If a nuclear facility comes to Saskatchewan, it looks like it won't be for at least another decade.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick on December 1 to look into the development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs).

Dustin Duncan, Saskatchewan's minister of the environment, as well as the minister responsible for SaskPower, is off to Ottawa tomorrow to speak in a conference regarding SMRs.

"We don't expect that an SMR would be deployed in Saskatchewan before at least the early 2030s. Now, lots can change on that, and we'll see how fast the federal government wants to advance on this. But our expectation is that if an SMR is deployed in Canada, the first one would likely be Ontario, preferentially in the latter half of the 2020s."

Duncan said Ontario would be first as they have nuclear power plants in existence.

"We don't have a licensed footprint in Saskatchewan," Duncan said. "For a number of reasons and their experience and their existing nuclear capabilities, they're much further down the regulatory path than we are."

The provinces are currently working on requests to get federal dollars that would go towards SMR projects.

"Just try to get a further sense from the federal government in terms of their interest in being a partner with us, because one of the things that the roadmap talks about is the importance of looking at developing SMRs on a fleet-wide approach across Canada."

Alberta could be signing on to the MOU as well, as Duncan said he's had positive conversations with their environment minister, Jason Nixon, and understands that Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have also discussed Alberta joining.

Duncan said nuclear might be the only way to reach the federal government's goal of Canada being net-zero emissions by 2050.

"Our early analysis would say that that's not possible in Saskatchewan, and likely beyond our borders, without the deployment of some nuclear in the coming decades."

Duncan called SMRs the "next wave of innovation in the nuclear space."

Saskatchewan hasn't made a decision yet to choose to deploy SMRs. Duncan said there's a lot of work that'll go into consideration over the next decade, though the United States could deploy one in the next couple of years.

"The technology is advancing rapidly, and the interest is growing - both from an industrial standpoint as well as from the environmental community that I think are seeing that if reducing emissions is the name of the game now, then SMRs need to be at least part of that conversation."

SaskPower set a goal to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 40 per cent by 2030. Duncan said they have to be aggressive when looking at things like SMRs and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Things like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster being brought back to life on Netflix might cause some people to think twice about nuclear energy, but Duncan said the technology has come a long way since over the years.

"Previous incidents that have occurred around the world, I think, cause everybody a bit of pause when making the decision of whether this is something they are going to support."

It's still early to say exactly how many jobs would come out of a nuclear facility comprising SMRs. But Duncan said they wouldn't require the same amount of labour as a coal mine.

"At this point, we don't have those firm answers, especially on SMRs on what the employment opportunities may be. But they're likely less than they are today with coal-fired generation."

He added that all alternatives they're considering, whether that's SMRs, natural gas, natural gas paired with renewables, or other types of generation, would require a smaller workforce.

"Any industry that's going through large-scale technology transformation, part of that transformation is what impact it has on employment... Car manufacturing employs robotics and is less labour intensive than it was a generation ago. I don't think there's any getting away from that going forward in the future."

Duncan said the cost of SMR projects is a key point they're analyzing. He said there are a number of international companies that will be making SMRs, with their plans ranging from SMRs that would be as small as 5 MW that would be stacked or bundled together. He said one vendor the MOU partners were looking at before sells SMRs around 50 to 60 MW.

"Because we're so early in this process, and vendors haven't been selected - we're a number of years away from that step - conceptually our early estimates on SMRs - and keep in mind it's a pretty wide range at this point - but they're generally in the ballpark of existing generation options."

He said they wouldn't be looking at the possibility of SMRs if they're weren't comparable.

"If they were three and four times more expensive than our most-expensive generation option that we have today, we just wouldn't be exploring them. But early numbers look like it could be pretty competitive on the cost side. We'll know more of that as we go down this road over the next number of years."

SaskPower was one of a number of organizations that produced a roadmap on SMRs for the federal government, and one thing it suggests is that using one source to provide a number of SMRs across the country to keep costs down. It also advocates for the federal government to partner with provinces.

"Not unlike what we did when we did Boundary Dam 3 in Estevan," said Duncan. "There was a $240 million federal contribution. I think our expectation as MOU partners is we'd like to see the federal government play a role in at least the first deployment of SMRs in Canada."

Duncan said at the very least they need the federal government to approve things, as nuclear energy is federally regulated.