Part 5 of A Historic Review of the Canadian Nuclear Industry: Inroads Made in Energy, Medicine and Quality of Life

By August 24, 2018 No Comments

The below is the fifth and final installment of the series detailing the history of Canada’s nuclear industry written by Michael Alexander Sinclair. It was originally submitted as an essay on November 15, 2017 for Ryerson University’s HST 701: Scientific Technology & Modern Society, and has since been modified for publication onto the Mackenzie Institute website.

A significant amount of Canada’s population relies on nuclear energy as its main source of power production. As of June 2017, nuclear power accounts for 13.5 gigawatts-electric (GWe) of Canada’s installed generation capacity,  with approximately 16.5 per cent of its total power production coming from nuclear reactors. From the social perspective of supplying power to Canada’s population, the province of Ontario contains 38.7 per cent of the country’s population and within Ontario, nuclear power accounts for approximately 60 per cent of the province’s generated power. This is comparable to other major nuclear nations such as France, of which about 75 per cent of its 568 TWh annual energy production comes from nuclear sources. This is also relatively greater than both the United Kingdom and the United States of America, who derive about 20 per cent of their annual energy production from nuclear sources.[2] Ontario’s nuclear fleet serves in an essential foundational production role. The province uses a mixture of energy supply sources, including hydro, natural gas, solar and wind. It is nuclear, however, that serves as the baseline energy load, operating constantly to meet the energy needs of the province around the clock while other sources will vary in how much energy they are producing throughout the day. The reliability of Ontario’s clean nuclear power production has been a staple in the province for over 50 years. It also serves as an essential component in utilizing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, given their intermittent production capabilities. Canadian nuclear energy production serves as a baseline that renewable energy production can be built upon.[3]

Finally, CANDU reactors have demonstrated through tests that weapons-grade plutonium, which has the potential to be crafted in nuclear bombs, can be utilized as fuel to produce electricity. This method involves oxidizing the plutonium, then mixing it with uranium oxide into a fuel compound called mixed-oxide (MOX). By burning MOX fuel, CANDU reactors can destroy as much as 70 per cent of the fissile plutonium, and roughly half of the total plutonium content overall. Further advanced designs using other elements can achieve as much as 94 per cent fissile plutonium destruction, which through further re-processing can eliminate it completely. This is a better approach than the alternative, which involves storing the plutonium in compounds that would prevent it from being retrieved because burning it as fuel truly ensures that it can never be used again in military applications. It also has the benefit of generating electricity. About 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity can be generated from each kilogram of plutonium burned. Due to MOX efficiencies, doing so would generate up to 70 per cent less waste volume than current natural uranium fuel waste as well. While other reactor types can also be adapted to use MOX fuel, CANDU reactors have a distinct advantage in that they have the ability to handle a full core of it which would allow them to consume weapons stockpiles at a much greater rate.[5] Should it ever be fully implemented, this feature would mean that Canadian technology would be instrumental in international efforts to combat nuclear proliferation, and to dispose of surplus nuclear weapons stockpiles to decrease the threat of nuclear warfare.

In conclusion, it is clear that Canada’s nuclear industry has been an incredibly valuable and important part of both the country’s and the world’s history. To put it simply, through its nuclear industry, Canada has made the world a better place than it was before. It is important to look back and reflect on the many great contributions that the Canadian nuclear industry has made to science, medicine and the quality of life Canadians have come to know. The international achievements earned through Canadian research and development are recognized through the many awards that the country’s scientists and engineers have received within the field of nuclear science. The technologies developed in Canada have had a monumental impact on the world. Entire fields of study have been born from Canadian nuclear research, including nuclear diagnostics, imaging and chemotherapy. Medical isotopes produced in Canada have saved the lives of millions of people internationally. CANDU nuclear reactors are both safer to operate and more readily available to less developed countries  than other reactor types. They also serve as a foundational energy production load that renewable energy can be built upon to supply reliable, clean energy to a large part of Canada’s population. Simpler in design and construction, CANDUs operate under safer working conditions with many unique advantages and may one day be used for large-scale nuclear weapons de-proliferation.

Having now considered the past in depth, one must look to the future of the Canadian nuclear industry. As other countries step up to fill the medical isotope production gap created by NRU’s end of life, increasing their own investments in nuclear science and technology to do so, the knowledge and expertise grown over the past century within Canada’s borders is at risk of disappearing.