With nearly $26 billion being invested in the refurbishment of Ontario’s nuclear assets, it’s clear that the province values the energy resource as part of its low-carbon future.

And while Ontario currently stands alone in its investments into nuclear energy (New Brunswick does not have need for large-scale re-investment in its current nuclear assets at this time), it is by no means the only market globally to be investing in nuclear. In fact, 2018 saw the highest level of new gigawatt capacity come online, on the global scale in the past three decades.

Where is the investment?

“A lot is happening outside of North America,” says Agneta Rising, who is the director-general of the World Nuclear Association, based in London, England. “Asia is the region where most of the developments are happening.”

As of December 2018, there were 54 new nuclear reactors under construction. China, Russia, India, and the United Arab Emirates are the countries where the majority of these investments are being made. In those countries, nuclear is replacing high-carbon emitting power, namely coal, and in turn, improving the overall air quality in those regions

The plants being constructed in those regions are comparable or larger to the ones currently in the North American market, as many of the plants are serving cities and regions that are experiencing significant population growth.

In Europe and North America, where several countries had previously invested in nuclear energy, very little new nuclear energy is coming online. But that doesn’t mean those countries aren’t investing in nuclear. Instead, the focus has been on refurbishing existing assets to keep them producing for decades into the future, like what is happening in Ontario. In the past few years, multiple countries have also restarted idled or temporarily shut down reactors, including Switzerland and Belgium.

Disposal of waste

One of the struggles surrounding the production of nuclear power in Canada has been the disposal of waste. The Deep Geologic Repository project has been discussed for several year, and has been subject to significant resistance from neighbouring communities and Canadians across the country. Current Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna has yet to make a decision on the future of the Ontario Power Generation-led project, despite an independent federal joint review panel recommendation to grant a license to construct in May of 2015.

The repository concept for waste disposal has decades of research supporting it, and the method has been used already in other jurisdictions.

“There are countries that have made real progress,” says Rising. “One of these progresses is the Swedish method which has been developed over 30 years with a lot of research and a lot of different countries involved. That method […] is now implemented in Finland. They were probably the first to have a waste repository for the spent nuclear fuel that is the most radioactive.”

In Sweden, there was even a competition between two cities, both vying to be the home of the nuclear repository. The cities of Östhammar and Oskarshamn both lobbied to be the home of the high-level storage repository for more than seven years. The two communities have six reactors between them. In 2011, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. (SKB) ultimately filed applications to build the facility in Forsmark. That repository is located 50 metres below the Baltic Sea seabed.

But as Rising suggests, it takes communities and policy makers to get on board with allowing the facility to move forward, something that has yet to happen in Canada. Until that point, the spent fuel sits in cooling ponds, holding there until a better, safer solution is adopted.

The future of nuclear power

The repositories will continue to be necessary, especially if Rising is right in her analysis of the future role that nuclear will play in the global energy mix.

“For a sustainable future, we need to have nuclear. That is totally clear.” She cited prior statements that have emerged from IEA, COP24, and IPCC discussions on the low-carbon energy future, all of which maintain that nuclear energy needs to be present.

But will all future nuclear development be at the scale of what we have seen in Ontario and New Brunswick, or even larger than what is being currently built in the aforementioned Asia-Pacific markets? Not necessarily.

“We need the large scale,” Rising explains. “We need these because of the large demands on the big grids. But then we have small modular reactors that can power smaller grids, or grids that are not connected to a larger grid.”

Smaller reactors, like the ones discussed in Canada by former Ontario Power Generation CEO Jeff Lyash, could be the real opportunity for this country to again be in the business of building new nuclear power. The mobility of modular reactors, and their ability to reach communities not supported by an existing power grid, could provide an opportunity to reduce diesel-generated power where solar, wind, and geothermal are either not viable or perhaps not as cost-effective.

One version of the modular nuclear reactor already developed is the floating reactor, which has been developed in Russia. The two-reactor floating plant is currently lying in Mormansk, where the first reactor was fired up in 2018 and is currently undergoing tests. The second reactor will then be tested and, once both reactors are ready, the reactor will be moved to the community of Pevek. Pevek is a community located in the north of Russia, in the Arctic Circle on the southeast corner of the East Siberian Sea, 5,579 kilometres northeast of Moscow. The reactors will supply both heat and electricity to the community.

There is also ongoing development of next-generation or advanced reactors. These reactors operate at a higher temperature, which can then be used to replace the fossil fuels used in some industrial processes.

“We think that there is an electric future,” says Rising. “And the more you use electricity, the more you need a clean and reliable energy source that can deliver 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The future seems bright for nuclear power in the global market, at least in the short term. And with the future going modular, and being a viable alternative for diesel-power generation in remote communities, we could see a nuclear renaissance here in Canada.

Andrew Macklin is the managing editor of ReNew Canada.

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