Nuclear energy has been a fundamental staple of power production in many western nations dating back beyond 50 years. The first ever nuclear plant to generate electricity was opened in the former Soviet Union in the summer of 1954, producing five megawatts of electric power on the grid – impressive for its day. In Canada, Chalk River Labs opened in 1944 and by the fall of 1945 the facility saw the first nuclear reactor outside of the US become operational. Chalk River is located about 180km northwest of Ottawa and came into being following lengthy collaboration between British and Canadian nuclear researchers. It is now owned and operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a federal Crown corporation and Canada’s largest nuclear science and research technology laboratory.
Nuclear power has often been compared to renewable energy, as neither produce greenhouse gases in operation. The cost of nuclear power comes largely at the front end during the costly construction of the power plant. A typical nuclear power plant has a lifespan of 40 years. Nuclear power is often misunderstood.
Many people hear the word nuclear and the first thing they think of is weaponry. While it is true nuclear power can be used for more foreboding tasks, it has many tangible and far more positive benefits to mankind.
Much like a furnace in a gas or oil-fired generating station, a nuclear reactor performs a similar type of general functionality. Rather than using gas or oil as a fuel to boil water to create high-pressure steam, the reactor uses the fissioning or splitting of uranium atoms to generate heat to make steam. That steam is then directed at the blades of a turbine, which causes the wheel and shaft to spin at high speed. The shaft is connected to the rotor of the generator, where mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy.
About 15% of Canada’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Worldwide that figure is about 13% on the 437 nuclear plants now in operation. In Canada there are 19 operational reactors, mostly in Ontario, providing 13.5 GWe of power capacity. Canada generated 636 billion kWh in 2011, of which about 14.3% was from nuclear generation, compared with 59% from hydro, 13% from coal and 8.4% from gas. Annual electricity use is about 14,000 kWh per person, one of the highest levels in the world.
According to a study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute, Canada’s nuclear reactors contribute $6.6 billion per year to GDP, create $1.5 billion in government revenue and generate some $1.2 billion in exports. The nuclear power industry employs 21,000 directly, 10,000 indirectly as contractors and is responsible for another 40,000 jobs indirectly.
Ontario’s population is expected to reach 18 million by the year 2040 and with it will come the need for vastly expanded energy requirements. Duncan Hawthorne, President and CEO at Bruce Power, operator of the world’s largest nuclear facility, addressed a business luncheon at The Toronto Board of Trade and took time to answer questions about his vision for meeting increased energy demands in Ontario now and in 2040.
First, a bit of background on Bruce Power: formed in 2001 as a partnership between TransCanada, Cameco, Borealis Infrastructure and the Power Workers’ Union and Society of Energy Professionals, it operates the world’s largest nuclear sites and is responsible for about 25% of Ontario’s electricity. The site in Tiverton, Ontario, has eight CANDU reactors, each one capable of generating the annual needs of a city the size of Ottawa.
Bruce Power’s Vision 2040 aims to provide Ontario with 6,300MW of clean, reliable energy for generations to come.
“In order to meet the energy needs of the province, while being the first jurisdiction in North America to phase out coal, it’s important we take a long-term view of how the Bruce Power site will continue to keep electricity costs low, while strengthening our economy through jobs and investment,” Hawthorne says.
Bruce Power nuclear accounts for about 25% of Ontario’s energy and is helping the province remove coal-fired plants from service, providing about 70% of the additional energy needed to meet this goal. Hawthorne says the company is ready to invest billions of private funds in public assets over the next 15 years by securing the site through Canada’s largest public-private partnership.
“Nuclear – and, specifically, Bruce Power – is the economic engine of this province,” he asserts. “We have invested $7 billion over the past 10 years, while providing high-quality jobs and low-cost and clean power to families and businesses. Jobs and the economy is a top priority for Ontario and we will continue to play a key role on this front.”
Making the advancement that much smoother is the fact there is nothing more that needs to be done on the Bruce site in reference to the completion of the Units 1 and 2 Restart project that took place last year.
“We have the skill set, passion and track record to show we can do it,” Hawthorne notes. “We have done things on Restart that many believed could never be done. We may have had our challenges, but that’s what pioneers do – take a chance, sort out the problems and keep going.”
For as long as nuclear power has been with us, there have been debates about its safety. Proponents such as the World Nuclear Association, the IAEA and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy have repeatedly stated it’s completely safe and also a sustainable source of energy that addresses the issue of reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Opponents, such as those at Greenpeace and NIRS, will say nuclear power poses numerous threats to both humans and the environment.
There are certainly low points in the history of nuclear energy that opponents can use to bolster their claims. The worst disaster came in 1986 in Chernobyl, but there have also been serious incidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and more recently in Fukushima in 2011. But a counterpoint to those accidents is that nuclear power has still caused far fewer fatalities per unit of energy generated than any other major source of energy generation, including the likes of coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydro power.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns and radiation leaks at Fukushima forced widespread evacuations. The physical aftershocks subsided over time but the ones in the minds of the people have not. As recently as last month high levels of radiation had been detected near storage tanks holding highly contaminated water, raising fresh concerns of the potential for further leaks.
But there is one major difference between nuclear power facilities such as Bruce Power’s and those in Japan. Nuclear plants in Canada are along the shores of lakes – not oceans. There is virtually zero chance of a tsunami to create chaos on any one of the Great Lakes.
In addition to other sustainable energy sources, nuclear provides a low-carbon solution to power generation, meaning it stands up well to concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
According to figures by the IAEA, as of late last year there were 68 civil nuclear reactors being constructed in 15 countries, with more than one-third of them being built in China. Going in the opposite direction are countries such as Germany, which has opted to shutter all its nuclear reactors within the next 10 years.
Italy has banned nuclear power stations altogether. There is no doubt the most recent accident in Japan led to a number of countries rethinking their nuclear ambitions. The International Energy Agency now expects less than half the planned expansion of nuclear plants to now take hold within the next 20 years.
In June 2006 the Canadian government announced a five-year, $520 million programme to clean up legacy wastes from research and development on nuclear power and medical isotopes, as well as military activities conducted as far back as the late 1940s. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) was set up in 2000 as a successor to the Atomic Energy Control Board, which came into existence in 1946 as the national regulatory body. The CNSC reports to parliament through the Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver.
Human and economic drivers
People we’re recruiting today for this sector, they want a full career and they aren’t going to have that unless we have a vision. So 2040 is a vision that plays very well for our future.
Hawthorne says that keeping this sector at the forefront will serve to benefit the people of Ontario and also ensure Canada remains a significant player in this all-important energy sector.
“We have a responsibility to meet the needs of this province (Ontario) and we take it seriously,” he says. “This is one of those situations where a rising tide raises all boats. If we can provide solid, reliable energy in an environmentally sound way, at a commercially viable price that helps keep this province competitive, it is critically important to us.”
Sustainability is a barrier that faces all business sectors to varying degrees. It’s Hawthorne’s opinion that planning ahead will be the ultimate factor in success.
“We need long-term solutions to ensure the labour force and funding and the consistency of the day-to-day operations of our business,” he remarks. “I’m very optimistic that this long-term energy plan will provide that stability.”
As with all business models, there are always external factors that are beyond the control of the enterprise; but there’s no denying the thirst for energy production is only going to expand as the province increases in population.
“We’ve seen the effects of the recession and what that does to supply and demand,” Hawthorne notes. “I look forward to the next 10 to 15 years. We have plans to spend $1 billion per year on our assets for the next 15 years and we’ll do that in order to extend the life and have these units still play a significant role in the province by 2040.”
According to Hawthorne, there is no nuclear technology anywhere in the world that can match the capacity to extend the operational life of the units at Bruce Power in the way that CANDU reactors can. It’s a unique feature of the CANDU reactors in that every single component can be replaced. Many other plants had to close because the life of a component was not capable of being replaced. It’s a very important attribute of the CANDU that makes it an integral part of the sector.
“We’re a knowledge economy with highly skilled people,” Hawthorne proudly states. “There are some areas of the world right now that are struggling with the qualification of nuclear brain components. We don’t have that problem.”
Pickering Nuclear Generating Station
The other large nuclear facility in Ontario is the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station east of Toronto along the shores of Lake Ontario, which as of now is slated for closure in 2020. The cost of decommissioning it and removing everything from the site will no doubt be in the billions of dollars and carried on the backs of the ratepayers of Ontario. A question is posed to Hawthorne as to whether or not it would be feasible to keep the site open if the current owner – Ontario Power Generation – offered it for sale for $1.
“These assets don’t belong to us, they belong to the province,” Hawthorne begins, speaking about his own facility. “It’s a very unique structure here where we move in as a tenant and we spend our own investment and rehabilitate the facility. Every dollar we spend and every component that passes the gate becomes the property of the province of Ontario. You would ask ‘why would we do that?’ We are a nuclear operator, that’s what we do and we have Canada’s largest public-private partnership. The P3 is a unique feature that benefits everyone.
“As for Pickering, it’s always difficult to comment on other people’s technology but the units are smaller, which means the cost of refurbishment versus the output volume you get from it is not as strong,” Hawthorne offers. “Our units have 850MW and they are at less than 6MW so the numbers are a bit tough in that regard. It’s about what is the right thing to do for the ratepayers.”
Hawthorne goes on to state that although he’s been in the nuclear sector his entire career, he’s by no means a nuclear zealot.
“I realise there’s a time where the economics don’t support what you’re doing,” he states frankly. “I think Ontario Power Generation have the view that the economic life of the Pickering units goes to 2020. I wouldn’t second-guess that. In my view there’s never been a nuclear plant closed anywhere because of its technical life; it was related to its commercial viability.”
“One of the main attributes of our industry is that we meet all of the costs as we go and that includes decommissioning. The cost of nuclear generation is all-inclusive.”
Nuclear power is a resource that has been, and will continue to be, a major economic driver for Canada. Two additional reactors have been planned for Ontario, one was proposed in New Brunswick and one in Alberta.