What should Canadians know about advancements in nuclear technology?

Jeff Benjamin, Senior Vice President, Nuclear Power Plants (NPP), Westinghouse Electric Company: Today’s plants have been redesigned to take 40 years of operating history into account.  Generation III+ plants with passive safety systems are designed to use natural forces like gravity and natural circulation to keep a reactor cool after shutdown and safely cope with a Fukushima-type event.  Modern plants are also simplified and standardized, so once the first-of-a-kind is built, construction risks should be modest.  Capital and operating costs are also reduced compared to earlier generations.  As a result, today’s nuclear power plants are safer than ever and ready to provide clean, reliable electricity for many years to come.

M. Macit Cobanoglu, Vice President, Nuclear AECON: Nuclear technology benefits from billions of dollars of worldwide and Research & Development (R&D) aimed at improving safety, efficiency and reliability of the operating plants. Every major accident, including the latest one at Fukushima, resulted in significant safety improvements to all operating reactors around the world through upgrades and modifications. Nuclear R&D also led to new reactor designs that are passively safe. These so called Generation III reactors can continue to operate safely without operator intervention for four days following the severest of accidents.

Joseph A. Zwetolitz, President, Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy, Inc.: Innovation continues to propel all aspects of the nuclear energy industry forward. Advanced steam generators designed and manufactured here in Cambridge allow nuclear plants to add 6,000 MW through improved efficiency and power uprates. Our small modular reactors (SMRs) offer a faster, more economical alternative to existing designs that are less expensive to produce and ship. They hold great promise to bring electricity to remote areas that need reliable base-load energy. These advancements increase the safety and reliability of nuclear energy around the world.

Tim Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communications, TRIUMF: The most important thing to know is that nuclear technology is evolving—it is improving.  It may seem like nuclear power plants are "same-old, same-old," but the reality is that everywhere across the industry, from nuclear power to nuclear medicine, there are breakthroughs that are allowing us to do so much more with so much less—less risk, less material, less radiation, less dose. 

What is the advantage of nuclear energy over alternative sources of energy?

JB: Nuclear energy is virtually greenhouse gas emission-free.  By comparison, greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas plants are still 50 percent that of coal plants, which were deemed to pollute excessively.  With natural gas, the cost of power is spent importing the gas from outside the province, while with nuclear, the cost is spent on procuring capital goods largely in Ontario and on local employees to operate the plant.  In comparison to renewables such as wind or solar, which operate intermittently, nuclear energy provides reliable baseload generation and also requires far less land.

MC: Nuclear generates baseline electricity, which is one of the cheapest in terms of production costs. It is also sourced predominantly from politically stable countries such as Canada and Australia and produces no greenhouse gases. The industry as a whole has a very strong safety culture, where operational experience is shared by nuclear utilities worldwide through organizations such as WANO and INPO. Most other sources of energy are either significant contributors to air pollution and global warming, such as fossil fuel based sources, or have high production costs coupled with low generation efficiencies such as wind and solar.

JZ: When you look at it’s potential, nuclear energy provides long-term economic value while producing electricity without CO2 emissions. Uranium fuel prices continue to hold at a low price,  and Canada’s vast reserves position its nuclear fleet at an advantage. Saskatchewan alone is the second-largest uranium producing region in the world. B&W Canada’s unique nuclear manufacturing capability means that the equipment for new and existing plants can be manufactured in Canada, as opposed to importing gas and wind turbine equipment.

TM: The chief advantages of nuclear power are in its plentiful fuel supplies and its low carbon footprint. Nuclear power taps an extremely “dense” source of energy.  The energy stored within the nucleus of the atom itself and these energies are large compared to the energy stored in the chemical bonds of carbon-based fuels. 

Why is a continued pursuit of innovation important to all aspects of Canada’s nuclear industry?

JB: We live in a global economy where competition and opportunity are constant and everywhere. Those who will thrive in this new world are those who will be able to unlock the creativity of their greatest resource — their human capital to innovate and continuously improve the way they do business. Canada has a vibrant, tier-one nuclear industry, and to remain vibrant and avoid possible erosion of critical skills it must maintain its commitment to new nuclear construction to meet its future needs.

MC: Innovation comes from investment in R&D and leads to improvements in terms of safety and economics. One example is the Passive Autocatalytic Recombiner or PAR developed by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). By combining the hydrogen gas produced in a reactor following a severe accident with oxygen, the hydrogen can then be neutralized. It is hydrogen gas that can lead to explosions such as those experienced at Fukushima. When we talk about Canada’s nuclear industry, we also must include the medical isotopes that save lives. Canada’s nuclear innovations in medical isotope technology resulted from many years of federal R&D funding which should be acknowledged.

JZ: In many ways, I am most excited by the potential of small modular reactors (SMRs). B&W has an outstanding design and unique experience as a precision manufacturer to build and ship them anywhere in the world. Much of that design and manufacturing excellence comes out of our Cambridge facility. I am proud of B&W’s commitment to innovation, it has contributed to some significant life extensions of Canada’s existing nuclear fleet, thereby allowing these safe and economical assets to operate much longer than originally planned.

TM: Nuclear science and technology is one of Canada’s most important legacy strengths — from the time of Enrico Fermi to today and beyond. The continued science and innovation is crucial for Canada to remain engaged and competitive in one of the solutions to the global energy challenge. And nuclear technology is more than just power. It is using neutrons to understand materials; it is using isotopes to track and label disease as well as environmental pollutants; and it is using isotopes and beams to treat and cure cancers. These technologies will transform how we live and Canada needs to have a seat at the table.

How will Canada’s nuclear landscape change in the next 10–30 years?

JB: Canada has had a proud and successful history in providing clean, safe and reliable nuclear power.  There are currently 70 new nuclear power reactors under construction worldwide and global supply chains are ramping up to serve new markets, many in countries with no nuclear infrastructure. To participate in this market, and to maintain the domestic skill-base, it is important for Ontario to proceed now with new-build nuclear to replace the Pickering Nuclear Plant that will close in 2020.

MC: I think the refurbishment of our current fleet of CANDU reactors will continue over the next 10 to 30 years, and they will continue to provide clean and reasonably priced electricity to Canadians in Ontario and New Brunswick. I believe there will also be a new generation of passively safe reactors as well as SMRs built to replace the aging current fleet. I think the Canadian nuclear industry will become much more export-oriented out of necessity and supply equipment and services to many types of reactors around the world.

JZ: Advancements in technology for existing plants are extending the life of Canada’s nuclear fleet to produce clean electricity safely and reliably for decades to come. With SMRs and other next-generation nuclear technologies underway, I think we’ll see a growing use and acceptance of nuclear energy as a carbon-free alternative. When you look at nuclear energy’s growth around the world alongside Canada’s rich uranium resources, highly developed technical capabilities, and unique manufacturing facilities, I see an extremely important growth and leadership opportunity.

TM: We will see the carbon-intensive energy sources replaced by a combination of renewables and nuclear power.  More importantly, we’ll see the word "nuclear" move from being a dirty word associated with fear to become a word as commonplace as “electricity” and “electronics.”  Maybe we’ll have nuclearonics?!  Canada will have a network of institutions and businesses that lead the world in nuclear research and innovation as well as in the marketplace.