Tag Archives: John Gorman

Op-ed

Guest column: Is Peterborough the right place to make nuclear fuel?

Head of Canadian Nuclear Association weighs in on BWXT’s request to expand local operations

Portrait of John GormanBy John Barrett
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association

Originally published in The Peterborough Examiner on February 24, 2020.

In early March, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will hold public hearings in Toronto and Peterborough about the renewal of BWXT Nuclear Energy Canada’s operating licence.

The CNSC regulates every part of the nuclear industry in Canada, to ensure the safety of employees, the public, and the environment. So, BWXT needs this licence to continue its work. This includes producing natural uranium fuel pellets in its Toronto facility. These are shipped to Peterborough, where BWXT places them in zirconium tubes that it manufactured in its Arnprior facility. The fuel bundles made by companies such as BWXT and Cameco are then used in nuclear reactors, which provide about 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity.

For its licence renewal, BWXT applied to keep operating for another 10 years, but also for the option to manufacture fuel pellets in Peterborough.

This last point has given rise to a lot more opposition from activists, who plan to turn out to the CNSC hearings in force. This is unusual for a fairly innocuous part of the nuclear supply chain, so it drew my attention. Opposition groups have been in the media lately, raising several concerns: that the Peterborough plant might emit uranium dioxide dust, or that contaminated water might be dumped into nearby waters.

However, one objection from the activists stood out: why Peterborough? Why, they said, allow the handling of nuclear materials so close to where people live, work, and play?

First, the CNSC ensures that Canada’s entire nuclear industry is safe — not just the reactors, but the mining, transportation, processing, and eventual disposal too. That’s why the total number of deaths from nuclear operations in Canada since it began in the 1950s is zero.

But BWXT takes safety to a level far higher than what is required by regulation. For example, the CNSC has set a limit for radiation exposure to the public at one millisievert per year — but the estimate for people living near the Peterborough facility was less than one thousandth of that in 2018. When one considers that we all get about 1.8 millisieverts per year naturally from the environment, BWXT’s almost-unmeasurable addition fades into insignificance.

But BWXT still takes any risks seriously. That’s why the Peterborough facility stores any waste water that could be contaminated with uranium in tanks, then filters uranium dioxide out, and sends water samples to an outside lab. The lab tests have to show that the water meets regulatory requirements before BWXT can release it. In Toronto, where BWXT makes fuel pellets, the emissions into the air are about one per cent of the limit CNSC sets, and the release into the water is about 0.3 per cent of the limit. The very small amount of dust created within the facility is dealt with by several layers of filters.

Still, ensuring that BWXT is safe doesn’t fully answer the question: why here?

The answer is: because Peterborough has the skilled workforce that BWXT needs. The Peterborough facility employs about 300 people, including about 120 engineers. The assembly of fuel bundles requires both rigorous training and understanding of safety procedures, but this is not the only work BWXT performs here, as Peterborough is also home to its reactor inspection and maintenance tooling teams.

These jobs are not only skilled, but also stable: BWXT’s operations help to supply Ontario’s nuclear power plants, which are now undergoing a mid-life refurbishment, and are expected to run for decades more. So, if a young engineer enters the nuclear industry now, he or she can expect a solid career. But there’s more: increasing concern about climate change, is making zero-emission nuclear power more attractive than ever. And, with the recent excitement about building new-generation small modular reactors, the nuclear industry could be headed for considerable growth. This could greatly benefit Peterborough and its surrounding communities, where the nuclear industry is responsible for over 3,000 direct and indirect jobs.

So, BWXT should continue operating in Peterborough because that’s where its highly skilled and educated employees are — where they send their kids to school, play hockey on the weekends, and shop after the workday. And they, like anyone else who works in Canada’s nuclear industry, know well that the air and water around their workplace is safe for them and their families.

The CNSC, which is independent of any industry group, will make a decision on the BWXT licence application after the March hearings. I am confident that the CNSC will base its decision on the available facts, and I hope that the hearings will reflect the interests of the Peterborough community as a whole.

CNA2020

ONE LUNCH WITH TWO GUEST SPEAKERS

After enjoying a delicious lunch on Thursday, CNA2020 delegates will be treated to not one but two keynote speakers.

Portrait of Laurie SwamiLaurie Swami is the President and CEO of the Nuclear Waste Management Association. Appointed in 2016, she is responsible for implementing Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

Swami previously served as Senior Vice-President of Decommissioning and Nuclear Waste Management at Ontario Power Generation (OPG). She oversaw the operation of OPG’s nuclear waste management facilities. Swami was responsible for strategic projects, such as OPG’s low- and intermediate-level waste deep geologic repository, Pickering Nuclear Generating Station’s Safe Storage project and Post Pickering End of Commercial Operations strategy. She began her career at OPG in 1986.

Portrait of John GormanJohn Gorman is the President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association. Appointed in 2019, he oversees all the organization’s activities, including government affairs, research, communications and industry leadership.

Previously Gorman was the President and CEO of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, the national trade association for Canada’s solar energy industries. Before that, he was the Senior-Vice President of Empower Energies, an innovative, global integrator of energy systems.

Gorman serves as Canada’s Designate to the International Energy Agency and sits on the Executive Council of the Canadian Council on Renewable Energy. He has served as a director on the boards of numerous community and corporate organizations, including one of the nation’s largest electric utilities.

If you’re attending CNA2020, join them for lunch on Thursday, February 27 from 12:00 to 14:00.

To see the full conference schedule, visit https://cna.ca/cna2020/program/.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

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.

Uncategorized

Our move to zero emissions must use nuclear energy

By John Gorman
Originally published in Policy Options, September 27, 2019

his spring I changed jobs. I shifted from advocating for renewable energy to promoting nuclear energy — to many, a surprising twist in my career path. But for me, it was a logical outcome of the realization that the climate emergency requires us all to pick up the pace of transformation.

Solar technology is clean, it empowers people and businesses, and it’s scalable. I remain a big proponent of both wind and solar.

But I and others are becoming increasingly aware that wind and solar aren’t enough to respond to the climate emergency. Twenty years ago, 36 percent of the world’s electric power was clean, coming from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases (nuclear plus renewables, including hydro).  Twenty years and $3 trillion in investment later, the non-GHG-emitting share of world electricity is still at 36 percent.  Seeing these unchanging numbers has been a shock.  Despite the impressive growth of wind and solar, we’re not moving the needle on decarbonizing global electricity systems.

I’m convinced that two factors stop renewables from cleaning up the world’s energy system. One is that electricity demand keeps growing quickly, and that need has to be met somehow. Too often, coal and gas are the only sources that can finish filling that gap.

The other is that wind and solar are intermittent, and fossil fuels are being used to back them up. It’s clear that if renewables are going to transform the climate picture, they will have to partner with something more sustainable.

The International Energy Agency has just studied this problem, and it’s absolutely clear in its report that two changes are needed. First, we have to stop closing nuclear plants prematurely. These closures, driven by politics or by the availability of cheap natural gas, take huge chunks of clean power out of the system, further increasing the demand gap that gets at least partly filled by fossil fuels. Second, we have to stop backing up wind and solar with fossil fuels.

What else can partner with renewables? Well, there’s very little time — 10 or 20 years, at best — to get this done. So it has to be a proven, or at least modelled and tested, technology that we can start building today.

What technology has already decarbonized entire large economies, like France and Sweden and Ontario? Nuclear energy has. And while existing nuclear plants have shown they can pair with variable wind and solar to some extent, the new, small reactors will be even more flexible, and they’ll be more distributed in location, too.

Today about 81 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from clean sources such as nuclear, hydro, wind and solar. However, four provinces still have high concentrations of fossil fuels. The challenge is to shift the country the rest of the way toward a clean grid.

In the absence of a plan to do this, as we push these provinces to get off coal, we’re pushing them toward gas — which only reduces the emissions by about half. Add in the growth of demand for power, and a switch to gas will hardly make a dent in emissions.

Any realistic way to respond to the climate emergency and move to zero emissions has to include nuclear energy. Once we face this reality, it becomes a question of how we bring nuclear into the mix. We might make progress with more stringent emissions rules that would slow the rush toward gas. But it would be better to have a plan for investing in a combined clean energy solution: renewables and small, distributed nuclear plants, integrated together. That’s the direction I want to go in with my role at the Canadian Nuclear Association.

The urgency of the climate challenge means we have to use proven technologies, or at least technologies that are well along in testing and commercialization. Hoping that brand-new, untested, unscaled technologies are the answer just risks deferring action until they are scaled up and proven and safe and commercialized. That might take decades and cannot be relied on. Focusing on new technology is highly uncertain and ignores the scale of worldwide infrastructure change that we should be doing right now. The only readily available technology that can complete our response to this emergency is nuclear.

Fortunately, the urgency is forcing decision-makers to revisit their attitudes to nuclear. They’re seeing that current solution paths aren’t working. Those arguing for 100 per cent renewables — and I was one of them — are starting to admit this. And when, as a solar energy advocate, I started to look again at nuclear, I realized how much misinformation is out there. If you look at its full record and its full life cycle, nuclear is safe, reliable and clean.

Individual actions — veganism, electric cars, not flying — have the same challenges as renewables: they’re valuable, they deserve credit, but what if they can’t turn the tide? Household decisions can go some distance, but it’s policy steps — like all the anti-pollution measures taken in the 1970s and ’80s — that will be transformative.

The value of declaring an emergency is that the public might decide to give governments the space and the permission to make really hard policy decisions, and take action. That’s how we have to respond now.

Uncategorized

Nuclear energy is a vital part of solving the climate crisis

By John Gorman
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, October 24, 2019

I never thought I would become a passionate champion for nuclear energy. But after 20 years of advocating for renewable energy, I’ve overcome the misconceptions I had in the past and I am convinced by the evidence we can’t fight climate change without nuclear.

When I was the chief executive of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, I thought the “holy grail” was to make renewable energy cost-competitive so it could fulfill our energy needs. Today, wind and solar are among the cheapest forms of energy in many places around the world. The generous subsidies that fueled early growth are no longer at play, yet the growth of wind and solar continues.

Despite the strong growth, the percentage of emissions-free electricity in the world has not increased in 20 years. It’s stuck at 36 per cent, according to a recent IEA report. This is because global demand keeps increasing, renewables often need to be backed up by new fossil fuel sources and existing nuclear plants are being shut down prematurely. We must face a sobering reality: Renewable energy alone is simply not enough to address the climate crisis.

This is a difficult thing for me to admit. In 2014, I delivered a TEDx talk in which I was an unabashed champion for solar energy. I installed solar panels on the roof of my home and smart battery storage in my basement. I bought an electric vehicle. And I continue to be a supporter of wind and solar because we need every clean energy solution available. But I now realize I dedicated 20 years – very precious years from a climate-change perspective – promoting a partial solution.

An overly optimistic view of renewables has affected major decisions about other energy sources, particularly nuclear. Our global focus on renewables has caused existing nuclear plants to be retired early and has stalled investment in new projects. It’s given people a false sense of security that we don’t need nuclear any more when nothing could be further from the truth.

What’s worse, because wind and solar are variable (they produce electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines), they must be paired with other energy sources to support demand, and these are almost always fossil fuels. In the absence of enough nuclear energy, renewables are effectively prolonging the life of coal and gas plants that can produce power around the clock.

Unfortunately, many Canadians wrongly believe our future energy demands can be met with renewables alone. A recent Abacus Data poll found that more than 40 per cent of Canadians believe a 100-per-cent renewable energy future is possible. This is simply not true. The deadline to save the planet is approaching and we are no closer to a real solution.

A critical issue is that nuclear is vastly misunderstood by policy makers and the general public. These well-intentioned people – and I used to be one of them – continue to believe fallacies, misconceptions and even fear-mongering about nuclear, including claims that it’s expensive, dangerous, and produces large quantities of radioactive waste.

The truth is that when you consider the entire power generation life cycle, nuclear energy is one of the least expensive energy sources. That’s because uranium is cheap and abundant, and nuclear reactors – though costly to build – last for several decades. Furthermore, it’s safe: Used nuclear fuel is small in quantity, properly stored, strictly regulated, and poses no threat to human health or the environment.

There’s a staggering lack of knowledge and understanding of nuclear. I was active in the energy business, and I’ve lived my whole life in a province – Ontario – where nuclear makes up a significant portion of the electricity supply, and I still didn’t know the facts about nuclear energy until very recently.

People fail to realize that nuclear is the only proven technology that has decarbonized the economies of entire countries, including France and Sweden. We can pair renewables with nuclear energy and start to meet our energy targets. But it will take a change in mentality and new investment in nuclear energy.

So this is why I’m now on a mission to help people discover and rediscover nuclear as the clean technology solution to decarbonize our electricity systems and solve the climate crisis. We need to extend the life of existing plants rather than close them prematurely. We need to invest in new modern technologies including small modular reactors, which can be deployed in off-grid settings such as remote communities and mining sites. And we need to use nuclear alongside renewables to power the grid. We must act before it’s too late. And we can’t afford to be distracted from real, practical solutions by a completely impossible dream of 100 per cent renewable energy. We don’t want to look back on this time and realize we made the wrong decisions. The time for nuclear is now.