rigorous process,” Tawfik says. “We’ve spent the four years achieving our certifications and getting our quality manuals up to speed. We’ve been audited by all the regional authorities and all the appropriate jurisdictions to get our certifications in place. We are now a nuclear certified company.”

With projects underway in Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, and more planned across Canada, there’s a huge appetite from the oil and gas sector to bring in nuclear to help decarbonize their operations. In Chalk River, Ontario, PCL is supporting Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and Ontario Power Generation’s plans for the first commercial deployment of a private-sector-funded Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology in Canada.

“I think we’re on the verge of a paradigm shift in how we think about power generation in Canada and across the world,” Shoukas says.

“We’re excited to play a role in challenging assumptions about nuclear and establishing the best practices for how to build a safe and decarbonized future for Canadians.”

All photo renderings courtesy of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC).