Lessons learned from the Pickering nuclear alert

Sunday morning, an emergency alert was sent out across Ontario about an incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. The alert was mistakenly sent during a routine test by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which coordinates the government’s response to major emergencies.

The alert brought nuclear to the forefront, along with many misconceptions about Ontario’s largest provider of clean and reliable electricity. This is what we’ve learned.

The industry is prepared to respond in the event of an emergency

“OPG has a sophisticated and robust notification process in place that we would immediately follow in the unlikely event of an incident at the station,” Chief Nuclear Officer Sean Granville said.

Reporting to the Ministry of the Solicitor General, Emergency Management Ontario would manage the off-site response to nuclear emergencies. It would determine the appropriate level of public action based on the Provincial Nuclear Emergency Response Plan.

This 200-page plan, which was last revised in 2017, provides clear instructions to every municipality that has a nuclear station within its jurisdiction. Local police, fire and ambulance crews implement the emergency plans.

Each of the three nuclear stations in Ontario (Pickering, Darlington and Bruce) also has its own plan and world-class emergency preparedness group.

The nuclear industry has a rigorous regulatory regime

The nuclear industry has one of the most rigorous regulatory regimes in the world. All Canadian nuclear operators work with the Word Association of Nuclear Operations to achieve the highest possible standards of nuclear safety. They also work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. An IAEA report showed that Canada has established and maintains a robust and comprehensive nuclear security infrastructure.

As well, at any given time, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has dedicated inspectors onsite at each of Canada’s nuclear power plants. It performs thousands of inspections annually to ensure Canada’s nuclear generating stations are operating safely. In 2017, the CNSC awarded OPG’s Pickering and Darlington stations its highest safety rating.

Ontario’s nuclear generating stations provide clean and reliable electricity

In 2018, the Pickering, Bruce and Darlington nuclear stations generated 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity. It was their power that allowed OPG to close its coal-fired power plants, significantly reducing the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.

On a lifecycle basis, electricity from nuclear power generates an average of 16 g of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour. That’s more than hydro (4 g) and wind (12 g), but less than solar (22 g for concentrated solar power [CSP] or 46 g for photovoltaic [PV]). That compares to natural gas at 469 g/kWh and coal at 1,001 g/kWh.

In Canada alone, nuclear energy helps avoid 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s about the same as taking 15 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Located east of Toronto, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is one of the largest nuclear stations in the world. It operates six CANDU reactors. The facility has been safely and reliably providing Ontario with electricity since 1971.


Register now for the public affairs pre-conference seminar

Did the Pickering nuclear alert reveal anything about your crisis communications plan? Gain confidence in your plan by attending the Canadian Nuclear Association’s pre-conference public affairs seminar on Wednesday, February 26.

For the nuclear industry, it isn’t enough to have a crisis plan. Private companies, government agencies and other organizations need to regularly review, practice and update their plans.

During the seminar, Argyle Public Relationships President Daniel Tisch will lead a crisis communications training session. After sharing key principles of crisis communications, Tisch will conduct a real-time simulation to see how different departments would work together during a nuclear incident.

The three-hour seminar will also include an update from Hill + Knowlton Vice-President Kevin Bosch about what to expect from the recently elected federal government. Find out how the nuclear sector could be affected as it works to protect refurbishments and develop small modular reactors across the country. Bosch will focus on what communications messages and tactics will have the greatest impact on the Liberal minority government’s decisions.


Registration is required for all pre-conference seminars. Employees of CNA member companies who are fully registered for CNA2020 have exclusive access to these sessions until January 15. At that point, the remaining seats will be open to all other registration categories and unregistered conference participants. Please see the registration terms and conditions at https://cna.ca/cna2020/registration/ for more information and to register.


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.


CNA Response to Winnipeg Free Press story on SMRs

Re: Small nuclear reactors no solution to climate change (Dec. 20)

In his opinion piece, Dave Taylor makes a number of incorrect assumptions.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are not a “fantasy” nor an “unproven concept on paper.” They are real.

This week, two floating reactors started providing electricity to the town of Pevek in Russia. These are the world’s first SMRs. Christmas lights were switched on using electricity from the reactors. The town will start receiving 64 megawatts of electricity from the reactors early next year.

SMRs can be deployed in remote communities in Canada that still use fossil fuels to generate electricity. This is because nuclear is a cleaner form of electricity generation, and it’s simply not economical to build hundreds of kilometres of power lines to connect these communities to the grid.

SMRs can also be used to provide emissions-free energy to existing grids or off-grid power to industry or mines.

The author also suggests the cost of nuclear energy in Ontario is high. According to the Ontario Energy Board’s 2019 Regulated Price Plan Supply Cost Report the cost of nuclear was 8.0 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 4.4 cents per kilowatt hour lower than the average price of electricity in Ontario. Only hydro electricity costs less in Ontario.

The November 2019 Memorandum of Understanding between Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan to develop SMRs is the beginning of a transformation of our energy sector.

The critical transition to a low-carbon economy will be almost impossible without the reliable, safe and clean energy that nuclear technology provides.

As clearly stated by the International Energy Association in its May 2019 report, nuclear power is required to meet our global emissions reduction targets.

John Gorman
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association
Ottawa, ON


Stretching our Carbon Budget with Nuclear Power

By John Gorman
Originally published by MediaPlanet, December 17, 2019

Nuclear power is a practical and inexpensive technology, and it’s essential to avoiding the worst effects of climate change in the coming decades.

Modelling our climate is complex, but the big picture is simple: to keep global warming under 1.5°C, as proposed under the Paris Agreement, there’s only so much carbon we can pour into the atmosphere – about 580 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

Humanity is burning about 37 gigatonnes per year, which means that the time left to stave off catastrophic change is short. By the time we burn through the budget, we’ll have to be taking out as much as we put in.

Limited national progress

Through the Paris Agreement, countries around the world committed to target limits on their total carbon emissions. If kept, these should keep us within the carbon budget.

But they aren’t. Many countries are not even coming close to their targets, partly because of increased demand for power and rapid industrialization. Germany, for example, has had to increase its fossil-fuel use because of the closure of nuclear power plants. And China is massively increasing coal-fired electricity generation. Even Canada is not on track to meeting its target of reducing carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 to 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, greenhouse-gas pollution has risen worldwide for two consecutive years.

Green alternatives

There have been hopeful signs. Prices of low-carbon renewable energy, such as wind and solar, have dropped substantially in recent years, and there’s been a corresponding increase in use. In 2017, solar power reached a global capacity of 398 GW. And carbon capture and sequestration, the only technology proven to remove carbon from industrial operations, has been demonstrated in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. We can expect these technologies to continue to advance. But can this be done in the decade or so we have left in the carbon budget?

Nuclear power: clean and affordable

Given how short our timeline is, nuclear power offers a practical way ahead, and it’s already doing a lot to keep carbon out of our atmosphere.

The lifecycle carbon emissions of nuclear power are comparable to wind and even lower than for solar. According to the World Nuclear Association, the world’s 445 reactors are saving 2.5 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions every year. This is why Ontario, which generates almost 60% of its electricity through nuclear, has seen a steady drop in air pollution since 2003. It’s why countries such as Sweden and France have been able to decarbonize their economies. It’s also why provinces such as New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, and many countries around the world, are taking a closer look at what we call the “new nuclear” – small modular reactors that can power industrial activities and remote communities.

Environmentalists look to a future powered by renewables, but there is also increasing recognition of nuclear power as part of that future, or at least a bridge to it. This is partly because the transformation of our energy sector is going to be expensive, while nuclear power delivers electricity at competitive prices. This, along with the increasing capacity of nuclear technologies to support variable sources of electricity like wind and solar, makes nuclear an attractive option for decarbonizing our electricity grids.

As our climate crisis deepens, and our needs for clean electricity increase, nuclear power is emerging as our most practical, clean technology choice.


Small modular reactors help us take a giant leap in the fight against climate change

By John Gorman
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, December 12, 2019

To many Canadians, it may not seem like a big deal that the three provinces that have nuclear sectors – Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan – signed an agreement to develop small modular reactors (SMRs). But this milestone represents a giant leap forward for Canadian industry and the fight against climate change.

I’m new to the nuclear industry, but I’ve been working in the energy sector for 20 years. I’ve seen new technologies revolutionize how we produce and manage electricity. The development and deployment of SMRs has the potential to be even more transformative than the introduction of wind and solar power.

Why am I and others in the energy sector so excited about SMRs? The answer is in their name. First, they are small. Large reactors are powerful: They generate clean and inexpensive electricity for decades. But they take years to build, they are suitable only for large demand and they can’t be moved. SMRs, on the other hand, are like solar power in that they can be scaled to suit local needs.

SMRs are also modular, meaning they can be mass-produced and shipped to remote locations. A small city could use an SMR until it reaches capacity, then add another as the city grows. A mine could use an SMR to help with its peak production, then ship it to a new location when operations slow down.

The modular approach will also help to reduce costs. A new advanced reactor could cost more than $1-billion, but mass production removes duplication of the costs of licensing and customization. Bulk purchasing of parts and replication of skills would reduce costs further. In short, the upfront investment will be big, while the payoff in terms of inexpensive energy will last decades.

SMRs are to large reactors what desktops were to mainframe computers in the 1980s. They made computing practical, flexible and accessible for everyone.

There are three main ways that SMRs can transform Canada’s energy sector. First, as more provinces and territories phase out coal, SMRs can fill in the gap, producing similar amounts of power without carbon emissions and other pollution. SMRs produce a steady supply of electricity making it an ideal partner to wind and solar by eliminating the need for fossil fuel backups when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Second, SMRs can be deployed in the many remote communities in Canada that still use fossil fuels to generate electricity because it’s simply not economical to build hundreds of kilometres of power lines to connect to the grid.

Finally, SMRs can help with the operation of heavy industry, such as oil sands and mines. These facilities are a big part of Canada’s economy, but they are often remote and off-grid, and they need a lot of heat and power to operate.

There are some environmentalists who still resist the expansion of nuclear power. When I was chief executive of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, I was one of them. That’s until I realized that the critical transition to a low-carbon economy will be almost impossible without the reliable, safe and clean energy that nuclear technology provides. We need nuclear power to reduce emissions, as an increasing number of environmentalists, industry leaders and the International Energy Agency agree.

SMRs have several safety advantages built into them. Some designs use molten salt or liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. Some are built so that the reactor shuts down if it is not being actively managed, while others are designed so that the reaction slows if it gets too hot. And the designs incorporate several advances in managing waste as well. Some are designed to require refuelling only every few years or even decades, and some “recycle” spent fuel, producing only a fraction of the waste of a conventional reactor.

We’re about to witness a fascinating race to determine the best SMR design, and some of the leading candidates are Canadian. Three companies have now passed the first review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. They are now entering the second phase, a more detailed examination of their safety. Seven more designs are now in the first phase, and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories plans to have a demonstration unit built by 2026.

Canada has a great history as a leader in nuclear technology, dating back decades. We have some of the largest resources of uranium in the world. We also have the right people with the right skills to build safe and reliable nuclear reactors. And now that three provinces consider them a key technology for meeting emission targets, we have a clear demand for SMRs.

The agreement between the three provinces is the beginning of a transformation of our energy sector. But it’s more than that. We’ve just witnessed an election campaign that exposed regional divisions around energy and climate change. I don’t think SMRs are the entire answer to this debate, but they have the potential to be a uniting force between federal and provincial interests. Working together, we can use SMRs to meet our growing energy needs, reduce emissions and introduce carbon-free electricity to many new places in Canada and around the world.