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Nuclear industry eyes more federal support of ‘small modular reactors,’ as advocates push for Ottawa to hit pause

By Jolson Lim
Originally published in The Hill Times, December 3, 2018

The Canadian nuclear industry is looking for more federal government involvement in supporting the development of a new generation of reactors, after Natural Resources Canada put out a “roadmap” report earlier this month, spelling out steps different players in the sector could take.

The small modular reactor (SMR) roadmap was published on Nov. 7, and was co-developed between different public and private sector stakeholders. It recommends that federal, provincial, and territorial governments, along with utilities, industry, and the federally-funded national laboratory support demonstration of the use of SMR technology.

It also proposed: financial risk-sharing between the different players to support early deployment; the modernization of legislative and regulatory requirements to make development economically viable and timely; the development of a “robust knowledge base” for SMR technology; and for commitment to proactively engage with Indigenous communities.

SMRs are typically defined as nuclear reactors generating less than 300 megawatts of energy, and proponents see it as a promising source as the world struggles to fight climate change.

In Canada, backers see SMRs as a way to phase out diesel power for remote and Northern communities. However, to make it economically feasible within a small window of time for it to become a tool in reducing emissions, it would require demonstration soon, and eventually would require a fleet of reactors so manufacturers could benefit from more efficient and financially stable production.

But there is strong opposition to new nuclear energy development based on both environmental and safety concerns.

Nevertheless, any future development would likely have to involve government funding to support demonstration, on top of a regulatory review and placing a stronger emphasis on such technology in climate change plans.

“What would be so important now is for the government to show its policy support,” said John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA). “But that kind of holistic policy statement is not available yet.”

Mr. Barrett’s association submitted a letter addressed to Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) following the release of his fall economic update in November.

The letter calls for the extension of clean technology and clean infrastructure funding and support programs, such as the ability to expense of 100 per cent of capital investments and loan guarantees, to nuclear technology in the next budget.

It also asks the federal government to recognize nuclear as part of Canada’s suite of clean energy technologies and to create a funding mechanism for applied research and development of the next generation of reactors.

“Such measures would go a long way in creating the supportive business innovation climate needed in Canada today to encourage clean technology developers and start-ups in the nuclear sector,” it reads. “Only with a significant scale-up of such sources can Canada meet its Paris climate targets.”

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is currently partnering with small-reactor proponents to get a prototype built at one of its sites by 2026 for future demonstration. The company wants to prove the commercial viability of such reactors, and position Canada as a global hub for testing and development.

The company is aiming for it to occur at its Chalk River research facility, which sits about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. CNL manages and operates the two research laboratories in Canada for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the crown corporation that owns such facilities.

Interest in SMRs is particularly strong in New Brunswick, where the local utility, NB Power, has partnered with an American firm to develop a small reactor in the province.

Mr. Barrett said Canada is in a commanding place with the development of SMRs, given its good regulatory and research environment and interest from different players. Globally, it makes the country an attractive place for development.

However, he said more federal focus is needed on nuclear energy.

“Nuclear is one of the tools that is sitting in the box and government hasn’t really pulled it out and taken a good look at what it can do,” said Mr. Barrett, adding it has a lot of export potential as well.

Concerns with SMRs

There are concerns that nuclear’s advantage as a low-carbon energy source is offset by serious safety and other environmental concerns.

Ole Hendrickson, a researcher for the advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area—where the Chalk River facility is located—said proponents of nuclear energy ignore other emissions, including various noble gases, iodine, and radioactive waste that has to be expensively and carefully managed. Such waste remains dangerous long after its use, and disposal remains a major concern and question.

“We don’t see small modular reactors as any different,” he said.

Earlier this month, the group appeared on Parliament Hill alongside Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) to voice their concern over SMRs ahead of the release of the roadmap report.

Lynn Jones, a member of the citizens’ group, also questioned whether federal government funding is worth it, given there are concerns about its economic viability that has recently seen nuclear power struggle to grow globally.

“They can’t possibly succeed without significant government subsidies, the private sector has backed away from them all over the world,” she said. “They’ve come to Canada to try and get the government to subsidize them.”

Her group recently submitted two petitions to the Auditor General of Canada, with the first voicing concerns that any investment in future nuclear power would tie-up funds that would otherwise go to other proven renewables that could more quickly and effectively reduce carbon emissions. The second petition asks federal ministers to provide a justification for considering nuclear power to be a form of clean energy.

“It would take way too long to develop SMRs, apart from the fact there’s lots of other concerns about them,” she said.

The road ahead

John Stewart, director of policy and research at the CNA—speaking as the project manager of the SMR roadmap—said the report makes recommendations to a wide range of players, including governments, waste management organizations, industry, researchers, and the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

He said the “logical next step” is for one facilitating player to survey all those players to see what commitments they’re willing to make to further SMRs development.

“You need someone to do all that and elicit offers from the different players, get them to make specific commitments and eventually translate that into sort of national action plan,” he said.

He said he was pleased to see Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) attend the roadmap launch last month, despite not seeing a “lot in the way of signals” for nuclear power from the federal Liberal government.

Mr. Stewart said if the federal government offers a strong signal that SMRs can be a serious energy source, other players will follow up with tangible commitments.

“That would be a positive signal for other players to step up,” he said.

Nuclear energy accounts for almost 15 per cent of all electricity generated in Canada, particularly from two massive power plants in Ontario providing power to the Toronto region.

Mr. Stewart said nuclear power’s outlook has improved, but attitudes toward the severity of climate change haven’t matured fast enough that would see countries move quickly on SMRs.

“It looks better than it has in the past. Good would be going too far,” he said.

CNA2019

The promise of SMRs and energy communities panel at CNA2019

Top to bottom: Bernd Christmas, Mark Lesinski, Madeleine Redfern

On Friday, March 1, at 10:30 a.m., Bernd Christmas, Mark Lesinski, and Madeleine Redfern will gather onstage at CNA2019 to discuss new nuclear, the promise of SMRs and energy communities.

New Nuclear holds the promise of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and how these may be integrated with other sources, such as Variable Renewable Energy, to create energy parks or “hybrid” energy communities. What kind of scenarios can we foresee for smart, integrated/hybrid energy systems, with SMRs providing the load-following foundation? Will such ideas be a defining characteristic of New Nuclear?

Bernd Christmas is the Chief Executive Officer of Gitpo Storms Corporation, a national Indigenous firm. He is also a member of Investors Group Board of Directors and the President of Outside Looking In. He is a recognized and accomplished leader in the Indigenous and business communities. He was the first Mi’kmaw to become a lawyer in Canada.

Mark Lesinski is President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology laboratory managed by the Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA). He has a distinguished career in nuclear science, operations, projects, and decommissioning. His 38 years of experience spans commercial and government nuclear facilities, from power reactor operations and major retrofit projects to management of decontamination and decommissioning (D&D).

Madeleine Redfern is the mayor of the City of Iqaluit. She was elected mayor in a by-election on December 13, 2010. Redfern graduated from the Akitsiraq Law School before becoming the first Inuk to be offered a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada.

For more information about CNA2019 visit https://cna.ca/cna2019/.

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Shocking Exposé: A Year with an Electric Car

By Morgan Brown, Nuclear Engineer and Systems Analyst, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories
Originally published in the North Renfrew Times, November 14, 2018

It began with a display by Ontario’s Plug’N Drive, a non-profit organization promoting electric vehicles (EVs).  They brought their EV Roadshow to Chalk River Labs in the spring of 2017, along with a plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt.  I was intrigued, and told Catharine all about it.  Fine, she said, and booked a visit to a Kia dealer in Ottawa the following weekend.  We went, we saw, they (the dealership) conquered; we purchased a 2017 all-electric Kia Soul, my post-mid-life-crisis car.

I had long wanted an EV, and they appeared to have come of age.  Normally I’m on the trailing edge of technology, content with what I have and without a desire for new toys.  But it was time to put money where my mouth was, especially with respect to reducing my impact on our one and only planet Earth (the one with no Plan B).  Electric cars, in a place like Ontario with low-emission electricity, have significantly lower lifetime overall environmental damage compared with an internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicle like our SUV.  The reason I got into the nuclear business, some thirty years ago, was precisely because it has a relatively low impact on our world; it was now time to make a personal commitment.

The Kia Soul EV is similar to the ICE version, in terms of the exterior look and interior fittings.  There are a number of ICE versions in and around town – it’s a funky-looking useful car with a hatchback and room for five (ok, a bit squishy).  I have no problem transporting my bari sax, a not-inconsequential (foghornish?) music instrument.  The Kia (not the bari) has an 81 hp electric motor driving a single-speed transmission to the front wheels.  It can easily go over 100 km/h, despite how I drive; the pickup is pretty peppy from a standing start, due to very high torque.

The EV cost us $43,005 including all taxes, substantially more than the ICE version because of the expensive batteries.  We received an Ontario taxpayer subsidy (thank you!) of $14,000, bringing the price down to about that of the ICE Soul; frankly, the subsidy was a little rich and didn’t seem to have any mechanism for decreasing as EVs became cheaper, but that’s another story.  Note that, because the EV is more than $10,000 more expensive than the ICE version, we paid over $1500 more tax.

So what about the “lack of infrastructure” that gets bandied about?  That’s a fallacy – the infrastructure is everywhere in the form of standard 120 V outlets.  For the first few months we used only the Level 1 (120 V) charger with which the car was equipped.  Yes, it takes a long time to fully charge (about 24 h for 30 kWh), but we never fully drain the battery and rarely fully charge it.  Essentially the Level 1 charges at about 6 km per hour (a velocity?).  Plugged in overnight at off-peak prices gives about 2 round trips from our Deep River home to the Chalk River Labs.  Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has provided six EV Level 1 parking spots, which gives another nine hours charging when I drive the car pool; interestingly, the six spots are no longer enough for all the EV owners on site!

The Level 2 charger is the next step up, charging the batteries at 240 V.  We paid $1895 (including >$200 tax) to purchase and install such our Level 2 charger, but received a $747 taxpayer subsidy (again, thank you).  This charger is about six times faster; frankly, plugging in the car when needed is similar to plugging in a cell phone – no big deal!

We have used a fast charger once, namely the one at the Deep River Tim Horton’s, just to see how it worked.  While it charged the car to about 85% of full capacity (to avoid frying the battery) in under about one half hour, I estimated it cost 5 times the price we would pay at home!  However, we are appreciative that such charge stations are available.

So, how has the EV performed?  Our main driving is around town or to the CNL plant site.  Occasionally we take it to Pembroke or Petawawa, but leave the (rare) Ottawa trip for the SUV.  The full-charge range (nominally 149 km) varies from about 120 km in winter to 180 km in summer – the winter decrease is primarily due to the batteries being cold, although the electric heating also takes a toll.  It would be nice to have the ~10% greater range of the 2018 Kia Soul, and some claim the 2020 version may be as high as 350 km.  Regardless, our EV does a fine job, and we’ve moved on from “range anxiety” to “range awareness”.  The average electricity consumption (Sep 2017 – Aug 2018) was 16.2 kWh/100 km.  Assuming a 15% loss due to charging, and an average $0.19/kWh (our 2016 total electricity cost divided by total kWh), this works out to about $3.60 / 100 km.  An equivalent ICE Kia Soul, at 7.6 l/100 km (highway) and $1.20 per litre for gas, costs about $9.10 per 100 km.  If I use a much more accurate “incremental cost” of electricity and charge overnight, the cost is less than $3/100 km.

Overall we’re very pleased with the EV.  If we lived in a city, we would ditch the SUV, keep the EV, and rent a vehicle for long trips.  Sure, the EV lacks the range you might want, but things are improving.  The initial cost is higher but it is much cheaper to operate (did I mention the lack of oil changes?).  However, economics was not our prime motivator – it really does reduce our damage to the environment, and is fun to drive.

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Harriet Brooks’ great-great niece to inspire next generation of women in science

Canada’s first female nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks

Harriet Brooks was the first Canadian female nuclear physicist, who worked as a graduate student with Sir Ernest Rutherford at McGill University around the beginning of the 20th century.

She was among the first persons to discover radon and to try to determine its atomic mass.

Well known in Canadian nuclear circles, Brooks is not a household name like Marie Curie, under whose supervision Brooks briefly worked.

While Canadian Nuclear Laboratories recently named a nuclear research laboratory at Chalk River in her name and she is a member of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, she hasn’t made an impact in the non-academic and non-science culture like Curie, who was honoured, for example, with a Google Doodle on the anniversary of her birth.

Now, 85 years after she passed away, one of her descendants is trying to bring her story to life on stage.

WONDER is a stage production in development about the gender barriers faced by Brooks. It is the first play written by Canadian actor Ellen Denny, Brooks’ great-great-niece.

“With this project, I hope to honour the countless women in science who have been silenced, and invigorate those who continue the fight for gender equity,” says Denny.

“It is also an important goal of mine to connect this historical science story and play of Harriet Brooks with the contemporary science community.”

Opening of the Harriet Brooks building at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories

Brooks left the world of physics at the peak of her career upon marriage to assume the occupation of wife and mother.

In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, Geoff Rayner-Canham, a chemistry professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University who has written about Brooks, explained why she left the science community.

“What happened was that she got engaged to a physicist at Barnard College, which is an old women’s college in the States, and she told the dean she was planning to marry. The dean sent a letter back saying that she was not willing to have anyone in the department who put her work second, but didn’t think it was appropriate for a married woman to put her career before her family.”

While what happened to Brooks could be attributed to social mores at the time, Denny believes her story is relevant to the barriers that still exist for women today who balance career with family.

Canadian actress Ellen Denny

In a slick video on her Kickstarter campaign page she launched to fund the production, Denny lists some current stats on gender and science. For example, in 2010, just 12.4 per cent of physics faculty at Canadian universities were women and only 30 per cent of female high school students take physics, compared to 60 per cent of male high school students.

“The play WONDER is a chance to build a bridge between the science and arts communities, and to spark discussion about how to build workplaces with equitable opportunity for all,” she explains.

The reaction to Denny’s project has been positive so far. Her Kickstarter campaign to fund a workshop of the play has raised over $2,000, almost triple her original goal.

Before WONDER is ready for its premiere production it needs some time in the lab – in theatre this is called a “workshop.” One week of in-studio script development and physical exploration with a team of professional artists is slated for early 2019 and Denny is hard at work raising funds for this critical next step.

You can follow along with the development of WONDER on Twitter and #WonderThePlay.

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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.

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Next Generation Nuclear

Recently, the Government of Canada announced an initiative called Generation Energy; re-imagining Canada’s energy future. An energy future that, if climate goals are to be realized, must include a mix of clean, cost-efficient, reliable power. Several companies in Canada and beyond are racing to create the nuclear reactors of tomorrow.

Enter the next generation of nuclear. #NextGenNuclear

Image: Luke Lebel

Luke Lebel is one example of young leaders looking to slow down the impacts of climate change thanks to nuclear technology.

“I finished my undergrad degree in 2008 and I was thinking about grad school and was wondering where I could make a difference”, said Lebel, a Research Scientist at CNL. “I liked the idea of energy and helping to mitigate climate change, and I chose the nuclear industry because I think it can make the most amount of difference in replacing fossil fuel energy.”

Lebel concludes strongly that engaging with his peers and advocating for nuclear will be key to the industry’s future success.

“We have to start connecting with young people and have an image out there that makes us feel high tech. If you want to be like Google, you have to act like Google,” said Lebel.

Possessing a strong background in research and analysis, Lebel believes steering a successful next generation of nuclear will require information sharing, communication, mentoring and partnership.

“People of my generation are going to be working on the issue (Paris climate goals) the whole time. The role of younger people is really important just because of that,” said Lebel.

The International Energy Agency in its 2016 World Energy Outlook, estimates that 16% of the world’s population still lives without access to electricity.

Image: Rory O’Sullivan

“In order for people to lift themselves out of poverty, particularly in Africa, they need energy to be cheap and clean”, according to Rory O’Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer at Moltex Energy.

This need to help others is what lead O’Sullivan to forge a path in clean energy. A mechanical engineer by trade, his career took him through project management construction and wind energy before landing on nuclear and Moltex Energy was born.

Recently, Moltex Energy announced a partnership with Deloitte and is in talks with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), and major utilities to work together on this vision for #NextGenNuclear. Moltex team member Eirik Peterson was also recognized for his work on reactor physics by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as the recipient of a “Young Innovator” award in Russia recently along with Lebel.

“The waste is concentrated and produces a lot of heat, you can’t put it in the ground, but if you shield it and put it into a box, you can plug that box into a turbine,” said O’Sullivan. “That box can then produce power for 10 years, maintenance free. It can also be used to provide district heat to communities.”

This ability of #NextGenNuclear to recycle used fuel to provide heat and power will improve humanitarian conditions, ensuring a brighter future.

Image: Eric Meyer

Advocating for nuclear is exactly what Generation Atomic has set out to do. Founded by Eric G. Meyer, this grassroots nuclear advocacy group is self-described as “energizing and empowering today’s generation to advocate for a nuclear future.”

Using a combination of the latest in new digital technology and on the ground outreach, Generation Atomic is raising awareness about the importance of nuclear energy for people and the planet.

As the Government of Canada looks to reimagine its energy future, it is clear: the next generation of nuclear is here and is working hard to ensure that we have a clean, low-carbon tomorrow for the next generation and beyond.

Do you have a next generation energy story?