Climate Change and the Future Energy Mix: Canada’s global nuclear influence
- Innovation in nuclear technology has the potential to greatly contribute to Canada and the world’s low-carbon future.
- Canada has a supply chain, public acceptance of nuclear, a good safety record, trust in the regulators and an accommodating regulatory regime. So it meets all the conditions to become a global leader in nuclear energy.
- The nuclear energy industry needs a clear action plan for future collaboration with the government on nuclear energy growth and development.
Canada has the right conditions to develop a robust nuclear energy industry, but we need a clear and cohesive Canadian Civil Nuclear Policy.
How would you describe the current state of Canada’s nuclear energy industry and its potential on the global stage?
Canada’s nuclear energy industry is largely, but not exclusively, located in Ontario. 60% of the province’s electricity is produced by nuclear power, which has extremely low GHG emissions, coupled with a high density of power output. This is a big reason why Ontario has a wonderfully clean electricity record. Nationwide, approximately 20% of Canada’s clean electricity is produced by nuclear power. As the public discourse becomes more focused on clean energy, Canada’s nuclear power contribution, both domestically and abroad, is integral to addressing the world’s climate change issue. Canada uses and exports uranium as fuel to the United States, Japan and various countries around the world. The uranium can be used in its natural state, without enrichment, if the country is using Canadian CANDU reactors. For countries using light-water reactors, the uranium is repurposed into enriched fuel. In both cases, the result is the same: nuclear reactors using Canadian uranium to produce very large quantities of very low-emission electricity. Over the years, Canada has also been exporting its nuclear fuel – uranium – and technology – CANDU reactors – to nations hat would otherwise be using coal as an energy source. Romania is one such example. Canada can make the argument that our nuclear materials and technology have gone worldwide to displace fossil fuels. In fact, if Canadian uranium reserves were used to their full potential, it would eliminate about 16 billion tons of greenhouse gases. That is the equivalent of 4,700 coal power plants.
“Canada’s nuclear power contribution, both domestically and abroad, is integral to addressing the world’s climate change issue.”
One important aspect of Canada’s nuclear potential is the continued evolution of its CANDU technology. CANDU nuclear reactors are Canadian-produced, extremely safe, and, as mentioned, are distinguished by the fact that they do not need enriched fuel. This is a major benefit for countries that do not want or cannot afford the full panoply of enrichment technology, which is needed for the widely used light water nuclear reactors. The CANDU reactor has been described as a groundhog because it can “eat” anything. For instance, thorium is an element prevalent in developing countries like China and India, and the CANDU reactor can be configured to use thorium as a fuel, thereby reducing the volume and radioactivity of the waste product. SNC Lavalin, a leading Canadian engineering company, is working with China on an “Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactor” (AFCR), which can use the waste product of a light-water reactor and burn it again, thereby extracting more energy out of the fuel while again reducing the volume and radioactivity of the waste. The Chinese are building a lot of reactors, mainly light-water reactors. If they build an AFCR for every four light-water reactors, they would benefit considerably from the recycling capability of the CANDU technology. Finally, in the UK, there are plutonium stocks from the UK military program in need of disposal. One method of disposal is a chemical process that creates mixed oxide, which is another fuel the CANDU reactors can utilize. Overall, the flexibility of CANDU technology could have a significant impact on the nuclear industry as a clean energy option.
Another potential future for nuclear reactors is making them smaller. SMRs (small modular reactors) could be constructed that would bring almost unlimited clean heat and electricity to small communities that may lie outside existing electricity transmission grid systems. For example, there are remote northern communities where extremely small reactors of one to six megawatts might be beneficial. Today, there are a number of technology developers coming to Canada from around the world to present their designs and proposals for developing, licensing and deploying SMRs in Canada. The size of the designs range from very small – less than 10 Megawatts – to larger units of 250 Megawatts, which could also be utilized to supplement the clean power needs of provincial grid systems. For example, if you are Bruce Power or Ontario Power Generation, you might need an additional 300 megawatts for your energy grid. Putting a small reactor on the site could be the solution. There are also applications like melting bitumen out of the oil sands, which requires a large source of heat that is carbon free. That is a uniquely attractive opportunity for small reactors in an area where people are open to the idea of new energy technologies. When it comes to nuclear energy development, a lot of eyes are turning to Canada because we have the technical expertise. There are lab sites like Chalk River that are world-renowned facilities. Canada’s technological reputation leads to SMR designers coming into Canada for licensing, not only for the strong technological expertise and experienced Canadian supply chain, but for the Canadian stamp of quality that comes with them.
What role does nuclear have in the government’s energy transition strategy?
The Canadian Government is very engaged on environmental issues – not only to reduce GHG emissions in order to hit the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but also to move to a lower-carbon economy. What will be needed to reach this goal is more electrification based on clean sources of energy. Unfortunately, there is not a high level of political commitment to nuclear power as part of Canada’s future energy mix. A lot of our advocacy and work at CNA has been to get the Canadian government’s recognition and support of nuclear power as part of Canada’s energy supply mix. We’ve had limited success to date. It took the government nearly 6 months to clearly state that nuclear energy was part of Canada’s profile in Mission Innovation – a bold international commitment to accelerate clean energy development. Nuclear was not in Canada’s original involvement in the plan. So, it is a constant effort to remind the government and its stakeholders that nuclear technology is part of the clean energy conversation – as well as being a proven technology. In fact, there are several studies by the Canadian Academy of Engineering and others like the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project that argue the electricity levels needed for aggressive decarbonisation must include nuclear power as an energy source.
“If Canadian uranium reserves were used to their full potential, it would eliminate about 16 billion tons of greenhouse gases. That is the equivalent of 4,700 coal power plants.”
The government has also been involved in the recent restructuring of the Canadian nuclear industry. SNC Lavalin has taken on the manufacturing side of the CANDU technology sector, while Atomic Energy of Canada (ACL) acts as an oversight group with a small staff of 40 or 50 people. The science and technology work at the famous Chalk River nuclear laboratories is now on a commercialized footing with a consortium of companies running its operations on the basis of the “government owned, contractor operated”, or GOCO, model. This restructuring makes today an ideal time for a Civil Nuclear Policy in Canada. We need a clear action plan for future collaboration with the government on nuclear energy growth and development. Many aspects of the nuclear industry sector and its regulation are under federal jurisdiction and have been developed with federal investment and policy support. If we take nuclear technology in the form of SMRs into indigenous communities, this would come under federal jurisdiction. It would therefore be part of the federal government’s responsibility to consider what policies and investments would be need to significantly improve the quality of life for a small community that has never had an essentially unlimited energy source, but could have such a source in the form of a very small SMR.
What is the general public’s interest and support for nuclear technology?
There is a generational pendulum swing of technology being portrayed as a source of problems versus technology being portrayed as a source of solutions. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, technology was going to fix everything. If you came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, technology was going to poison us all and we were all going to die from pollution and cancer. The generation that came of age in the 90s and 2000s have again come to see technology as a source of solutions. We find that younger people today are much more disposed to accept nuclear as an innovative sector and a potential source of solutions. It is a generation that wants something done about climate change and they are open to different solutions. By contrast, the hardest demographic to reach is the aging baby boomer population. They formed their attitudes about nuclear energy through the perilous times of the Cold War and events like the accident in the Soviet Union at Chernobyl. In general, we mainly encounter people who have not given nuclear much thought. Our greatest appeal to this population is to keep an open mind about nuclear energy. This is especially true among those concerned about climate change and low-carbon energy: nuclear offers a proven solution. If you share that concern, our message is “think anew about nuclear” as a safe, strong, clean energy source. We strive to make contact with environmental activists who have shed the inherited ideological bias against nuclear and who really want effective action against climate change. We know they are out there among the general population.
“There are several studies […] that argue the electricity levels needed for aggressive decarbonisation must include nuclear power as an energy source.”
Our polling shows the more people learn about nuclear power, the more they are inclined to feel positive about it. When we went to the University of Toronto to talk to students about nuclear, their initial thoughts about nuclear power were bombs, proliferation and waste. Then we told them the actual facts: nuclear power is similar to wind power in terms of lifecycle GHG emissions. It is certainly far cleaner than coal, oil and natural gas. It produces huge quantities of clean electricity around the clock and has a tiny environmental footprint for that amount of energy when compared with solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, coalfields, and oil and gas. When these facts are shared in the context of climate change, it really resonates with a wide span of demographics. Canada wants to reduce 40% of its GHG emissions by 2030. That is pretty ambitious, but look at China. From 2005, when the nation was at its peak of coal production, to 2030, China wants to reduce greenhouse emissions by 65%. How are they doing it? They are investing 400 billion dollars into renewables and nuclear. India is doing the exact same thing. These countries are investing a great deal more into nuclear than Canada, because they have fully embraced its low GHG profile. Overall, the fastest way to reduce the carbon footprint of any energy mix is to insert nuclear into the picture. Our view remains that successfully reaching our emissions reductions targets will require a “coalition” of clean energy sources – not just ones that are ideologically preferred. We need to be pragmatic, innovative and ecumenical by combining the great clean energy technologies in Canada to really make a difference.
I must also highlight that nuclear’s benefits extend far beyond clean power generation. They include medical diagnosis and treatment, advanced materials science, battery and hydrogen technology for electric vehicles, and so forth. It’s hard to think of any other energy source that treats cancer, but few people know that you need nuclear reactors to produce Cobalt 60 and other essential medical isotopes.
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What conditions need to be met for Canada’s nuclear technology to progress?
Firstly, you need an established supply chain that can actually build the reactor. No matter how great a technology may be on paper, if there’s no supply chain, the energy-producing reactor may never be built, even if every other condition was fulfilled. Fortunately, Canada has a great supply chain.
The second condition is you need a jurisdiction or community with public acceptance of nuclear technology that would tolerate the construction of a reactor. Canada has such jurisdictions, particularly Ontario, where people are acquainted with nuclear technology. To them, the technology is not unfamiliar or frightening. In fact, polling shows upwards of 80% support of reactor-produced power.
“Today is the ideal time for a Civil Nuclear Policy in Canada. We need a clear action plan for future collaboration with the government on nuclear energy growth and development.”
Third, you need a good safety record. Canada has never had a substantial nuclear accident, largely due to the inherent safety of the Canadian-designed and built CANDU reactor and the strength and vigilance of Canada’s nuclear regulator – the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The years of safe operation means that people are not conditioned negatively the way they may be in other countries such as Japan.
Fourth, you need confidence and trust in the federal nuclear regulator. People need to know that the regulator is competent and has not visibly failed in the past. Canada has that as well.
Fifth, you need a regulatory regime that can accommodate innovative changes and evolutions in reactor technology. The Canadian regulatory regime is recognized as being much more amenable to alternative solutions than other nations. This is because Canada has established performance standards rather than process standards, which means the regulator is “technology neutral”. The key test is whether a technology or design can operationally perform up to the high standards of safety imposed by the regulator. As a result, innovative developments, like SMRs for example, can apply for licensing as long as they demonstrate in practice that they meet and exceed the stress tests set by the regulator.
“Younger people are much more disposed to accept nuclear as an innovative sector and a potential source of solutions. It is a generation that wants something done about climate change and they are open to different solutions.”
Sixth, you need a demand for the energy product. In other words, there needs to be communities, municipalities, remote locations, industrial processes, and other sources of demand for clean and copious energy in the form of heat and electricity. Moving to a low-carbon economy, meeting Canada’s Paris Agreement climate change targets, ensuring that people have access to sufficient clean energy wherever they live, switching to electric vehicles – all of these require lots of clean energy.
Canada meets all of these conditions. But we still need the determination and strength of purpose to bring nuclear power into the mainstream of people’s thinking when they worry about climate change, having sufficient clean electricity, creating good jobs, and bringing innovative solutions to the fore.
Where are the future opportunities in the nuclear energy industry?
On a practical level, the industry is constantly innovating in areas that the public does not always see or fully appreciate. For example, reducing the cost of electricity for ratepayers depends, amongst other things, on reducing the time the reactor is out of service. Industry is therefore always looking for ways to reduce the amount of time a reactor is undergoing refurbishment. Meanwhile, refurbishment means another 25-30 years of operation, which in turn amortizes the initial costs of the reactor as well as its life extension over 50-60 years and more of operation. There is also substantial work being done in reducing employees’ exposure to a radioactive environment, which is hazardous and has to be done very carefully. The result is innovative approaches to engineering design, people management, and safety management, all aimed at improving quality control. Robotics is an area that is developing through the reactor refurbishment program in Ontario, because it is clearly desirable to use non-human devices to work in that environment. Much of the advanced and innovative work of reactor refurbishment and construction is being taken on by smaller manufacturing and engineering services companies that collectively constitute what we call the nuclear supply chain.
From an entrepreneurial point of view, the disruptive nature of the energy supply presents a huge opportunity for young professionals to test out their ideas. There are cloud applications for how the smart grid is going to work and how different energy sources are going to react with each other. On the nuclear side, you are going see a lot of innovation in things like molten salt reactors and thorium reactors. These are brand new types of reactors that have not been fully explored yet. There will also be more innovations in drone technologies, which can really bring down the construction, operational and maintenance costs of large-scale power plants.
“The nuclear industry is a strategic asset for the country domestically as well as internationally, but Canada has not yet seen this advantage nor put it together in a cohesive approach.”
From a green economy point of view, there is an entire energy sector – the oil sector –which is being attacked for its large carbon footprint. But the pragmatic solution is not necessarily getting rid of a 100 billion dollar industry. Instead, the industry can work to reduce its carbon footprint and nuclear is right on the cusp of solving some of these problems. SMR technology can power entire mines or refineries. This nuclear energy source can replace an entirely carbon-based supply to produce and refine oil. That would greatly enhance Canada’s broader economic appeal for selling that energy source, because it now has a much lower carbon footprint. There is also carbon capture and storage for solving the climate change problem. And what is going to power that? You will need a lot of distributed energy sources. Nuclear once again can plug right into that energy mix, working supportively and effectively with other clean energy sources, including renewables such as wind, solar and hydroelectricity.
There is a strong vision for the things we can do with nuclear energy. The industry has worked to articulate how it sees the benefits that nuclear technology can bring to Canadians and to the world; and how it plans to invest resources in the innovative and promising new ways of generating abundant clean power. We have set all this out in a recent document called: “Vision 2050: Canada’s Nuclear Advantage”. We hope people will take a look at this roadmap to the future with an open mind to think anew about nuclear. We hope that Canada’s federal government will also keep an open mind over the important role it can play in partnering with us as we travel the pathway to a de-carbonized future. At the moment, the current government is uncertain about that role. We try to gain recognition by the government of how having a nuclear technology and expertise is a vital strategic asset for Canada. For example, when we go into international markets with Canadian nuclear energy expertise, we create long-term strategic relationships with the host country – whether it be Argentina, Romania, South Korea, China. We can actively exploit the internationally known and respected Canadian brand in nuclear. CANDU reactors are Canadian-regulated, they are Canadian-built. We have the entire supply chain from the uranium, to the technology, to the manufacturing, to the operation of such reactors. Very few nations have the entire infrastructure for the nuclear energy industry. The nuclear industry is a strategic asset for the country domestically as well as internationally, but Canada has not yet seen this advantage nor put it together in a cohesive approach.
Yes, our path to growing nuclear energy in Canada and abroad can be a source of frustration because we don’t capitalize on this strategic asset. But we continue to seek markets abroad, because that aspiration of what Canadian nuclear can contribute to humanity and to global clean energy needs is compelling.