The commissioning of New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau Generating Station and its CANDU-6 reactor in 1983 created a new demand for research and consulting services for the nuclear space in the province.

To help fill that gap, the University of New Brunswick established its Centre for Nuclear Energy Research (CNER) in 1991. In the more than 30 years since, CNER has become a major player in the Canadian and international nuclear power sector, engaging in academic and contract research as well as consulting for power-generating utilities.

World-class energy research

Over the past decade, CNER’s capacity has expanded considerably. “Today at CNER, we have over 25 research faculty, support staff, and students,” says Brad McPherson, CNER’s Director of Innovation. “The Centre has significantly broadened its research activities and scope to reach its current state. We’ve enhanced our research and development partnerships significantly, with multiple projects ongoing.”

Dr. William Cook, CNER’s Director, is a researcher with expertise in operational chemistry, corrosion monitoring and mitigation, materials, and electrochemistry – all areas that support operating reactors like Point Lepreau and, through CNER, he has expanded this work to include activities with small modular reactors (SMRs) of various configurations. Meanwhile, Dr. Olga Palazhchenko, a faculty member who joined the department of chemical engineering in 2021, was recently awarded funding to expand CNER’s work in small modular reactors (SMR). “The long-term solution for spent fuel storage for Canada’s traditional, CANDU-type reactors is storage underground in what is called a deep geological repository, or DGR,” she said in a UNB news release. “Since SMRs are an emerging technology, we need to understand how their fuel could interact with the environment in a DGR, particularly in a worst-case scenario like a flooding event.” This work draws from Dr. Palazhchenko’s research background in computational modelling and experimental aqueous chemistry and is being deployed to SMR projects as CNER continues to grow.

McPherson says CNER is working with multiple private sector partners on SMR projects and continues to further expand its capacity in that space. “We are presently building a new $2.5M molten salt lab that will greatly enhance our capabilities in the area of molten salt work and our ability to support reactor vendors like Moltex Energy and others, utilizing that technology,” he says. “We are also finalizing design plans for a first-of-its-kind liquid sodium test system for corrosion research and development. This new test loop system will support SMR vendors pursuing liquid sodium-cooled reactor technologies, such as the ARC-100 design from ARC Clean Technologies Canada. Unlike other existing test loop systems that are mainly targeted at thermal hydraulics and safety work, CNER’s sodium loop facility will focus on chemistry and corrosion, including evaluation of the effects of temperature variation and impurities on specific material properties.”

At the same time, CNER is also continuing its energy research into other important areas. “Fossil fuels, for example, are still part of our energy landscape, so it’s imperative we continue to work to enhance efficiency and reduce environmental impacts,” says McPherson. “We are actively developing projects around sustainable aviation fuels, biofuels and other alternative fuels, as well as increasing the efficiency of conventional fuels.”

Strong support for the energy industry

UNB is well-positioned to offer energy industry players a valuable partner in terms of research and development. “In addition to CNER, UNB is also home to a broad range of expertise, including the Marine Additive Manufacturing Centre of Excellence, the Off-site Construction Research Centre, The Canadian Institute for Cybersecurity, and the Emera & NB Power Research Centre for Smart Grid,” notes McPherson. “New Brunswick is open for business, and these centres are a huge part of the province’s academic value proposition. We can absolutely move the needle for companies in terms of their R&D. Whether for SMRs, decarbonization and next-generation fuels, renewable natural gas, hydroelectric production, or battery storage, UNB is ready to help companies and communities achieve their goals through applied research and innovation. We’re actively seeking challenges to solve, so I hope more companies reach out to us.”

McPherson notes that CNER’s many public and private partnerships take its reach well beyond New Brunswick. “In addition to our SMR partners, we have commercial and research relationships with organizations such as Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, Kinectrics, and Ontario Power Generation. We’re in the US via current work with the Electric Power Research Institute and are actively exploring future collaboration potential with key academic institutes. We even have partners outside of North America, including European partners in the UK, France and Switzerland, to name a few.” We’ve also seen success in securing support from federal and provincial agencies – like ACOA, NRCan, NSERC, NBIF, and ONB – who have contributed to our projects and who open up the potential to multiply industry investment with public research dollars.

Workforce of the future

The attraction of multiple SMR players to New Brunswick, coupled with the launch of Canada’s SMR Roadmap, led UNB to revitalize its nuclear power option for chemical engineering students, with specialized courses in areas such as nuclear engineering, reactor physics, corrosion processes, and nuclear chemistry. McPherson says UNB’s engineering faculty is thinking ahead to what the energy workforce of the future will need and is adding more nuclear courses this fall and in 2024. “We know that the SMR companies we work with and power-generating utilities are going to need many more highly qualified personnel. With these new courses being introduced next year, UNB will offer 16 courses on nuclear energy subjects, double the number we used to. This will give students a more robust, diverse, and comprehensive education that helps them become tomorrow’s experts.

UNB is working to further innovate its course offerings and is exploring the potential of experiential learning opportunities that bring the classroom into real situations. “For example, by having students work with industrial partners on solving real problems, students could get hands-on nuclear sector experience while employers would get to see the quality and talent of students graduating from UNB and build relationships with these prospective employees,” he says. “We have employers telling us they want as many students with nuclear experience as we can provide, and they’ll hire them yesterday. The demand for students with nuclear knowledge has never been higher than today”.

UNB is New Brunswick’s leading research university, home to expertise in, and infrastructure for, fundamental and applied research in a wide range of subjects, including the CNER, UNB’s – and Atlantic Canada’s – nuclear research hub. Learn more about the CNER, or contact them to discuss partnerships, here.

The province of New Brunswick is home to one of Canada’s most highly diversified energy portfolios. Learn more about it and how to contact our team here.