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Small Nuclear Reactors to Power Canada’s Low-Carbon Future

By John Barrett, President & CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association
Originally published in the Hill Times, August 13, 2018

Canada has a lot going for it as it seeks to establish itself as a leader in the nuclear energy space. It has world-class research and development capability, including the renowned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and other industry-run, specialized labs, writes the CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Imagine a Canada with a clean, affordable and diversified energy system that is a world leader in deep decarbonization and GHG emissions reduction. Imagine, too, an end to energy poverty in many small and remote Canadian communities that now struggle on diesel fuel.

Imagine a promising, innovative and cutting-edge technology that opens doors to economic competitiveness and puts Canada at the forefront of international supply markets hungry for clean energy solutions.

That imagined future is on the verge of becoming tomorrow’s reality. That is, if we seize the opportunity before us.

The opportunity lies in SMRs – small modular reactors.

SMRs are smaller, simpler and more portable than conventional nuclear power reactors. Many designs utilize advanced technologies to ensure intrinsic and inherent (passive) safety. Should they overheat, they automatically shut down without any human involvement or active cooling systems. Being self-contained, their environmental footprint and impact is next to nil.

These micro-energy systems will be made and fueled at the factory, transported to location, operated safely and affordably for the next five-to-ten years, then returned and replaced by another unit. Most importantly, they provide substantial quantities of clean electricity and heat on a 24/7 basis, independent of changes in wind, water or sunshine, and are designed to operate in harmony with renewable energy and storage technologies.

Canada is seen internationally as leading the way on SMRs. There are several reasons why.

First, nuclear is already a big part of Canada’s low-carbon energy supply, producing 20% of our country’s clean electricity. Nuclear power allowed Ontario to shut down its coal-fired generation for good; it supplies daily around 60% of Ontario’s electricity needs and over one-third of New Brunswick’s. That’s a fact, not an aspiration.

Second, there are distinct areas of the Canadian economy where SMRs are a natural fit. For example, SMRs can be added to existing grids, especially in jurisdictions aiming to reduce use of fossil fuels for power generation; they can be added in increments for the greater electrification needed to transition to a low-carbon economy. In addition, SMRs can be used off-grid in mining and oilsands production, providing large quantities of clean power for mine sites and bitumen extraction processes – thereby reducing GHG emissions significantly. And very small SMRs – essentially large batteries – can power remote settlements that today have no clean, reliable alternatives to diesel fuel.

Third, parliamentarians are recognizing that SMRs offer an opportunity too important to ignore. An all-party study by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources in June 2017 recommended that work be undertaken to examine and promote the beneficial contribution and impact that SMR development promises for Canada.

Fourth, in response to the Committee’s report, key public and private stakeholders have launched the SMR Roadmap Project – a series of policy discussions and workshops with Indigenous people, utilities, provincial representatives, major potential users in the resource extraction and industrial sectors, as well as communities in northern Canada. These consultations are exploring the human and environmental needs that SMRs can fulfill and mapping out the steps needed for SMRs to advance from development, to licensing, to deployment.

Fifth, Canada has an internationally recognized brand in nuclear. We have world-class research and development capability, including the renowned Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and other industry-run specialized labs. We have utilities and operators recognized internationally for their expertise and established record of safe reactor operations. We have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, one of the world’s foremost nuclear regulators, to ensure that SMRs must demonstrate the highest safety standards before a license to operate is issued.

Sixth, the potential for exports of Canadian-made and Canadian-licensed SMRs to international markets is enormous, with considerable job creation and supply chain impact. There is a real appetite for clean energy in many parts of the world: SMRs are a solution to those human needs, which connect directly to better health and longer lives.

If these reasons aren’t compelling enough, then consider: nuclear technology contributes to nine of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals. With CANDU reactors, SMRs and our uranium fuel, Canada can help the world to de-carbonize, bringing our energy and environmental leadership together to provide real benefit to an energy-hungry humanity.

Dr. John Barrett is President & CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association and served as Canada’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

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Nuclear Energy: Weathering the Storm

With people more dependent on the grid than ever before, grid reliance is essential to ensuring that people have access to basic services such as police, fire and clean water. Our dependency on the internet and our mobile devices further adds a level of criticality to having a reliable grid. A reliable grid is made up of two components, the infrastructure that makes up the grid and the energy source that powers it. Both of which can be put to the test when severe weather hits. As was witnessed again this year, when South Florida was a dealt a blow by Irma, nuclear served as a reliable source of energy.

“There was literally not a single pole, wire or piece of equipment that did not feel the wind or the rain of Irma so for us it was unprecedented,” said Peter Robbins, generations communications manager, Florida Power & Light. Four million customers lost power following Irma.

 

Meanwhile, Florida’s two nuclear power plants withstood the fury of the storm. Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear power plants which serve approximately 1.5 million customers are designed to withstand the natural force of such extreme events like hurricanes. Florida’s nuclear plants sit approximately 20 feet above sea level and are constructed to withstand the force of severe flooding and storm surges. Backup safety systems are also in place to ensure site safety.

“Nuclear reactors are specifically designed and constructed to deal with severe weather and extreme natural events including hurricanes and earthquakes. Our plant in Homestead took a direct hit from Andrew (in 1992) and the nuclear components were not damaged. Turkey Point was ready to come back online but the electrical grid was destroyed-there was no -where to send the electricity.”

Findings backed up by a report released by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, almost a year after Hurricane Andrew which stated that, “There was no damage to the safety related systems except for minor water intrusion and some damage to insulation and paint, and there was no radioactive release to the environment.  The units remained in a stable condition and functioned as designed.”

While hurricane preparations and drills take place long before the seasons starts, a week and a half before Irma made landfall, further measures were taken. One of the units was shut down at Turkey Point, in anticipation of hurricane force winds, prior to Irma’s track shifting westward. Following Irma, a full inspection was done at both facilities. The plants, once again proved their resiliency to extreme events. A post-storm inspection revealed only salt buildup on the non-nuclear side of St. Lucie.

“There are a lot of inspections that need to take place to make sure that things held up during the storm. We double and triple check everything and work with emergency management officials,” according to Robbins.

Widespread damage and the amount of debris has posed a huge challenge for power grid restoration crews. In the case of Irma, the storm brought down the equivalent of 2 years of yard waste in one day in some locations.

“It has been more than a decade since our last major hurricane and vegetation builds up. A hurricane will take down weak branches and weak trees and we saw a tremendous amount of vegetation damage during the storm. It takes one tree to crash into a set of power lines to knock out power to a neighborhood or section of a city,” stated Robbins.

Even with all this damage, Florida Power & Light, with the assistance of 20,000 workers from across the United States and Canada, were able to restore power to 2 million people within 24 hours following Irma.

“We have a heartfelt thank you to all the folks who came here from out of state to help us restore power,” stressed Robbins.

Late summer a torrent of hurricanes battering coastlines from the island of Barbuda through the Carolinas in the United States. Harvey, Irma and Maria made headlines for their intensity and catastrophic damage. For the first time in centuries, the island of Barbuda was completely vacated after Irma moved through and damaged or destroyed 95% of the island’s buildings. As the monster storm moved over Florida, Irma brought widespread destruction, making landfall as a Category 4 storm, the second strongest on the Saffir Simpson scale.

These recent storms have highlighted the need for reliable energy, generation and grid infrastructure. While the ocean waters are calm for now, if atmospheric conditions are just right more storms could find their way swirling across the Atlantic. Once again, people will need reliable and resilient infrastructure-from energy generation and distribution to homes. Once again, the reliability and safety of nuclear power generating stations can be counted on.

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Nuclear: A Part of Canada’s Energy Transition

The Generation Energy Council Report released last month is an important milestone in the continuous dialogue that must occur around energy innovation at the federal level. The Report highlights the importance of swift yet thoughtful decarbonization and proposes strategies to achieve the low-carbon future we all want.

The Canadian nuclear industry fully supports the spirit of the Report, and much of the advice. However, the industry would like to emphasize the greater role that nuclear energy can have in leading the energy transition.

Below are four ways in which nuclear can contribute to an energy future that is affordable, reliable and clean.

1) Small modular reactors for resource extraction, energy to remote communities and grid power

Small modular reactors (SMRs) have a smaller electrical capacity than most current power reactors, anywhere from 1-300 MW, and are modular in both construction and deployment.

SMRs are perfectly suited for on- and off-grid resource extraction, such as Canada’s oil sands operations and Ring of Fire mining. Substituting nuclear-generated heat into these processes would reduce greenhouse gases and conserve our natural gas wealth for higher-value uses.

SMRs also hold great potential for regions that currently rely on dirty diesel fuel, such as Canada’s remote and off-grid communities. Not only could SMRs provide clean energy to these communities, it could in many instances alleviate energy poverty.

Canada is already recognized internationally as a favourable market and regulatory environment for SMRs. Establishing a leadership position early would enable Canada to secure a significant share of the projected $400-600 billion global market for SMR technology.

2) Nuclear energy to produce hydrogen for fuel and energy storage

Not only can nuclear energy provide clean heat and electricity, it can also be used to produce hydrogen. Technologies that employ hydrogen as fuel or for energy storage are well established in Canada. Hydrogen-powered vehicles are on the rise, but unless the hydrogen is produced using clean energy sources like nuclear, they risk being just as polluting as gas-powered vehicles.

The comprehensive Trottier Energy Futures Project of the Canadian Academy of Engineering lays out in stark terms the magnitude of the challenge of decarbonization and concludes that to meet the government’s 2050 targets will require a massive increase in electrification of energy supply through a diverse set of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear.

3) New nuclear power reactors for on-grid power

The use of nuclear energy has allowed Canada to achieve a mostly clean energy portfolio. Nuclear energy is the largest source of clean energy after hydro, providing approximately 15% of Canada’s electricity, and 60% of Ontario’s electricity. Between 2005 and 2015, nuclear energy enabled Ontario to completely phase out coal, improving air quality and reducing respiratory illnesses and deaths.

Additional nuclear reactors could provide the same clean air benefits to other provinces that currently burn large amounts of fossil fuels, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

As well as being a clean energy option, grid-based nuclear is affordable and reliable. In Ontario, only hydro is more affordable. Wind is about twice as expensive as nuclear, and solar is more than six times as expensive.

Nuclear generating stations are also extremely reliable, producing electricity day and night, regardless of the weather.

4) Social and economic advantages of a strong nuclear industry in Canada

Through clean nuclear energy generation in Ontario (60%) and New Brunswick (30%), radioisotope production for nuclear diagnoses and therapy, and numerous other technology applications throughout the country, the Canadian nuclear industry is an undeniable source of revenue, jobs and economic prosperity.

The nuclear industry employs 60,000 Canadians directly and indirectly. Careers in the nuclear industry offer challenging work, competitive salaries and benefits, and opportunities for advancement. Because many of the jobs require highly developed skills and advanced education, the nuclear industry offers a homegrown job market for skilled graduates and attracts international talent to Canada.

The nuclear industry is also in the process of refurbishing 10 of its reactors so that they can continue to provide another 30 to 40 years of clean, reliable electricity. The refurbishments are currently Canada’s largest infrastructure projects, and are progressing on time and on budget.

About Vision 2050: Canada’s Nuclear Advantage

The nuclear industry has developed a vision of nuclear technology’s role in Canada’s clean energy future. The vision (cna.ca/vision2050) describes how Canada can become a world leader in producing clean, reliable energy for all Canadians, while stimulating the economy and creating jobs. It also explains how nuclear and renewable energy can work hand-in-glove to tackle climate change. Most importantly, it sets out a pathway of partnership between industry and government which would help Canada achieve its energy policy goals.

About the Canadian Nuclear Association

Since 1960, the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) has been the national voice of the Canadian nuclear industry. Working alongside our members and all communities of interest, the CNA promotes the industry nationally and internationally, works with governments on policies affecting the sector and works to increase awareness and understanding of the value nuclear technology brings to the environment, economy and the daily life of Canadians.

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WiN-Canada Student Pioneer Scholarship 2018

Women in Nuclear Canada wishes to recognize young women who act as pioneers of the nuclear industry and play a pivotal role, in their studies and in their communities, in highlighting the benefits of the nuclear industry.

The Women in Nuclear Canada Student Scholarship will be awarded to three (3) deserving applicants (one undergraduate, one graduate and one technical college/trade school).

The winners will receive: an engraved plaque, a financial contribution of $3,000.00 each to be put towards their continued pursuit of a career in the nuclear industry and complimentary Conference registration (including accommodations and travel expenses, up to a maximum of $1,500.00).

APPLY NOW!

The deadline for applications is Friday, August 17. Feel free to share the links/information on the scholarship within your networks.

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Nuclear Science: Unravelling the Big Bang

One of the most popular shows on television, the Big Bang Theory has created a buzz around science thanks in part to the quirky antics of theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper, as portrayed by actor Jim Parsons. Far from Gino the Neutrino, real life physicist and Nobel Laureate, Art McDonald has been working to unravel the mystery of the Big Bang. Like the character of Dr. Cooper, he believes neutrinos hold some answers to understanding the evolution of the universe.

“The knowledge of properties of neutrinos are important in understanding our origins. They have a significant influence in the way in which the universe evolves and the way in which the elements are created in collapsing stars etc.,” according to Dr. Art McDonald, Professor Emeritus, Queens University and Nobel Laureate. “In fact, with the series of nuclear reactions in stars and supernova that build up the elements starting with hydrogen, you can understand within a factor of 2 or so the abundances of all the elements up to iron. It gives us a pretty strong confirmation of where the elements came from. From a cultural point of view, we have an understanding of our origins as stardust.”

Almost massless and so penetrating that it took many years for them to even be observed, neutrinos are particles that are produced in enormous numbers in the core of the Sun. They were observed with a ten-storey tall detector 2 km underground with a core of 1000 tonnes of heavy water loaned from Canada’s reserves and known as The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). In 2015 McDonald’s work earned the highest honour with a Nobel Prize in Physics, an award which he shared with Japanese physicist Takaaki Kajita.

“I am very conscious of the fact that I was the director and singled out for the prize but the work was done by hundreds of people, including scientists from Chalk River. Two-hundred and seventy-three authors including over two-hundred students and post-docs,” according to McDonald.

McDonald’s achievements were recently honoured again, this time by the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS) where he was presented with the the prestigious WB Lewis Award. The award, named after the physicist who was a leader in the development of the CANDU reactor, is given every year to a scientist has made a significant contribution to the field of nuclear science.  McDonald, like Lewis, worked in Chalk River and had the opportunity to meet the award’s namesake.

Photo Courtesy of Art McDonald

“I didn’t work with him but I knew him and particularly I knew what his impact was on the nuclear industry. He was a very intelligent person who brought innovation to the field,” according to McDonald.

An innovator himself, McDonald’s work has taken him deep beneath the surface of the Earth at the SNOLAB in Sudbury, Ontario to avoid the cosmic rays that would otherwise interfere with measurements. In this ultra-low radioactivity laboratory, researchers are working on further understanding the universe, how it has evolved and the dark matter that holds our galaxy together.

Attracting talent from all over the world, the SNOLAB is determined to make Canada a world leader in particle physics and to help train the next generation of scientists. For McDonald, the next generation of science will include investments in nuclear science and nuclear energy.

“I think nuclear is a very important technology for the future and I am confident that the techniques that have been developed for handling of nuclear waste are up to the job,” according to McDonald. “I think it’s necessary because many of the other things that we should be pursuing as well, solar and wind are episodic in nature and we need a solid baseload that doesn’t pollute our environment on a daily basis.”

Thanks to the work of Dr. McDonald and others we are one step closer to understanding the origins of our universe and how it evolved.

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CNA a proud signatory to Equal by 30

The Canadian Nuclear Association is proud to be a signatory to Equal by 30, along with our members Bruce Power, Ontario Power Generation and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

Equal by 30 commits Canada and other participating countries to the goal of achieving equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities by 2030 in the energy sector.

CNA President John Barrett was on hand for the launch of the campaign at this year’s Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Check out the new Equal by 30 website to learn more about the importance of gender equality in the clean energy sector.