Canadian Chamber of Commerce Podcast: Nuclear Power and the Environment

May 5, 2014

CANADIAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE PODCAST: Nuclear Power and the Environment
Host: Katrina Marsh, Director of Environment and Natural Resources Policy
Experts: Dr. John Barrett, President, CNA, and John Stewart, Director of Policy and Research, CNA

Air Date: May 6, 2014

SUMMARY: Host Katrina Marsh sits down with Dr. John Barrett, President, CNA, and John Stewart, Director of Policy and Research, CNA, to talk about how Canadian nuclear technology fits into the global push for cleaner energy. Canadian nuclear reactors not only have lower life-cycle emissions than solar panels or geothermal systems, but can also act as fuel ‘recyclers’ by re-purposing waste made by other reactors.

Listen to the podcast on the Chamber site.

Or read the transcript below.

Announcer: Hello and welcome to “The Voice of Canadian Business”, The Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly podcast. In 15 minutes or less we discuss the key issues facing the Canadian economy and businesses across the country.

Katrina Marsh: Hello, my name is Katrina Marsh. I’m The Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Director of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy and I’m hosting today’s podcast. So welcome. Nuclear power is a fascinating part of the world’s current energy mix. On the one hand, it provides a reliable source of low carbon energy; Canada has a strong home grown industry that includes uranium mining, production of medical isotopes or even the design of nuclear reactors. On the other hand, many people are deeply concerned about the safety of nuclear power, particularly in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. So today my guests are going to be speaking about Canada’s nuclear industry and its role in Canada’s energy mix. On the one hand I have Dr. John Barrett who’s President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association and then John Stewart who’s the Canadian Nuclear Association’s Director of Policy and Research. Thank you both for joining me today.

John Barrett: You’re very welcome.

John Stewart: Thanks, Katrina.

Katrina Marsh: So just a start, can you give us a brief primer on the nuclear industry in Canada? Who are the main players and firms?

John Stewart: Katrina, it’s really been a progression over six or seven decades from the public sector to more players and more private investment. This technology, power generation in particular, really started as a collaboration of three different public sector firms; an Ontario Crown Corporation, a Saskatchewan Crown Corporation and a Federal Crown Corporation. There have been more applications over the years; nuclear medicine started getting developed in a big way in Canada in the sixties. Canada pioneered that technology, and since then we’ve had food sterilization and many other applications, and we’ve had the creation of Bruce Power, which is running the largest nuclear plant in the world. We have a lot of players now; our membership is a lot of engineering firms, laboratories, testing outfits, there’s some human resource organizations. We’re seeing more and more private engagement and more and more players.

Katrina Marsh: How does nuclear power currently feed into Canada’s energy mix?

John Stewart: Essentially the electricity sectors’ base load carrier, particularly post coal and particularly in Ontario, which is the largest and most industrialized province with the highest electricity demand. Nuclear reactors run very steadily and consistently around the clock. That’s why their economics are so good. One of the reason’s so they provide the supply for the power demand that’s there day and night, summer and winter, as opposed to things like natural gas and hydro that can be ramped up and ramped down over the daily demand cycle.

Katrina Marsh: So it kind of provides electricity that’s always on, day or night, doesn’t move. It just kind of provides what’s called the base load?

John Stewart: Right.

John Barrett: You know if you look at a couple of websites you can get a good insight, visual insight, into what is the energy mix in Ontario at any given time. One of the websites is IESO and that is an independent electricity supply market but what they have is an up-to-date within-the-hour presentation of what exactly in Ontario is that mix so you see how much of the electricity is being supplied by nuclear power generation, how much by hydro and by others. That will give you a very clear idea that nuclear power is shouldering in Ontario at any given time at least fifty per cent. It sometimes dips to under forty per cent but it’s up to sixty at various times and as John Stewart says that’s why it makes it so reliable: it carries the base load for Ontario. Without that, as Duncan Hawthorne, who’s head of Bruce Power, likes to say, “You’ve got a huge gap and what would fill that gap?”

Katrina Marsh: One aspect of nuclear power, I think, that’s been getting a lot of attention is the fact that it doesn’t emit any greenhouse gas emissions. I personally was pretty surprised to learn that on a life cycle basis nuclear power actually had less emissions than photovoltaic solar panel systems as well as geothermal systems. Could you comment on the role nuclear power is expected to play in Canada or the global fight against climate change?

John Stewart: You’re absolutely right. It’s very low emitting, Katrina, and not just AGHGs but also in particulates and sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides so the things that actually make the air dirty and bad to breathe as well as the stuff that makes the climate heat up. One of the trends that’s going on in the electric power system, particularly with more rechargeable devices, and this will really happen with a smarter grid and more electric cars, is that the tops are being clipped off of the daily cycle of demand so that the demand cycle is being leveled out and flattened and that favours base load and makes it easier to use things like nuclear that run around the clock and less necessary to fill in the spikes in demand with fossil fuels. If you’re ramping up and ramping down with hydro each day, that’s less of a problem. But if you’re using natural gas, that’s half the emissions that coal would have, that’s a lot less than coal but that’s vastly more than solar, wind or nuclear. So the more we move towards rechargeable devices, the more we move to a smarter grid, the more tendency you’re going to have for base load to be a higher percentage of the overall output and if that base load is nuclear you’ll have a cleaner electricity system overall.

Katrina Marsh: So by rechargeable devices you’re talking about electric cars?

John Stewart: Anything you plug in at night basically. If you’re charging things at night when power demand is low and using them during the day, if there are more devices on rechargeable batteries, you tend to have a flatter demand cycle and that’s a good thing on average.

Katrina Marsh: So nuclear power is well suited to what the future of electricity demand is going to look like in Canada in terms of just a flat line all the time rather than these spikes up and down that you see in seasonal variations and day and night variations?

John Stewart: Well, flatter, and particularly if you picture a world with a lot of electric vehicles. We’re some way away from that but electric vehicles that have large batteries in them and that are being driven in the day and charged at night make a big, big difference to what the daily demand cycle is going to look like. And a very positive one. It’s one of the overlooked but very important advantages of going to electric cars.

Katrina Marsh: Obviously climate is a big environmental issue but it’s of course not the only one. Nuclear power does have other environmental impacts associated with it, particularly in relation to the wastes and, some cases, water. What do you think is the benefit of such a low greenhouse gas generating source of emissions compared to some of these other environmental impacts?

John Stewart: I can say pretty much without a lot of qualification that nuclear wins on every count. I mean SOx and NOx emissions and particulates are very, very low and we’re getting data right now that will confirm that one more time. But more importantly, and this is especially important in a lot of densely populated countries and it’s even important in Southern Ontario, land use is very small for nuclear. The land footprint of a plant like the Darlington plant is a tiny fraction of what you’d need to put renewables in of the same capacity for that kind of power, and we’re talking about gigawatts of power to supply Ontario. You can’t get so much power out of such a small piece of land and often out of so little water use as you can with nuclear. Now on the waste front, it’s often said that this industry has a waste challenge, but that’s only true because our waste is solid. If we could grind – I say this semi-jokingly – if we ground our waste and blew it in the atmosphere like other fuels have been known to do, and still do, nobody would say we have a waste problem. We produce solid fuel, of which we account for every kilogram, and which we pay in advance for storing and decommissioning.

John Barrett: And it is stored on the sites of the power generators so it’s not being distributed across the country. It’s right there on the site.

John Stewart: Right. If the waste that comes out of burning natural gas didn’t go into the atmosphere but was packaged up in little cylinders which the natural gas industry had to subsequently manage indefinitely, the natural gas industry would have a bigger waste problem than we do. But it goes into the earth’s atmosphere instead.

Katrina Marsh: So Canada has its own nuclear technology, the CANDU reactor. Could you just describe a bit how this particular reactor differs, maybe in terms of its environmental impact from some other technologies?

John Barrett: Yes it is. It’s a homegrown technology and a very interesting one that has a number of years since it first saw the light of day. One of the important things about it is that it uses natural uranium so we don’t have to enrich it. In fact, all of the light water reactors used in many other countries require enrichment. Now why is that important? Well having been the Ambassador at the Atomic Energy Agency, we spent a lot of time there, Canada and other countries, dealing with the existence of enrichment capabilities in a country in which the credentials for non-proliferation, nuclear non-proliferation, are particularly strong. That country is Iran. They were developing a very highly sophisticated enrichment capability for no particular uses that could be justified. Enrichment is also the way that you, if you want, and you have to go through a number of hoops and hurdles over hurdles, but you can get to weapons’ grade materials. CANDU reactors don’t have to do any of that, so we in Canada don’t have an indigenous enrichment capability. So there’s one sort of environmental and non-proliferation dimension. And the other thing that’s interesting about the CANDU reactor is that there’s a lot of work now, and interest in, what they call advanced fuels. So you use unprocessed, I mean unenriched, natural uranium, but it’s not the only fuel you can use in these reactors. Now they’re looking at can you use uranium that has been passed through a reactor and then can be recycled through. So you’re getting a recycling component which is a good reduction of waste product. Another thing is it can burn plutonium mixes. So the British, for example, are interested in it because they have plutonium from their naval propulsion and weapons’ programs. They want to get rid of this. Plutonium’s not a nice product for sure. If you mix that in with other oxides you can produce a fuel that the CANDU can burn. And going even into the future there’s a possibility of not using uranium but thorium. And thorium does not produce deficient products in the same way as uranium does. And the CANDU can burn that too, so China’s quite interested and India because they have thorium.

Katrina Marsh: So if I get this straight the CANDU reactor is basically a fuel recycler for the nuclear industry. You can take spent fuels or even alternative fuels and use it in the CANDU reactor, which isn’t the same as some of the other technologies out there. Are there any places in the world currently using the technology that way or is that more future looking?

John Stewart: Yeah, there are. The Chinese are currently using CANDU reactors to burn mixed oxide fuels that have old plutonium, you know, and other materials in it. But the real future is in fuel re-use. The way we currently run nuclear reactors, we only get a little bit of the energy out of the fuel bundle. And there’s a remark made in the US Department of Energy and elsewhere that there’s really no such thing as nuclear fuel waste; there’s just nuclear fuel that we haven’t learned how to use properly. The potential to get the other 95 per cent of the energy out of that fuel is enormous. Right now, uranium’s relatively abundant and relatively affordable and probably will be for quite a while. But if we wanted to make a practice of reusing that fuel and reducing our waste stream, we could. And there’s quite a bit of work being done in that area, and CANDUS are one of the best ways to do that.

Katrina Marsh: In terms of what’s happening in Canada, what are some of the key policy issues that are facing the nuclear industry in Canada today?

John Barrett: Well, probably we should start with the province in which the nuclear power is used the most, and that’s Ontario. The two provinces using nuclear power are New Brunswick and Ontario but the lion’s share of reactors that the utilities have are based in Ontario. The Ontario government has its Long Term Energy Plan and it updates that Plan. And it is within that, that the members of our industry, particularly those who are the utilities, sort of make their decisions and shape their future. And so one of the policy decisions that has come from the Ontario government fairly recently at the end of last year was to refurbish; to re-service and redo the existing reactors, ten existing reactors, to get longer life out of them and have them going for another 20-25 years and beyond that. So that’s a very important policy framer we can start with. Another question is that of liability. It’s always been on the cards: the question of what happens should there be any type of accident and there is damage. Who pays for it? Etc. In Canada it’s always been the operator. The operator has to, that is the utility power operator, has to put money aside, funds aside, for the possibility that they may be liable for something. And what’s going before Parliament now, the government has introduced to raise that limit. I think a part of that is just a recognition that in the reality of today you need a higher limit and the utilities are quite in favour of it. They’re okay with it. They see the merit of that and are prepared to pay their premiums for their insurance and raise the liability so that people feel as if there is this industry is covering all aspects of its work, from waste, decommissioning reactors, waste liabilities, all aspects, safety, regulation. It’s the most regulated industry probably in Canada, maybe since, beside the airline and aerospace industries, for having to get it right and be watched all the time and having to account for everything that one does.

Katrina Marsh: Well, we’ve come up to our time. We promised our audience fifteen minutes or less.

John Barrett: If the listeners do want to know more about the Canadian Nuclear Association, about our members, and what we do, and some of the research that John Stewart is involved in; we’re looking at fuel cycles and greenhouse gas emissions, we look at the socioeconomic impact of the industry, the jobs that are created, the work created, especially in Ontario, please go to:

Katrina Marsh: Well, thanks so much for sitting down with me today.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to “The Voice of Business” The Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s podcast. For more information on this or any other issue please visit:





My logo