NSERC-CNSC Small Modular Reactors Research Grant Initiative
Please note that the description below was modified on November 25, 2022. The modification is to clarify that waste falls under the Environmental and radiological protection – Source term characterization objective.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment; to implement Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy; and to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public.
The CNSC’s mandate involves four major areas:
- Regulation of the development, production and use of nuclear energy in Canada to protect health, safety and the environment
- Regulation of the production, possession, use and transport of nuclear substances, and the production, possession and use of prescribed equipment and prescribed information
- Implementation of measures respecting international control of the development, production, transport and use of nuclear energy and substances, including measures respecting the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear explosive devices
- Dissemination of scientific, technical and regulatory information concerning the activities of CNSC, and the effects on the environment, health and safety of persons, of the development, production, possession, transport and use of nuclear substances
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), through grants, fellowships and scholarships, promotes and supports research and research training in the natural sciences and engineering to develop talent, generate discoveries and support innovation in pursuit of economic and social outcomes for Canadians.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) offer a promising pathway to support Canada’s low carbon energy transition and are expected to be less complex, easier to operate and more cost effective than current nuclear technology. For example, a 300-megawatt SMR could supply enough clean power for an estimated 300,000 homes. With approximately 76,000 Canadians employed across its supply chain, Canada's nuclear industry is well positioned to leverage its more than 60 years of science and technology innovation to become a leader in the development and deployment of SMR technology.
The Government of Canada has determined that support to develop this technology can position Canada as a clean energy leader; support the decarbonization of provincial electricity grids; facilitate the transition away from diesel power in remote communities; and help decarbonize heavy emitting industries. It is important that SMRs are deployed in a safe and secure manner and that regulatory decisions are based on solid science.
Through funding provided in Budget 2022, the CNSC and the NSERC are partnering to fund research to support effective and efficient regulation and regulatory oversight of SMRs.
The NSERC-CNSC Small Modular Reactors Research Grant Initiative is intended to support activities that will
- increase the scientific information available to support regulatory decision-making and oversight
- increase capacity to regulate SMRs
- enhance the capabilities of Canadian universities to undertake research related to SMRs
- increase training and help produce a new generation of nuclear scientists, engineers and policy-makers
Research proposals must address one or more of the following specific research challenges and knowledge gaps:
Chemistry and materials
- Consequences of high temperature on reactor components
Some SMRs will be operating at elevated temperatures and pressures, and use coolants that are different from those in CANDU reactors. These reactors require a significant amount of material behaviour data before they are licensed to operate. The regulation of the pressure boundary at elevated temperatures around 1,000°C requires information on the consequences of high temperatures and pressures on reactor components. To understand material properties and environmental degradation mechanisms, an increased understanding of material behaviour at these elevated temperatures is needed. Understanding such material behaviour and material properties can improve the reliability of systems, structures and components during normal, abnormal and long-term operations. In addition, the separate and integrated effects of high temperature, pressure and corrosive environments need to be understood for the durability of sensors monitoring thermal behaviour and reactivity control systems. The availability of qualified data is essential to designing and constructing SMR reactor structures, systems and components using new materials in the absence of accepted standards.
- Chemistry control for various materials and fuel types
SMRs based on novel fuel concepts (e.g., molten salt) or novel coolants require an enhanced understanding of chemistry control programs for nuclear facilities. Additional knowledge of degradation mechanisms related to temperature, pressure and contaminants is required to license and operate these reactors safely. For example, new molten salt reactor designs are considering novel ways to reduce and control corrosion of reactor components. There are still gaps in understanding the degradation mechanisms for molten salt reactor designs in industrial settings and in a radiation environment. This understanding will enable generation of appropriate standards to maximize safety, reduce radioactive dose for workers and reduce corrosion on components retaining molten salt. New knowledge of chemistry control of various materials such as salts, graphite and TRISO fuels at high temperatures is of interest to the CNSC.
Environmental and radiological protection
- Source term characterization
A comprehensive understanding of radiological and hazardous substances source term is key to protection of workers, the environment and the public for both operational and emergency planning purposes. A comprehensive understanding will drive design, engineering and all programmatic aspects covered under the CNSC’s safety and control areas (i.e., as per the hierarchy of protection).
Extensive operational experience is available for CANDU reactor designs, though it is uncertain as to how relevant much of this would be to the current suite of proposed SMRs. Reactor design is also critical for emergency response, to ensure mitigating actions can be taken and habitability for control of the emergency. Research on potential source term characterization relevant to potential reactor designs with an emphasis on the following points is of interest:
- How do differences from the current reactor design influence current radiation and environmental protection practices?
- How do the anticipated SMR releases (including waste) compare to those of currently operating CANDU reactors?
- Will there be a potential reduction in radiological (e.g., tritium)/hazardous releases from SMRs compared to CANDU reactors?
- Based on emissions/effluent characteristics, are there novel treatment or monitoring technologies/techniques for the control of releases (i.e., best available technologies and/or techniques)?
- Geotechnical and effect of the environment on SMR design and operation
A characteristic common to a number of SMR designs is the potential for partially or fully underground emplacement of a substantial part of the reactor unit itself. This provides a number of safety benefits but raises issues related to the potential for locating SMRs in geotechnical conditions somewhat rare relative to the Canadian environment. This includes use in the Canadian northern permafrost regions, especially with changing dynamics arising from climate change. Thus, additional knowledge is needed to assess the influence of geotechnical conditions associated with problematic soil types on the structural integrity of SMRs in Canada. Problematic soils typical for Canada include sandy soils prone to liquefaction, sensitive clays susceptible to drastic loss of strength upon remoulding and silty soils subject to frost heave and subsidence.
- Emergency planning
SMR developers are seeking ways to reduce the size of traditional emergency planning zones (EPZ), taking into account technology improvements such as passive and inherent safety systems to "practically eliminate" core melt and offsite releases. With this claim, the level 5 Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) requirements would be eliminated along with several level 4 (mitigate the consequences from design extension conditions) provisions of defence in depth. Research in the following areas would be beneficial to support government decision-making and oversight for EPZ determination for SMRs emergency planning:
- Through accident modelling, investigate whether there are credible accidents from any postulated initiating events or conditions that could result in core damage with significant offsite releases, and if so, their associated source terms characterization. This study should include an assessment of no electrical power for safe reactor shut down during an accident.
- Gain a better understanding of the impacts of accidents that may take place in unconventional and/or remote locations that may be susceptible to unconventional threats (e.g., possible greater threat of forest fire, flooding, loss of connection to electrical grid and proximity to seismic activities).
- Determine the impacts of remote operation on human performance and organizational factors in emergency operations centres and offsite response, and if they are negative, learn how they can be mitigated.
- As SMRs are to be produced and deployed in large numbers to many different jurisdictions, a "harmonized" approach to determining the EPZs size would be of regulatory and public interest.
Human and organizational factors
- Interface design – Opportunity costs and benefits of analogue, digital and mixed displays suites for use in control and monitoring of complex environments
Modernization of existing reactor designs and control rooms, as well as new reactor designs such as SMRs, have introduced the potential use case of having mixed types of displays in an integrated control room environment. Research is needed to enhance the understanding of best practices regarding display types, interface design, information presentation and modern displays, with a particular emphasis on human performance and safety-related issues regarding control and monitoring tasks.
- Impact of digital control rooms on situational awareness and the use of decision-aiding systems
New reactor designs, such as SMRs, are envisioning a transition to advanced digital control room operations, introducing a potentially novel environment for nuclear operators. Research is needed to examine the implications of advanced digital control room operations, including decision-aiding systems, on situational awareness (SA). Research areas of interest include but are not limited to
- methods to assess SA in complex, high-reliability environments (e.g., metrics, tools, instrumentation, methodologies)
- implications of adopting modern instrumentation and controls (I&Cs) on operator performance, including mode awareness, for normal and unexpected events
- implications and considerations for single versus multi-unit monitoring and control
- impact of increased levels of automation on human performance and situation awareness
- Impact of digital control rooms on operator workload and vigilance
One of the biggest promises of SMRs is the inherent safety of design and the subsequent potential reduction in control staffing. Inherent safety and reduced control staffing introduce questions regarding human performance (e.g., vigilance tasks, attention, motivation) and operator workload. Research is needed to examine the safety implications and operator impacts of inherent safety, increased levels of automation, modern controls and displays, and reduced control room staffing, with particular focus on operator workload.
Safeguards and security
- Cyber security
Cyber security is an increasing area of interest as the industry moves to new reactor designs and more usage of modern interfaces. Areas of interest include
- how the operator would be alerted to an attempted or successful intrusion, and what they would do in response
- what an operator might have to do in the event of a loss of signal during remote operations (if the reactor does not automatically shut down)
- computerized/AI means for assisting a lone operator in doing security rounds both inside and outside the facility (i.e., auto-tracking cameras, noise-tracking and alert) as this may become part of an operator’s job
- Effects of SMR deployment in unconventional locations on conventional safeguards inspection and verification methods
Obstacles are expected relating to access for safeguards verification inspections in remote deployment locations. Staff from the CNSC and inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) typically require facility access, sometimes with little to no advance notice to the operator, in order to verify nuclear material accountancy and the absence of proliferation concerns. What are the possible effects on safeguards implementation resulting from unconventional location deployment, and can they be mitigated through alternative or novel verification and inspection approaches?
- Security of SMRs
SMR vendors and proponents will be afforded opportunities to propose novel solutions for all aspects of their physical protection system, including deterrence, detection, delay, denial and response/defence. Specific areas of research need to be pursued to support the CNSC’s ability to support its evaluation and performance testing of said solutions. These specific areas of research include
- barrier engineering robustness modelling and assessment against explosive and ballistic loads
- modelling methodologies for simulating and assessing tactical response plan (i.e., Monte Carlo simulation for red vs. blue tactical deployments)
- insider threat mitigation by design (process design, facility design and compartmentalization)
- transport security approaches (air, sea and land) for Category I, II and III nuclear material and contained core transports (e.g., transport of SMR cores)
Novel fuel compositions
- Safeguards, nuclear material accountancy and non-proliferation impacts from the introduction of new fuel and associated fuel manufacturing techniques
New nuclear fuel compositions (e.g., plutonium and enriched uranium), new physical fuel forms and reprocessed spent fuels proposed for use in SMRs present challenges related to safeguards, nuclear material accountancy and non-proliferation. For example, the progression from fuel assemblies to fuel bundles to fuel pebbles to molten fuel makes nuclear material accountancy and verification progressively more challenging. What are the challenges associated with the introduction of fuel reprocessing and new fuel compositions in Canada, with respect to safeguards, nuclear material accountancy and non-proliferation? How have other countries addressed these challenges? This would also include research to assess claims of inherent nuclear proliferation-resistance related to fuel reprocessing.
Funding and duration
The total anticipated budget for this initiative is $15 million over five years. Individual proposals should not exceed $120,000 per year over their initial one-to-three-year duration. A second funding call is expected in 2025 to extend existing projects and/or fund new projects for a two- or three-year duration. NSERC will administer the funding calls in conjunction with the CNSC. Funds will be administered according to NSERC’s use of grant funds guidelines, outlined in the Tri-agency financial administration guide.
If you are a Canadian university researcher who is eligible to receive NSERC funds, you can apply on your own or as a team with co-applicants who are also eligible academic researchers. However, please note that only one application per researcher will be accepted under the call (as either applicant or co-applicant).
Collaborators from federal, provincial or municipal government organizations or laboratories may take part in the research, but they must bring their own resources to the collaboration. They will not have access to grant funds. In order to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, or preference for a particular SMR technology, private sector partners are excluded from the current call.
Application and review procedures
NSERC must receive the application by the deadline date. Please refer to the instructions for completing the application and the terms and conditions of the NSERC-CNSC Small Modular Reactors Research Grant Initiative. All applications are initially screened by NSERC for completeness and adherence to program requirements and objectives. Applications that do not meet all program requirements will be rejected. An evaluation committee composed of distinguished members from academia and government organizations will review applications. In arriving at an overall funding recommendation for the applications, the evaluation committee will consider the evaluation criteria listed below. No appeals of the results will be accepted.
A complete application includes
- an application for a grant (form 101)
- a personal data form (form 100A) for each applicant and co-applicant
- a biosketch for each collaborator
Collaboration outside the natural sciences and engineering
In recognition that implementing policy or directly applying research results can depend on socio-economic considerations as well as scientific understanding, applicants are encouraged to collaborate with experts who work in fields other than the natural sciences and engineering, when appropriate. Such experts may participate in proposals as co-applicants if they meet NSERC’s eligibility requirements for type, duration and nature of appointment. Research costs for these collaborations may constitute up to 30% of the project costs and must be identified in the project budget. All project expenditures will be subject to NSERC’s Tri-agency guide on financial administration.
An example of a research area of interest includes risk perception related to radiation. Research demonstrates that public perception related to radiation and nuclear technology is strongly correlated with the community’s familiarity with, and current presence of, nuclear within their everyday life (e.g., host communities, nuclear workers). This poses a significant challenge to SMRs proposed for deployment in provinces and territories with little to no experience with nuclear; not to mention the additional confounding factor of transporting fueled reactor vessels through communities. The CNSC is interested in Canadians’ risk perception related to radiation and radiation exposure. Topics of interest include but are not limited to trust/confidence in sources of information on radiation and radiation health effects and psychosocial effects of radiation risk perception.
When NSERC receives an application, it first undertakes an administrative assessment to ensure the application is complete and complies with all requirements. Once the administrative assessment is satisfactorily completed, NSERC proceeds with the merit assessment of the application. Applications will be evaluated according to the following merit evaluation criteria. More details on each criterion are provided in the application instructions. Each criterion is given equal weight in the evaluation.
- Excellence of researcher(s): The researcher team must have the expertise required to address the defined objectives and complete the project. The contributions of individuals to the research effort must be clear.
- Merit of the proposed activities: The quality, originality and feasibility of the proposed activities will be assessed, as well as how the new knowledge generated will contribute to advancing the scientific information available to support government decision-making and regulatory oversight of SMRs.
- Relevance: The research activities should generate results that will further knowledge, contribute exploitable research results, provide benefits to Canada and support the program objectives. Demonstrated relevance to policy and/or regulatory development will be highly regarded.
- Knowledge mobilization plan: Projects must incorporate a knowledge mobilization plan that includes mechanisms to share new knowledge with knowledge users (e.g., CNSC). The proposal must demonstrate how knowledge will be shared, communicated and disseminated by the research team. The proposal must address how the research can support policy- and decision-making related to the implementation of SMRs in Canada.
- Training plan: Projects must provide opportunities for enriched training experiences for research trainees (undergraduates, graduates, postdoctoral fellows) to develop relevant technical skills as well as professional skills such as leadership, communication, collaboration and entrepreneurships. Consideration of equity, diversity and inclusion must be described in the training plan. For guidance, consult the NSERC Equity, diversity and inclusion in your training plan.
- Budget: The budget items must be clearly described and justified. The appropriateness of the overall budget will be evaluated.
Equity, diversity and inclusion
NSERC is acting on the evidence that achieving a more equitable, diverse and inclusive Canadian research enterprise is essential to creating the excellent, innovative and impactful research necessary to advance knowledge and understanding, and to respond to local, national and global challenges. This principle informs the commitments described in the Tri-agency statement on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).
You are encouraged to consider sex, gender and diversity in the project's research design. Diversity and gender equity should also be considered when developing the research team and considering how to promote and support a variety of forms of mentoring to ensure students' and postdoctoral fellows' equitable participation and growth. Refer to the Guide for applicants: Considering equity, diversity and inclusion in your application
for more information.
Please note that if you are awarded a grant, a representative from the CNSC will be assigned to your project. This person will serve as your main contact and liaison with the CNSC. Grantees will also be required to provide periodic progress reports along with a final report once the project is completed. You will be informed of reporting requirements and the corresponding schedule when you are notified of your award. NSERC and the CNSC will strive to streamline their reporting requirements to lessen the burden on researchers.
NSERC-CNSC SMRs Grant Initiative terms and conditions of applying for applicants
NSERC-CNSC SMRs Grant Initiative terms and conditions of award