This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Canada Country Manager Diane Szoller
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) reports that nuclear energy generated about 15% of Canada’s electricity in 2018. 13.5 gigawatts of power capacity was provided from 3 plants and 18 commercial reactors in Ontario and 1 plant, 1 reactor in New Brunswick. The EIA explains reactors as the machinery that contains and controls nuclear chain reactions while releasing heat at a controlled rate. The plants use that heat to turn water into steam, which then drives turbine generators to create electricity. The federal government has nuclear (15%) as a clean energy source in producing 82% of Canada’s electricity along with hydro (60%) and renewables (7%). However, nuclear energy continues to engage public debate as the processes for mining and refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel require large amounts of energy and create nuclear radioactive waste.
Canada has been building reactors since 1958—some already refurbished. In 2015, Ontario approved lifetime extensions for 6 Bruce reactors (started in the 1960s), 4 at Darlington (built between1981-1993), a 2024 shutdown of Pickering’s 4 reactors (started in the 1960s), and a C$26 billion 15-year program. New Brunswick’s plant was built in 1975. The World Nuclear Association notes refurbishing may involve replacing fuel channels or steam generators as well as upgrading ancillary systems. Refurbishing projects take less time and cost less than building a new plant but several cost overruns over time have made some almost as expensive as new construction.
Nuclear plans for the future
Canada had plans to expand nuclear capacity over the next decade with 4 new reactors, but these have been deferred or lapsed. NRCan’s priority strategy, released in December 2020, is their Small Modular Reactor (SMR) Action Plan to advance the technology to develop SMRs.
Government consensus for an SMR industry contended these reactors will be smaller, safer, cheaper, and easier to build (modular), thus offering economic opportunity, helping climate change commitments, and supporting regional demand from industry and remote off-grid communities now using diesel. The National Observer (national media source) states not everyone agrees. No one has built one in Canada or almost anywhere, and it will take another decade to even see SMR deployments. Meanwhile renewable energy costs continue to fall, nuclear costs continue to rise, and advances in battery storage could potentially tackle the issues of intermittent solar and wind energy without risk.
At the end of 2019, the Premiers of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan came together through an agreement to collaborate on SMR development and deployment, with Alberta joining in August 2020. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s pre-licensing vendor design review process is giving 10-12 SMR vendors feedback on small designs with a wide range of capacities up to 300 MWe, to come online in the late 2020s. Federal NRCan Minister, Seamus O’Regan, stated in 2020 that “Our government understands the importance of nuclear energy to meeting our climate change goals… We are placing nuclear energy front and centre.” Several environment groups have already requested alternatives to nuclear power and SMRs and will have more to say during environmental review phases of licensing each SMR.
Canada’s Energy Regulator oversees the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s mandate to: regulate nuclear energy use and materials to protect health, safety, and the environment; implement international commitments on peaceful use of nuclear energy; and disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public ie. Nuclear Safety and Control Act (Regulation), Nuclear Energy Act (Nuclear R/D), Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (Waste) and Nuclear Liability and Compensation Act (Liability).
Regulations include all stages from environmental assessment, from before construction, to decommissioning and long-term waste management. Canada’s used nuclear fuel is currently safely managed in facilities licensed for interim storage. Provinces and territories also have a role in electricity policy and legislation.
Lessons learned from past use of nuclear power
Canada has been a leader in nuclear research and technology for many years, exporting reactor systems as well as a high proportion of the world’s supply of radioisotopes for medical diagnosis and cancer therapy. Canada expects SMRs to enhance next-generation nuclear energy systems research and compete with low-cost forms of electricity generation; enabling new applications, ie. hybrid nuclear-renewable energy systems, low-carbon heat and power for industry.
Nuclear power has been discredited globally by Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes. Opponents see limited resources and progress in how Canada addresses radioactive waste, overpriced reactors up against delays and cost overruns, SMRs being too speculative to factor into forecasts, and net-zero studies ruling out the need for nuclear.
After Fukushima (2011), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission implemented a robust action plan: asking operators to review severe accident management guidelines; ensure emergency response facilities were equipped with additional portable backup power and telecommunications equipment; asking operators to acquire portable equipment onsite/offsite to ensure that reactors can be cooled and fuel pools replenished, regardless of circumstance, with additional radiation monitoring stations around their facilities. Plant operators also enhanced existing modelling capabilities to predict the dispersion of radioactive releases. In case of a nuclear emergency, the federal government would deploy additional monitoring equipment. Provincial authorities would also monitor radiation levels (ie. in agricultural products and water).
Canada currently has 5 uranium mines, all in northern Saskatchewan, which have had their share of environmental and human health impacts from worker radiation exposure to contamination of clean lakes from radioactive water. Environmentalists and various decision-makers see rising sea levels, storm surges, ever-worsening coastal erosion and flooding, extreme heat and droughts putting nuclear power plants at increasing risk.
SMR future will depend on vendors backing promises on safety, efficiency, and cost. The federal government’s own Canada Energy Regulator projects the amount of power generated by Canada’s nuclear reactors will continue on a declining trend.
The Honourable Seamus O’Regan, Minister of Natural Resources
Mail: House of Commons | Ottawa, ON | K1A 0A6
Image: Artist rendering of cross section of USNC-Power Micro Modular Reactor™ unit, in design for Chalk River.