Top-scoring student entries for CNA2020

Each year, the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) sponsors registration, travel and accommodations of up to 100 post-secondary school students to attend its annual conference and trade show.

To be selected this year, students had to write a 250-word response to a question about the future of nuclear technology. Students also had to post on Facebook or Twitter to promote that they applied to attend to increase awareness among their peers.

A committee evaluated the 151 submissions for sound ideas and innovative responses, passion for the industry and the future of nuclear technology, personality, and the basics of good presentation and writing skills.

Below are the four top-scoring entries.

How do you think clean energy sources (e.g., nuclear, wind, solar, waterpower) will work together in the low-carbon energy systems of the future?

By Katie Fleischer, Lambton College

Modern-day, low-carbon energy sources cannot fulfill the energy demands of our communities alone. As clean energy systems gain acceptance and usage, society will move away from fossil fuels. According to the 2020 Nuclear Factbook, the top three energy systems used worldwide are fossil fuels (66.3%), hydro (16.0%), and nuclear (10.6%). In comparison, Canada’s climate and geographic location affects which energy sources are prioritized locally. The primary power source is hydroelectricity (60%), nuclear (15%), and natural gas (9%). Both sets of data will continue to shift with the gradual transition to primarily nuclear energy and other supplemental low-carbon energy systems. The ability to use these sources together to provide efficient, clean and safe energy is important to decrease pollution rates, provide efficient and effective use of land, and most notably a dramatic reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. According to Michael Shellenberger, president and founder of Environmental Progress, in the Canadian Nuclear Association video, How Nuclear Energy Can Improve Our Climate, nuclear power plants have the smallest land footprint. Using only an area the size of two or three football fields, these plants can produce enough energy for 3 million people, using California as an example. In his TEDx Berlin, Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet, Shellenberger provides a great visual of a Rubik’s Cube to explain that the same amount of uranium (as the volume of a Rubik’s Cube) is enough energy for one person’s lifetime. These statements support the use of nuclear energy and reinforce the ability to generate significant amounts of reliable energy with small amounts of land and material. Nuclear energy holds a decisive role in the reduction of carbon emissions worldwide because of its ability to power our communities while meeting the demands of an increasing world population and ensuring the longevity of our planet.

By Jessica Gauthier, University of New Brunswick

The electrical generation, transportation and industrial sectors are among the leading emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG). I think integration of clean energy sources in each sector is essential for reducing global GHG emissions. Nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar and hydro technologies are all well-established, clean energy sources, each with its own benefits, advances and shortcomings. Wind and solar technologies are dependent on weather patterns, require a backup energy source and large land space compared with nuclear, geothermal and hydro technologies to produce equivalent energy. When designed with an energy storage system, wind and solar could be well used as supplements for other clean energy systems, rather than as standalone energy sources. While hydro is a cheap energy source, ecological displacement is not ideal. Nuclear and geothermal energy technologies are both reliable and consistent clean energy sources for base load electricity generation and supplying thermal energy to industrial sites. Geothermal technology is an excellent alternative to nuclear energy given its lower associated costs and less personnel required for operation and security. However, geothermal technology is limited to geographical areas where there is tectonic movement, is not feasible in areas where water is scarce (although using other fluids is being researched), and produces much less heat compared to small modular reactor (SMR) designs. SMRs are an excellent technology for processes that require heat of more than 300˚C. Given SMRs require appropriate heat sinks, an SMR (or cluster) could be constructed in a central location to feed multiple industrial sites. An excellent example of SMR integration is the production of carbon-neutral transportation fuels. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian energy company, has demonstrated the ability to produce carbon-neutral transportation fuels by elementally separating water and carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere) and reforming the elements into hydrocarbons, using high-temperature electrolysis and the Fischer–Tropsch process.

By Tyra Gordon, Ontario Tech University

Adapting to combat climate change will be one of the greatest challenges of our generation. Reducing greenhouse emissions from energy production is an essential step to mitigate increased temperatures and the frequency of natural disasters. Globally, there is growing public and political support for climate change action. This is evidenced by mass climate protests, the introduction of a carbon tax and Canada’s commitment to shutting down its coal plants and reduce its GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. To do this, Canada needs carbon-free electricity sources that are:

  1. deployable. There is an urgent need to replace existing energy produced by fossil fuels, particularly in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. There is an impetus to limit temperatures to +1.5°C and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change;
  2. scalable. The conversion of heating and transportation from oil and gas to electricity has the potential to greatly increase power consumption; and
  3. flexible. Many sources of electricity such as wind and solar have low capacity factors that require support from energy storage facilities or on-demand and base load energy sources.

Nuclear energy has the potential to address many of these issues. In fact, a 2014 life-cycle study by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified nuclear as one of the lowest carbon sources available, alongside wind and hydro. The performance of the existing CANDU fleet enabled the shutdown of the coal plants and effective decarbonization of Ontario’s electrical grid. Meanwhile nuclear energy remains one of the least expensive sources of electricity in Ontario, while providing thousands of jobs. Investments in SMRs creates a new pathway to decreased licensing and construction times, costs, and financial and safety risks of conventional nuclear plants. Overall, nuclear offers a key component of existing carbon-free energy grids and has potential for future growth.

By Iain Kaufman-O’Keefe, Queen’s University

The power grid of the future will combine many different technologies and stakeholders to balance reliability with financial and environmental sustainability. At its core, the current power grid relies on large amounts of baseload energy from large, centralized power plants to provide reliability to the grid, while quick ramping sources add stability to fluctuations in demand. Generation will have specific roles to fill in the clean energy grid to minimize limitations of different clean energy technologies. Generation III and IV nuclear reactors along with hydro would provide baseload, while solar, wind and advancements in storage technology would provide regional grids with on-peak power. To increase solar and wind capacity, storage will be increasingly important to allow fossil fuel power plants to be shutdown permanently, rather than keeping them on standby when renewables cannot meet demands. This storage capacity would be found in expanding batteries and adopting thermal and pump storage. Storage will also help by allowing excess electricity produced at off-peak hours to be used at on-peak hours. This all assumes that the grid will operate on a large scale as it does now. The grid of the future may rely on small independent grids using Generation IV nuclear reactors along with renewables from local sources, with farm communities using biogas and wind, and cities using rooftop solar to supplement local small modular reactors or centralized power stations. According to the Government of Canada, over 30% of energy is lost during transmission. Therefore, reducing transmission and increasing efficiency of components will help reduce overall demand. By thinking outside the box and using new technology, low-carbon energy has never been closer.

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