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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Nuclear Power: Good Past, Strong Future

An Op-Ed by Jeremy Whitlock

Your comments are welcome.

Ontarians have been put on notice that around 24,000 megawatts of new electricity supply (or conservation) will be needed over the next two decades. This is equivalent to 80% of the province's current grid capacity.

Since it takes the better part of a decade to plan and build large generating plants, the Ontario Power Authority (www.powerauthority.on.ca) urges the debate to begin soon over how to fill the impending generation gap.

As a backdrop to this debate, the North American public is increasingly aware of the need for effective environmental stewardship.

Fortunately, in Canada we have spent the last 50 years developing a technology that can supply baseload electricity more efficiently than almost anything else on earth, with minimal impact on the biosphere.

CANDU reactors already supply 15% of Canada's electricity, including half the needs of the country's industrial and economic engine, Ontario. Remarkably, they do this while creating virtually no air pollution and a relatively small amount of solid waste, with an operating cost among the lowest of the available generating options.

This achievement was not reached without great ingenuity and effort. Over the past 50 years Canadians have funded nuclear technology R&D to the tune of over $6 billion through the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Other observers have tripled this estimate in terms of present-day dollars. Has this been a worthwhile investment of public money? Let's examine what Canadians have gained (for details see Economic Impact of the Nuclear Industry in Canada, Canadian Energy Research Institute, 2003, www.cna.ca/english/files/study/CNAStudySept16-03.pdf):

  • Domestic nuclear electricity production valued currently at $3 billion annually, with total lifetime electricity production projected at almost $200 billion (e.g. the Darlington plant near Toronto, much publicized for a tripling of its final construction cost to around $14 billion, produces electricity worth about $1 billion annually, or about $40 billion over its design life);

  • Exports of over $1 billion annually (uranium, nuclear-generated electricity, heavy water, reactor fuel, and isotopes);

  • Avoided coal purchases (primarily from the U.S.) amounting to about $1 billion annually;

  • Avoided emission of almost 2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases over the last four decades, plus millions of tonnes of acid-gases (nitrogen and sulphur oxides) and particulate air pollution – leading to thousands of lives saved from respiratory illness;

  • Employment (direct and indirect) for over 30,000 Canadians;

  • A reactor export industry worth, for each two-reactor sale, almost $800 million to about 1500 Canadian businesses. Exports are typically financed at commercial rates through Export Development Canada (www.edc.ca), a financially self-sufficient crown corporation (all loans are currently in good standing or fully repaid);

  • A made-in-Canada technology with a 100% domestic fuel supply. Canada is also the world’s leading uranium fuel supplier (1/3 of global demand, all currently mined in northern Saskatchewan);

  • A world-leading supply of medical radioisotopes diagnosing and treating disease in over 80 countries (about 40,000 treatments per day in North America);

  • Development of cancer therapy technology, and a continuing supply of 75 per cent of the world's cobalt-60 for cancer treatment and sterilization of medical supplies.

Clearly, Canadians have had a significant return on their nuclear R&D investment, both economically and in quality of life.

This does not mean that nuclear power is a panacea for the world's energy supply problems. Rather, it will play an important role in a necessarily diverse strategy that must also include clean fossil systems, renewable sources, and efficient demand management.

Nor does it imply a perfect development record to date. It is, however, very much a Canadian scientific and engineering success story resulting in a world-recognized engineering marvel, with a safety and environmental record that is second to none.

Despite a relatively low level of waste production, many observers remain concerned about both the amount and safety of nuclear fuel waste. In terms of volume, it would surprise many to learn that a single CANDU reactor can provide electricity for half a million homes while producing only a 10-foot cube of solid used fuel per year.

The compact and inert nature of this used fuel makes it easily managed, and its radioactivity easily isolated from the environment. Currently the used fuel from nuclear generation is stored at the reactor sites; the total volume from four decades of production would cover a single soccer field to a depth of just over four feet.

A technology has also been developed for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel. The approach has been found to be technically sound by both an independent panel of experts and a federal Environmental Review panel.

This plan, one of several undergoing further technical and public review by the federally-appointed Nuclear Waste Management Organization (www.nwmo.com), would isolate the fuel deep within the Canadian Shield. Moreover, since radioactivity naturally decays with time, this material becomes less toxic than natural uranium ore after about 500 years of isolation.

An advanced reactor design (CANDU-ACR) has recently been developed that maintains the traditional advantages of CANDU, with innovations that lead to lower capital cost and other efficiencies. Combined with its already low operating cost, this gives CANDU a market edge over advanced fossil systems. The ACR promises economic, environmentally sustainable energy not only for industrial growth, but also future developments such as hydrogen production for fuel cells, and full-scale Athabascan oil-sand extraction.

In the long term, nuclear power’s natural resources can be extended significantly, since nuclear fuel has a singular ability to create more fuel as it is used up. CANDU reactors are especially suited to advanced fuel cycles of this nature. In addition, many times more energy can be extracted from used fuel if necessary, although this is not a strategy currently under consideration in Canada.

As Ontarians decide how they will replace about half of their electricity supply system now reaching the end of its design life, it is important that all options on the table be considered fully and fairly.

Jeremy Whitlock is the President of the Canadian Nuclear Society (www.cns-snc.ca), a not-for-profit association dedicated to the enhancement of communication on technical and social issues involving nuclear science and technology. He is also a reactor physicist with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ontario.

This article is based on an Op-Ed published October 22, 2003 in the Peterborough Examiner. Updated February 8, 2006.

©2003 Jeremy Whitlock Discussion welcome.
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