The zero carbon emission electricity that’s generated by Ontario’s nuclear power stations plays an integral role in the province’s diverse energy mix. But to remain operating at their fullest potential, and to maximize lifespan, the most technical and important components of a nuclear reactor require mid-life refurbishment, which usually occurs when they’ve been in operation for between 25 and 30 years.

Benefits of refurbishment

“Nuclear energy remains a vital part of the solution to Ontario’s energy mix and nuclear refurbishments are an integral part of that mix,” explains Professor Jatin Nathwani, Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy and Executive Director, Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) at the University of Waterloo. “In the context of the global climate change challenge, a pathway for a transition to an effective low-carbon energy future will make it imperative for nuclear to play an important role.”

Not only does the expansion of nuclear potential make the planning process for Ontario’s electricity system more robust, it will also deliver benefits to future generations through a low-carbon national energy system. “Refurbishments have the potential to reinvigorate Ontario’s nuclear supply chains, attract high-quality professionals, and stimulate strategic investment in a diverse sustainable energy portfolio,” says Nathwani.

“Nuclear energy remains a vital part of the solution to Ontario’s energy mix and nuclear refurbishments are an integral part of that mix.”

Accounting for one-seventh of the planet’s electricity generation, nuclear energy is proven to deliver low-carbon, low-cost base load power on a large scale. “Nuclear in Ontario also has a strong safety track record and has delivered enormous environmental benefits,” Professor Nathwani says.

A sensible choice

For a nuclear reactor to even be considered for refurbishment, it needs to hold an impeccable safety record and a proven history of delivering low cost power.

“Significant attention has to be given to the cost question,” says Nathwani. “Refurbishments must pass the key test of delivering value to customers through low cost electricity.”

Recognized as being one of the top performing nuclear plants in the world, the Darlington CANDU plant is a sound choice for refurbishment. “Darlington was recently recognized by the nuclear industry, for the second year in a row, as a top performing plant in the world. And Darlington has received, for the fifth year in a row, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) highest safety assessment finding of Fully Satisfactory,” explains Dietmar Reiner, Senior VP of Nuclear Projects at OPG. “For all of those reasons, it’s a very good starting point for
refurbishment.”

Meticulous planning

As part of the preparation process for the refurbishment, OPG built the Darlington Energy Complex, a 300,000 sq ft facility that is home to a full-scale mock-up of the Darlington reactor. The mock-up allows the workforce to learn and then repeatedly rehearse their tasks in a controlled, realistic environment that is dimensionally accurate to the reactors in the station.

“The full-scale mock up is something that is worth its weight in gold,” said Reiner. “It’s an important element for tooling as well because it gives us the opportunity to ensure that the tools perform exactly as designed. All sequences of work required on the reactor will be tested and fine tuned on the mock-up first.”

Developing expertise

The Darlington refurbishment is a real opportunity to strengthen and grow Ontario’s expertise in nuclear power. The concerted effort to control and manage costs of the project will be directly reflected in the affordable energy prices that Darlington will provide.

The refurbishment project will provide Ontarians with clean energy for a further 25 to 30 years, but it’s not only of benefit to citizens, who pay less for nuclear energy than other forms of power, the environment benefits massively, too. It’s undoubted that nuclear power will be a key energy source going forward, as our planet attempts to reduce its toxic relationship with fossil fuels.

“Nuclear power is a critical part of the Ontario energy mix,” says Reiner. “We can produce large volumes of power at low cost at Darlington. Our goal is to deliver a successfully refurbished Darlington station: safely, to the quality that is required in a nuclear environment, on time, and on a fact-based budget.”