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Climate Action, Clean Energy and the Case for Nuclear

By John Barrett
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association

Originally published by Policy Magazine.

With more and more countries struggling to meet the emissions goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, it makes sense to consider all the low-carbon options at our disposal. Canadian Nuclear Association CEO John Barrett makes the case, ahead of the G7 in Charlevoix, for an approach that includes a renewed focus on nuclear energy. 

As world leaders gather in Charlevoix, Quebec, this June for the 2018 G7 Summit, the agenda will focus on concrete solutions to global challenges that extend far beyond the borders of these seven countries. Climate change and clean energy will be front and centre. What does Canada have to offer in leadership and real solutions?

Canada and France are leading the way in clean energy generation in the G7 and this is due in part to major investments in low-carbon, affordable nuclear power. In fact, according to a recent report by Natural Resources Canada, Canada’s electrical system is 80 per cent free of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to France out of all G7 nations. Furthermore, thanks to investments in clean energy, Canada’s overall GHG emissions profile went down by a few percentage points in recent years even as the economy grew. 

This is important because time to meet international climate change targets is running out. 

The International Energy Agency’s first Global Energy and CO2 Status Report found global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2017, after three years of being flat. In Canada, a joint audit, conducted by federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand and auditors general in nine provinces, found Canada was not on track to meet its 2020 or 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets. 

Investments in clean and affordable energy aren’t just about reducing emissions, they are the foundation to ensuring access to jobs, health-care and education. Clean and cheap energy is necessary to lift communities out of poverty while ensuring environmental protection. Without proper electricity, countries suffer. As the World Bank reported, “one-quarter of the world population have no access to electricity. In the absence of vigorous new policies, 1.4 billion people will still lack electricity in 2030.” 

And, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), seven million people die every year from air pollution. The challenge is to produce policies and investments to transition to a lower-carbon economy. And to help other countries, where appropriate, to acquire the technology and materials for generating electricity from low-carbon sources. 

Some propose single solutions based on a preferred technology. Single answers to complex problems invite false hope for technologies that are today neither available nor proven effective when quantity, reliability and affordability are considered. This adds a considerable risk for huge costs as well as detrimental environmental impacts. 

For example, Germany’s Energiewende is a cautionary tale on why going green isn’t as easy as it sounds. Germany has shut down nuclear plants while making huge investments in wind and solar energy. However, its emissions have not declined. The new renewable energy has only offset the loss of nuclear—meaning that Germany has given up on meeting its 2020 emissions targets. Coal still represents 40 per cent of Germany’s electricity mix. At the same time, the cost of power over the last decade has escalated, rising by close to 50 per cent. 

This begs the question that, if we are really concerned about the impacts of climate change and if we really do need to ramp up energy production as a method of lifting people out of poverty and driving economic growth, why would we not include a low-carbon option such as nuclear power?

Instead of looking to Germany, look to Canada, especially the province of Ontario. Ontario is the real clean energy leader. 

Nuclear power is the main driver of Ontario’s almost zero-emission energy grid. The province is home to one of the largest investments in clean-energy nuclear on the planet. Nuclear provides the bulk of the electrical generation to the province; close to two-thirds of the energy supplied every day comes from the nuclear generating stations. 

Outside Ontario, New Brunswick has also demonstrated the benefits of nuclear to a clean and affordable electrical grid; displacing tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And thanks to the power of uranium from Saskatchewan, a pop-can sized amount of this rock is all the amount a person would need to power their lifetime; using a small amount of the Earth to create massive amounts of power.

The next generation in nuclear energy technology is already here. Natural Resources Canada is leading a mapping process under the Energy Innovation Program to explore the potential for on- and off-grid applications for small modular reactor (SMR) technology in Canada. Driven by interested provincial and territorial governments and energy utilities, the exercise will assess the characteristics of different SMR technologies and how they align with user requirements and Canadian priorities. The roadmap will be an important step for Canada to advance innovative, next-generation nuclear technologies and become a global leader in the emerging SMR market.

Meanwhile, the CANDU-reactor refurbishment program, supported by Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan, is underway and moving through the first phase at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station on time and on budget. This program will replace major components and refurbish 10 reactors in total over the next 12 years at Darlington NGS and at Bruce Power’s site in Kincardine.  

This $26 billion program is the single largest clean-energy investment by any jurisdiction in the western hemisphere and possibly beyond. Moreover, it has unleashed creative juices, as both Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power are encouraging innovation and advanced technology use at every step. Already there are important advances in robotics and control systems that will have application in other, non-power sectors of the Canadian economy.

Canada’s nuclear contributions to the G7 aren’t limited to energy. Nuclear science and technology has many proven benefits, meeting nine of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Nuclear reactors provide opportunities for water desalination to communities that experience water shortages. Desalinating water requires a tremendous amount of energy and nuclear can do it while releasing hardly any greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Research and innovation in health care has helped to make Canada a world leader in the production of Cobalt-60, which is used in many areas of our health industry. Cobalt-60 is used in sterilization, diagnostics and treatments. This includes isotopes to help detect and treat diseases, new research into gamma therapy, and blasting tumor cells from the inside out and protecting healthy, surrounding tissues.

Canada’s nuclear reactor technology and uranium exports have, over the last 30 years, contributed globally to the avoidance of at least a billion tonnes of CO2 (in displacing fossil fuel sources)—a unique and ongoing contribution to global climate change mitigation which no other Canadian energy source can claim.

The next generation of nuclear technology will build on Canada’s track record of excellence, looking to recycle current spent fuel, developing reactors that can provide power and heat to communities and even hold the promise of carbon-free gasoline. 

Climate change and clean energy are two of the most pressing issues of our time. Canada has a real opportunity to continue to take centre stage on these issues. The facts still matter. If we are to achieve our climate targets, sustainably manage resources for future generations and provide the world with access to clean and cheap energy, then we need nuclear to be part of the mix. Recognizing this is an important step to bringing real solutions today, without waiting for technologies that are not here now. 

With time running out to meet greenhouse gas emission targets and to prevent climate change from increasing temperatures by two degrees Celsius—now is not the time to expect a silver bullet to appear or to rely on one technology over another. 

A more effective and realistic approach is to foster collaboration that makes the best use of all available solutions to create a low-carbon future, allowing the world to meet emission targets while avoiding the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. 

Thanks to nuclear’s role in our electricity mix, Canada and Ontario can show how it can be done.

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India and Canada: Opportunities for Nuclear Growth

It’s a storied history and one that dates back to the 1960s. Today, India and Canada are entering a new chapter in nuclear development. They are the two largest countries that rely on CANDU technology, a reactor that uses heavy water. Heavy water is water that contains an extra amount of deuterium.

This provides huge opportunities for collaboration and innovation between the two countries to advance and improve upon current technologies according to Justin Hannah, director, external relations for CANDU/SNC Lavalin.

“India has 18 power reactors based on CANDU designs, meaning Canada is well positioned to service the fleet, help with life extension and work with India to develop the next generation of reactors together.”

It’s an important step. According to a recent report from the World Bank, “about 300 million people still do not have access to electricity, and even those who have access to electricity do not get reliable supply, particularly in rural areas.”

Electrification is key to bring people out of poverty and the two countries working together to develop parallel technology, means the production of more efficient reactors and the elimination of blackouts while providing more CO2 free power.

“Every megawatt of nuclear displaces coal,” says Hannah.

A developing middle class and a booming population have put further strains on the current power grid. A grid that is heavily reliant on coal.uraniumrocks

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), energy consumption in India more than doubled between 1990 and 2011. In order to further reduce GHG emissions and meet power demands, India is forecast to grow nuclear power in the next 35 years. This will allow India to meet a quarter of its power demands through nuclear, which means global opportunities to take safety, design and economics to the next level.

December 2015 marked the first shipment of Canadian uranium to India. Under the deal, Canada will supply over 7 million pounds of uranium to India valued at over a quarter of a billion dollars.

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Nuclear Fun Fact: Nuclear in Canada

Canada

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Where Will Canada’s Spent Fuel Go?

The plan to store nuclear waste underground at a site near Kincardine, Ontario is only for Canada’s low- and intermediate-level waste. It does not include spent fuel – the uranium that has been used in nuclear reactors.

Spent fuel is much more radioactive, and has to be handled with greater care. So, a separate plan is underway to store all of Canada’s spent fuel permanently underground, in a deep geological repository, or DGR.

Science and the community

Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station
Spent fuel storage containers at Bruce Nuclear Generating Station

Up to 10,000 years will pass before the radioactivity of spent fuel drops below the radioactivity of natural uranium in the ground. So, storage needs careful planning. Fortunately, Canada has many rock formations that have not moved for millions of years. Many parts of Canada also have types of rock, such as granite, that stop radioactive material from seeping through.

Those are scientific reasons for choosing a DGR location. But people will also live and work around the site. It’s essential for those people to understand and accept what is involved. In 2002, the federal government created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to find a DGR site and build it.

Under the laws governing the NWMO, getting approval for the site means proving that the DGR project is scientifically sound and accepted by the host community.

Selection

The process for selecting a spent-fuel storage site started in 2010. It will take about 10 years to finish. It began with the NWMO providing public information about the process. Then, 21 communities came forward to express interest. The NWMO is assessing those communities, but not all of them have the right geology or enough community support. So, the list has been narrowed to nine communities, all in Ontario.

CNA-118-Ontario-Map-v4

The NMWO will also consult with nearby communities, and study possible effects of the DGR. The NMWO will then ask communities still on the list to formally decide on whether they agree to host a DGR. The preferred community will then sign an agreement with the NWMO. The agreement will need approval from the federal government.

After the agreement

With a host site selected, the NWMO will first build a “demonstration facility,” then build the DGR itself. Canada will have a place to store its spent fuel permanently. The NWMO will continue to talk with Canadians about the DGR and keep local communities involved.

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Learning from Yucca Mountain

The US plan to bury used nuclear fuel deep in Yucca Mountain has been stalled for years, even though the site’s safety has been backed by science. Why?

The United States started with 50 possible sites. It quickly settled on Yucca Mountain, a former nuclear test site in Nevada. The US process lasted only a few years. It didn’t include public consultation, which gave rise to opposition.Yucca-Home

There is a Canadian precedent too. In 1989, a commission studied the idea of placing a waste site in the granite of the Canadian Shield. In 1998, after public consultations, the Seaborn Commission said that the plan was technically sound: the waste could be stored safely there. But the commission also found that the idea hadn’t proven acceptable to the public. The Canadian government decided that public acceptability would be a requirement for any permanent storage plan.

Today in Canada, work is underway to find two sites for nuclear waste. One would store spent nuclear fuel. The other would store low- and intermediate-level waste.

Low-level nuclear waste includes mops, brooms, gloves and so on. It is not necessarily radioactive, but the nuclear industry takes a precautionary approach to protect people and the environment. Intermediate-level waste includes used reactor parts, and it is normally shielded from people and the environment.

Leaders of both Canadian projects are mindful of Yucca Mountain and the Seaborn Commission. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization has talked with 21 communities that said they might host a spent-fuel site. After screening for geological suitability, nine remain on the list.

For storing low- and intermediate-level waste, a site has already been selected, at Kincardine, Ontario. A federal government panel still has to approve the location. The panel found the site location and design to be safe – a finding backed by sound science. The panel also held extensive public consultations. As part of that work, the panel hired a group of experts to assess the public perception of risk about the project. According to Dr. William Leiss, who led that group, “This type of work exists in the shadow of Seaborn. It was quite clear that the Joint Review Panel was concerned about social acceptance.”

Kincardine’s mayor, Anne Eadie, agrees: “At the hearings, they really bent over backwards to hear everyone speak, and took any opportunity to hear all concerns.”

Back at the beginning of the consultation process, Kincardine asked its residents what they thought. In a 2005 phone survey, 60% of respondents agreed with the concept and 22% disagreed.

Ten years later, Mayor Eadie says, “The majority of residents still support the DGR. On the whole, they are much better informed, as most of them either work at the plant or have family members there.”

The report by Dr. Leiss’ group makes clear that public acceptance depends on a good understanding of risk. The consultations will continue as the project unfolds.

Messages Nuclear News

Canada’s Nuclear Industry Welcomes Modernized Regulatory System and Innovation Investments

March 29, 2012, OTTAWA – The Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) today welcomed the Government of Canada’s Economic Action Plan 2012, “Jobs, Growth, and Long-Term Prosperity,” and key measures to create a modern regulatory system that will also contribute to improved environmental performance for Canada’s energy and mining projects.

“Regulatory modernization is a priority for our industry as it provides a competitive advantage for Canada,” said Denise Carpenter, President and CEO. “We are optimistic these proposed changes will increase efficiency and effectiveness of the regulatory process, and we look forward to working with the federal government to implement changes swiftly to enhance job creation and economic growth in Canada.”

The CNA serves approximately 100 member companies, representing 70,000 people employed in the production and advancement of nuclear medicine, uranium mining and exploration, fuel processing, and electricity generation.

“Our members support a regulatory process that establishes clear timelines, reduces duplication and burdens, and focuses resources on large projects where potential environmental impacts are the greatest,” added Carpenter, “We appreciate the focus on what matters to the environment.”

The CNA also applauded Innovation investments contained in Economic Action Plan 2012, such as the implementation of a Jenkins Panel recommendation to refocus the National Research Council (NRC) to improve its responsiveness to Canada’s business sector.

“Canada’s home-grown nuclear technologies connect the energy, medicine, manufacturing, advanced materials, and academic sectors with many other value-added industries, and the NRC is an important part of that innovation system,” said Carpenter. “Our industry believes there is great value to having strong public support for S&T that is responsive to the needs of industry.”

The Canadian nuclear industry provides a broad spectrum of products and services that benefit Canadians, generating approximately $6.6 billion per year and contributing $1.5 billion in tax revenue and $1.2 billion in export revenues.

Please visit www.cna.ca to follow CNA’s Blog, Twitter, and Facebook, and join in the “TalkNUclear” conversation.

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Background Information:

The CNA discussed this issue in the September 2011 “Innovation Issue” of Policy Options magazine:  http://www.irpp.org/po/archive/sep11/stewart.pdf

The CNA issued the following new release on March 14, 2012 to encourage the Government of Canada to fully consider the recommendations on the federal Environmental Assessment (EA) process made by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development: http://www.cna.ca/english/news_events/Mar14-2012-CNA-press-release.html