In this article we discuss nuclear power: how it looks in Canada, and some options for the future.
With future energy being top of mind for many Canadians, canadNow is publishing a series of articles about sustainable energy sources for Canada. We have previously discussed wind power, and hope to discuss solar in the future.
Nuclear power is a contested issue. On the one side, it is emissions free and can run on full power even in extreme weather. On the other, there are concerns over safety, how to safely dispose of spent fuel, and initial costs.
As with any form of energy production, there are advantages and disadvantages.
In this article we look at the state of nuclear in Canada and potential future developments, especially with regard to a home grown technology: Small Modular Reactors (SMR’s).
An overview of Nuclear Power
The numbers: the nuclear industry directly employs about 30,000 people, 30,000 indirectly, generates $6.6 billion in revenue, and contributes $1.5 billion in taxes.
Roughly 15% of Canada’s electricity comes from nuclear power. Most of the plants are in Ontario.
Nuclear power production in Canada started in the early 1960’s. There are 22 nuclear reactors in five plants across three provinces. These are the traditional Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors.
Ontario is in the process of refurbishing its plants, and this is one of the largest green energy projects in North America.
With rising calls around the world for environmental sustainability, traditional energy sources have come under increasing scrutiny. Most of this focus has been on CO2 emissions, which exacerbate global warming.
To that end, nuclear would appear to be an attractive solution: it produces zero emissions.
Opponents typically quote the consequences of major accidents (most notably Chernobyl) and question how the radioactive waste can be properly stored.
Those in favour of nuclear power say it is a clear choice for environmentally friendly, sustainable, long term predictable energy production.
In response to criticisms about removing waste, companies claim there are safe ways to do so, and that every method of energy production has its own harmful by-products.
In Canada, there is a new type of reactor being designed, with many claiming it to be the future of nuclear power generation: SMR’s.
Small Modular Reactors
SMR’s are small nuclear reactors that are modular: they can be mass produced in factories, shipped in sections, and set up anywhere. They are cheaper and smaller than conventional nuclear plants. More information can be found here.
They could provide a very specific opportunity to generate energy in places which are traditionally off the grid, or for industrial sites. They are also relatively easy to ship, making them a potential export commodity, especially in places without pervasive electrical infrastructure.
Canada attracts investment in these reactors because we have a competitive advantage, especially with respect to the United States, where licensing is a long and expensive process.
This source of nuclear power is estimated to have the potential to provide 6,000 jobs and add up to $10 billion to GDP between 2030 and 2040. The export potential of SMR’s is estimated to be between $150 billion per year between 2030 and 2040.
Critics say that SMR’s have not yet been commercially proven in Canada, and that the smaller reactors suffer from much lower economies of scale than larger reactors: they cost more per unit of energy produced.
However, as with any new energy source, front end research and development is disproportionately greater at the beginning, and drops off as designs are completed and shipments begin.
Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan have agreed to work together to develop SMR’s.
As of now, an environmental assessment was recently launched in response to a request to build an SMR 200km northwest of Ottawa at Chalk River.
Looking at the Future
Nuclear power is a very divided topic, and will continue being one for the foreseeable future.
On the one hand, the zero emissions make it an attractive option for countries looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
But concerns about accidents, nuclear waste, and NIMBY are factors it will have to defend against.
It is important to note a benefit which deserves more attention: Canada is a major source of uranium. So, our nuclear industry has the potential to be completely self-contained, and self-reliant.
And there is the prestige factor: the reputation gained from being the world’s leading source of SMR research, and the market share this could provide.
However, there will be a major responsibility on the part of the developers of new nuclear technology to show that it is safe, and that waste can be responsibly disposed.
So, both sides of the issue are hotly contested, and stakeholders will have to prove their viewpoints to Canadians.
Keep these ideas in mind as Canada debates sustainable energy in the future.