Canada is a competitive force in the global marketplace, and technological innovation is crucial to helping Canada sustain its international reputation, stimulate the local economy, and provide the high living standards that Canadians have come to expect.
Innovation is practically synonymous with the Canadian nuclear industry. Nuclear innovation plays a role in almost every technical field across the country, including energy, medicine, pharmaceuticals, food processing, water purification, materials development, aerospace, automotive technology, earth sciences, archaeology, mining and more.
Canada’s nuclear industry is a $6 billion domestic industry that provides 60,000 direct and indirect jobs. A majority of this is owing to the country’s 19 nuclear power reactors that generate 13 GW of clean, affordable and reliable electricity annually – enough to power 10.6 million Canadian homes.
There are several major nuclear research centres across Canada, the most prominent of which are Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the Canadian Institute for Neutron Scattering, TRIUMF and Canadian Light Source.
Nuclear research also occurs at almost every major university in Canada, four of which operate research reactors. McMaster University operates the most powerful research reactor in the country, and uses it for neutron irradiation, medical isotope production, and industrial component inspections. The reactor attracts more than 1,500 visitors annually to learn about nuclear science and observe the “blue glow” of the reactor core.
One of the most familiar and important applications of nuclear technology is the use of radioisotopes to diagnose and treat cancer. Every year, 40 million patients worldwide benefit from this life-saving innovation. Nuclear technology is also used to sterilize medical equipment such as gloves, masks, syringes and implants.
Food irradiation is another nuclear application that involves the use of radiation to kill the bacteria, insects and parasites that cause food-borne diseases and spoilage. More than 60 countries, including Canada, irradiate food products such as meat, fruit, vegetables, grains and spices.
Radiation is used in agriculture to produce more desirable crop varieties and reduce losses due to insects. The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is an environmentally-friendly alternative to pesticides that effectively controls insect populations.
Nuclear technology is used in industry to examine the molecular structure of materials without damaging or changing them. This is particularly useful when studying the structural integrity of critical aircraft components, automotive engines, pipes and other oil and gas mechanisms.
Industrial gauges use radioactive sources to quickly detect information about items such as thickness, density or chemical makeup, while industrial tracers use radioisotopes to study the mixing and flow rates of various liquids, powders and gases.
Nuclear technology is used to desalinate seawater, providing fresh drinking water to developing countries. It is used in space and marine travel. And it is used in common consumer products such as smoke detectors, clocks, emergency exit signs, cosmetics, frying pans and photocopiers.
The Canadian nuclear industry is poised on a new wave of innovative work. Researchers are developing reactors that run on spent fuel and new fuels, and they are advancing practical concepts for bringing clean energy from nuclear fusion to the market in the coming decades.
The industry is also developing small modular reactors (SMRs), which have a smaller electrical capacity than most current power reactors, ranging from 1-300 MW. They are distinguished by their passive safety systems, extremely small environmental footprint, portability for off-grid deployment, and simplicity in construction.
Canada is already recognized internationally as a favourable market and regulatory environment for SMRs. Establishing a leadership position early will enable Canada to secure a significant share of the projected $400-$600 billion global market for SMR technology.
There is broad consensus that meeting the government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets will require new nuclear, along with other clean technologies. The following pathways demonstrate how Canadian nuclear technology can be leveraged at home and abroad.
The world is gaining interest in nuclear as a way to deliver the power it needs without GHG emissions or massive land use. Canada’s homegrown CANDU reactors, as well as smaller modular reactors, can drive down global emissions, while boosting Canada’s clean-tech export strength.
Canada is home to more than 300 remote, off-grid communities, the vast majority of which rely on dirty, expensive diesel fuel for power. Small modular
reactors (SMRs) can deliver clean, affordable and reliable energy to these communities.
Canada has extensive natural resources, but the processes used to extract them emit large volumes of GHGs. For example, the Athabasca oil sands contain
oil reserves equal to 165 years of current production, but they are extracted using the heat from natural gas. By using the heat from SMRs instead, Canada
can reduce its emissions and conserve its natural gas for higher-value uses.
There are two main reasons for bringing urgency to building new nuclear reactors. The first is that the government’s agenda for meeting climate goals is very demanding. The second is that Canada’s current advantage as an early deployment market for small reactors will not last unless it is seized now.
Reactor design technology is not likely to be a limiting factor. Dozens of designs currently under development could be market-ready within the decade.
Rather, the bottlenecks lie in areas where government can assist – either directly, or as a coordinator between sectors: applications, regulatory models, public acceptance, financing, demonstrating the economics and logistics, and procurement.