Nuclear: The Forgotten Clean Energy
In this episode of AskNRCan, Diane Cameron and Dave McCauley discuss how nuclear energy will play a key role in meeting our international climate targets.
Joel: Welcome everyone to Ask NRCan, our podcast series where we discuss a topic relating to the work that we do here at Natural Resources Canada (or NRCan for short).
Today, we’re going to explore a type of “clean energy” that tends to be forgotten or overlooked by most of us. We talk a lot about hydro, solar, and wind as clean energy sources. But what about nuclear energy? Should it be part of the conversation as well?
Now, before we get in too deep, let me explain the format of show to you in case you are new to the podcast.
How this works is that I’ll introduce a topic, we’ll discuss it with one of our NRCan experts, and then we’ll look to you to continue the conversation over social media.
At the end of the episode, if you have any questions on today’s topic, we encourage you to go on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “#AskNRCAN”. Our expert will do his or her best to answer all relevant questions.
Sounds good? Ok, let’s get started!
Joel: In studio today, we have Diane Cameron, Director of the Nuclear Energy Division here at NRCan and Dave McCauley, Director of Uranium and Radioactive Waste Division. Dave, Diane, thank you for joining us.
Diane: Thanks for having us.
Dave: Nice to be here.
Joel: Okay, let’s just jump right into it. I want to start by addressing something that’s top of mind for most of us. There is kind of a stigma around nuclear energy. There are some that are concerned, or even have fears of the technology itself. So, let’s just get right into it. Is nuclear energy safe?
Diane: That’s a great question. I would open by saying that we have a great regulator in Canada – a great independent nuclear safety regulator, and Canada regularly opens its doors to international scrutiny on our practices, to insure that our standards and practices are world leading. In fact, our regulator, that’s the CNSC (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) is recognized as one of the top nuclear regulators in the world, and is subject to regular international peer review. Canada’s nuclear industry – we have an excellent safety record, spanning several decades, and there has been no public harm from the operation of nuclear power plants in Canada.
Joel: That’s a pretty good track record. Let’s talk uranium, because I think that’s one of the concerns that most people have. I think Dave, this question would go to you. What kind of uranium do we use in Canadian technology?
Dave: We use unenriched uranium. Canada is the second largest producer of uranium in the world and we export it broadly around the world. In Canada, in the CANDU technology, we use unenriched natural uranium, and when I say unenriched natural uranium, it’s unenriched for the isotope U-235. Our material is mined in Saskatchewan, it’s milled in Saskatchewan, refined in Blind River Ontario, and then made into fuel in Port Hope Ontario, and then pelletized and it’s put right into CANDU reactors.
Joel: Okay so, enriched uranium – would that be more dangerous?
Dave: It has higher levels of radioactivity, it’s enriched in the isotope of uranium – Isotope Uranium-235 – and it’s enriched to levels of around 3% for use in light water reactors. Now, we don’t use light water reactors in Canada, we use heavy water reactors. So for our exports of uranium, they’re enriched in the countries that use light-water reactors.
Joel: I see. So you’re talking about radioactive – what about the radioactive waste? How much waste do our power plants generate?
Dave: So, currently, we have over the full course of our use of nuclear energy, we have a volume of high-level radioactive waste, or we refer to it as nuclear fuel waste, in the amount of a volume that would fill roughly seven hockey rinks to the top of the boards.
Joel: That’s since the beginning?
Dave: Since 1973 – since roughly 1973 – so very limited amounts of nuclear fuel waste. There are other forms of radioactive waste, but nuclear fuel waste is really the most hazardous aspect. It’s highly radioactive, and so it must be managed very carefully, isolated, and certainly it remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
Joel: So where do we store this waste? Do we have the infrastructure to contain it for that long?
Dave: Yes, absolutely. All radioactive waste in Canada is managed safely at storage facilities. In terms of nuclear fuel waste, the waste is managed at the reactor site where it’s generated, either in wet pools, or after a period of roughly ten years, it’s moved into dry canisters above ground. And eventually, it will be moved into a deep geological repository for disposal.
Joel: Okay, so if we look at the history, Diane, you said that there is no history of incidents in Canada. Is that correct?
Diane: That’s right, there has been no public harm from the operation of nuclear power plants in Canada since CANDU started operating in Canada.
Joel: That’s interesting.
Diane: We have a great safety record in Canada.
Joel: That’s good to know. Let’s move to clean energy, because that’s one of the things that I wanted to talk about today. Nuclear seems to be a forgotten clean energy. How does it compare to other clean energies, like wind and solar?
Diane: I think that’s a great question, and it’s and interesting turn of phrase that you’re using, “Forgotten”. It is forgotten in some discussions, but actually, the reality is the International Energy Agency has projected that in order for us to meet our two degree scenario – so, countries under the Paris Agreement have committed to try to limit global warming, average to the two degrees – and all of the pathways that the International Energy Agency has identified require for us to meet that target require at least a doubling of global installed nuclear capacity by 2040. So it’s not front and centre in a lot of the discussions, especially the public discussions, but if you speak amongst scientists and amongst climate experts, many will recognize the importance of nuclear as a non-emitting source of energy that’s presently available on the scales that we need it in order to make our climate targets.
Joel: Okay, so how clean is nuclear compared to solar or wind? Is it measured in greenhouse gas emissions?
Diane: Sure, it’s a good question. So, for example, the definition of “clean energy” – you definitely need to take into consideration emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. So if your principal objective is to address climate change, then your main metric for defining what “clean” means is greenhouse gas emissions. There are other considerations, of course also, water use, land use, waste management, end of life cycle, but as Dave has set out, on the nuclear side, we have a full life cycle management.
Dave: Yes, I’d like to pick up on that. In Canada, our wastes are managed from they day they are produced, until the day they’re disposed of, and operators are required to set aside the funds required for the full management of their wastes until they’re disposed of, and even beyond there for ongoing monitoring and maintenance. And in fact, comparing electricity generated by nuclear, we really internalize all the costs of waste management into the cost of electricity for consumers. So, this is what the utilities do.
Joel: That brings an interesting question. The costs related to nuclear energy – electricity driven by nuclear – is it more expensive than hydro?
Diane: It has a different cost profile, so to speak. There are definitely significant upfront capital costs associated with building nuclear power plants. But then, over the course of the life of the nuclear power plant, the operating costs and the fuel costs tend to be quite low, and the power plants can generate power over several decades. If you look at the refurbishments of the Ontario nuclear power plants that are taking place, at Bruce Power, the price over the life of the agreement will be approximately 7.7 cents/kilowatt hour, at Ontario Power Generation for the Darlington site, their costs will be approximately 8.1 cents/kilowatt hour, and so those costs are absolutely competitive with other base load generation options. And as Dave mentioned, the prices for nuclear generation in Canada is fully inclusive of all costs, including waste management and decommissioning.
Joel: So how many power plants do we have in Canada?
Diane: How many power plants, or how many nuclear power plants?
Joel: Nuclear power plants, sorry.
Dave: There are 18 operating nuclear power plants.
Dave: Mainly in Ontario, and then one in New Brunswick.
Joel: Really? Why is it mostly in Ontario? Why don’t we have them across the country?
Dave: I think that Ontario probably relies on nuclear because it was recognized as an appropriate generation technology. It’s up to the provinces to determine how they’re going to supply their electricity, and in other provinces, I think there are other options that are more economic for development, such as in British Columbia, you have hydroelectric plants. In Manitoba, in Quebec, and in the prairie provinces, they’ve traditionally relied on thermal energy or fossil fuel generated electricity.
Joel: Do you think that the negative perception that nuclear energy has with Chernobyl, with Three Mile Island, with Fukushima, do you think that is preventing the technology from having a more prominent role in Canada’s energy mix.
Diane: It’s a great question. I’d like to unpack it into a couple parts. First of all, nuclear already has a fairly prominent role in Canada’s electricity mix. So, our electricity mix is 80% decarbonized – more than 80% - it’s mostly hydro, but a big part of it is nuclear. So nuclear accounts for about 15% of national electricity production, and that’s about 33% in New Brunswick, and 63% in Ontario. But it is up to the provinces to decide.
We have shared jurisdiction, so the federal government has a role to play. We set certain policies, especially with respect to nuclear liability, nuclear waste management, nuclear research and development, we play a convening role on a number of international engagements on nuclear, but it is the provinces that decide what to build. And they make that decision based on their endowments of natural resources – like Dave mentioned, hydro – on cost, but also on public perception.
The interesting thing to know about public perception is – I find this fascinating every time someone brings this up – other sources of energy have decreasing public acceptance the closer you get to the facility. So the closer you live to a coal fire plant, or the closer you live to large-scale hydro, and the closer you live to wind turbines, the lower your public acceptance of that form of energy. The opposite is actually true with nuclear energy, so you’ll find that the communities in the vicinity of Bruce Power, which is the largest nuclear power plant operating in the world today, the community surrounding Bruce Power are quite accepting of nuclear. They understand how it works, they understand the safety standards that are being maintained, and they also tend to be employed with really good, high quality high tech jobs.
Joel: Well, that helps for sure. Do you think education is the way to get the Canadian public on board for an increased nuclear presence based on what you just said?
Diane: My view is that we have to get real about the conversation about climate change, and acknowledge that there are no silver bullets, no perfect options. And we have to be looking at the full set of options that are available to us. We know that have, essentially, a carbon budget that we have as a global community and that we need to go to zero carbon emissions by roughly 2100. In order to do that, we’re going to have to make investments in emerging technologies. On the demand side, efficiency, smart grids, the variable renewables and distributed power generation, solar and wind, those will be key. But also, we have non-emitting nuclear technologies that we know how to operate safely that are ready to deploy at large scales today.
And so, “the role of nuclear” part of the conversation should be: Is nuclear an option to displace as much carbon as possible, and buy us time for breakthroughs in those other technologies? It could be seen as a stepping-stone, because we do have this carbon budget, and we need to act now.
Joel: You mentioned the global community. Is Canada working with other countries on international projects or their own respective projects when it comes to nuclear?
Diane: Absolutely. One really exciting project that we’re working on is under the Clean Energy Ministerial Framework where we’re working with partners to launch a nuclear initiative under that framework. The Clean Energy Ministerial is a collection of approximately thirty countries that meet at the ministerial level annually and advance policy discussions in a variety of different ways across the spectrum of clean energy technologies. This year, in May, Canada, the US and Japan are going to launch a nuclear initiative and invite other countries to join us. It’s significant because this will really be the first time that any country stands up in a multilateral form that is related to clean energy and climate change, and says: nuclear needs to be part of the discussion. We can’t just have our scientists talking about it, and have if sort of pushed out of the spotlight, it needs to be part of the main discussion. We have about eight countries already signed on to join us, and about another seven that have expressed some interest. We think it might be a turning point in the international discussion.
Joel: That’s really interesting, I assume it’s going to take a more prominent role than political debates as well. At least it’s going to be more prominent during those discussions.
Diane: Baby steps.
Joel: Exactly. What does the future of nuclear look like? Where are we heading towards? Is there some interesting technology, are there ways that we can handle waste differently, what is happening on that front?
Diane: Let me take a stab on the technology side, and then Dave can speak to the waste issues.
So on the technology side, in Canada and around the world, small modular reactors are the buzz right now. There’s lots of innovation taking place to develop what we are calling SMRs (Small Modular Reactors). These are new, innovative reactors. They’re smaller, as the name says. They’re also modular, many of them are being designed so that they can be factory produced and then shipped to locations including off-grid locations and assembled onsite. Many of them promise radically improved safety features, things like passive safety, walk away safety, where as soon as something goes wrong, the laws of physics automatically turn the whole thing off. Instead of heating up, it automatically cools off.
Joel: That seems much safer.
Diane: Well, it’s one way of improving safety for sure. And what’s interesting about these is the potential applications. So in Canada, these innovations are being contemplated for applications on-grid in some provinces that don’t have the capacity for another full-scale CANDU. There are some provinces that are trying to get off of coal, and they’re looking at SMRs as one of their options for getting off of coal, and keeping their electricity decarbonized.
Another possible application is mining, heavy industry and oil sands, production, where they need to get off of coal, and off of GHG emitting sources as well, and there are SMR designs that promise to provide combined heat and power with really high quality steam, which would be great for those applications.
And then the third possible application in Canada in the remote north communities where they are presently relying on diesel. Some of those communities are looking at wind and solar to get them partially off of diesel, but it won’t be able to get them completely off of diesel. And so there are SMRs that are looking to couple with – you could have a wind turbine and an SMR working together and get the community 100% off of diesel.
Some of these innovations are possibly going to be deployment ready within the next five years. Others are further out, in a twenty-year timeframe, but there is a lot of really interesting technological work taking place.
And I would just say that in terms of – you asked what’s sort of new and cooking in nuclear – I think worldwide, there is also an important story to tell, and CANDU is part of that worldwide story. China is ramping up to become – they definitely have the most ambitious nuclear expansion plan in place for civil power generation.
CANDU is in negotiations, working with the Chinese to be part of that story. They already operate some CANDU reactors, and now, SNC-Lavalin CANDU Energy is working with them on the design of the advanced fuel CANDU Reactor. And what’s really neat about that reactor is that China has a fleet of light water reactors, a different kind of technology, and the light water reactors, when they’re done with their fuel package, and they have the spent fuel or waste – you could call it waste. If you take the spent fuel from four of these reactors, you can then use that to fully fuel one AFCR Advanced-Fuel CANDU Reactor. It’s like a second burn on the fuel – get more energy out of the same amount of uranium and reduce your long-term waste issues. So lots of really interesting innovations taking place in Canada and abroad.
Joel: That’s really interesting. Dave, I’m going to let you stickhandle the waste aspect.
Dave: Well, the major criticism of nuclear energy has been the lack of solution for the nuclear fuel waste that is a result of the process, and I think that we’re seeing some progress in that area – some very significant progress. I think that there is international consensus that geological repositories are the proper end state for the disposal of nuclear fuel waste, and in fact, now we’re seeing the first nuclear geological repository being constructed in Finland , so they’ve been first to get off the mark. Other countries are following suit. The Swedes are moving ahead, the French.
In Canada, we have really what I consider to be the gold standard in terms of a process underway to build public confidence for a deep geological repository for our nuclear fuel waste, and that’s being lead by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is an organization of the nuclear utilities and the owners of the waste. They’re moving forward with volunteer communities who are interested in actually hosting a facility for the long-term management because they see benefits, and they see obligation, and I think that the process is working out very well. Other countries are looking at our process and seeing that it’s something that they should be replicating in their own countries. So I see that part as being very exciting.
Joel: This has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you so much Dave and Diane for demystifying nuclear energy for us.
Diane: Our pleasure.
Dave: You’re welcome.
Now’s the point of the episode where we ask you to continue the conversation over social media. If you have questions for Diane, or if you have comments on this episode, we’d like you to get on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “#AskNRCan”.
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