By Mark Douglas Wessel

As the world was reminded by the Oscar winning movie Oppenheimer, nuclear power was first harnessed to produce atomic weapons toward the end of the Second World War. Energy that was tapped into for yet another military application a decade later, when in 1955 the USS Nautilus—the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was launched.

While these technological breakthroughs dominated the news of the day, when the Shippingport Atomic Power Station—the first commercial electric-generating station powered by nuclear energy—came online in 1958 as part of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, the story garnished barely a whisper. The New York Times buried the story on page 28 (half of which was devoted to a car ad), with the opaque headline “Power Reactor Started in Test.”

Of course, since those early days of relative anonymity, nuclear energy has received all kinds of good, bad, and sometimes ugly coverage. Collectively, the Three Mile meltdown in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and most recently, the Fukushima accident in 2011 have literally fuelled safety concerns over nuclear power as an energy source for decades.

And yet despite these setbacks and continued pushback from those in favour of other clean or green energy sources such as wind and solar, some industry analysts believe that nuclear power is about to experience a renaissance.

Interest no more readily apparent than here in Canada, where arguably the biggest driver of this country’s energy transition away from fossil fuels has been its commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. A commitment tied to rising concerns over climate change, which in this country alone contributed to a record number of fires last year (over 6,500). Fires that chewed through 45.7 million acres of forest and produced some of the worst air quality in the world.

A document prepared last year by the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) entitled “Canada’s Energy Future 2023” postulates that to achieve the country’s stated goal of getting to net-zero “the types of energy that Canadians use needs to change dramatically, including using a lot more electricity.” The paper projects that by 2050, 99 per cent of our electricity will come from a mix of wind, hydro, natural gas with CCS (carbon capture storage), bioenergy with carbon capture, storage, solar… and nuclear power.

If there is one province positioned to play the nuclear card in anticipation of the growing electrification of this country’s economy, it’s Ontario where most of the country’s reactors are located, producing 13,144 MW of electricity or the equivalent of 34 per cent of the province’s needs. And as Todd Smith, Ontario’s Minister of Energy shared with Renew Canada in a recent interview, those nuclear numbers are expected to dramatically grow in the coming years.

“The various announcements that were included in Powering Ontario’s Growth are being acted upon now,” says Smith, including “moving forward on the refurbishment of Pickering, major component replacements out of Bruce… and major refurbishments at Darlington.”

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Bruce Power, in Tiverton, Ont. is currently carrying out a $13-billion refurbishment program on all eight of its reactor units. (Bruce Power)

On its website, Bruce Power describes these steps as a “Life Extension Plan” that involves the overhaul of all the units at the 6,232 MW generating station. A move they predict “will secure operation until 2064.”

Beyond extending the life of the station, Pat Dalzell, Bruce Power’s head of corporate affairs, says that because of the refurbishments, “we expect more than 7,000 MW of (additional) output coming out of the site,” by pioneering a host of new initiatives to get more power out of the reactors. “So, it will be like adding an additional 700 MW… enough to power three-quarter of a million homes.”

In addition to refurbishing Bruce A and B (with four reactors at each site for a total of eight), Dalzell notes that as part of powering Ontario’s growth plan, regulatory and predevelopment work is being done on “what we call the Bruce C project… which is an impact assessment to create an option for the province in the future… so that our site can be leveraged to help build out that capacity in Ontario.” A project which if it ever comes to fruition, would increase Bruce’s generating capacity by an additional 4.8 MW.

All this planning is not only in anticipation of the province’s rising energy needs (IESO predicts an average two per cent a year increase over the coming decades), but also says Dalzell is tied to “the fight against climate change,” and the reality that “there aren’t a lot of nuclear projects going forward. The only one you can point to is the Darlington SMR project,” made possible by the fact an environmental assessment and the requisite permits were granted back in 2012.

The Government of Ontario is working with OPG to build four small nuclear reactors (SMRs) at the Darlington nuclear site. (OPG)

SMRs or small modular reactors, as described by the International Atomic Agency “are advanced nuclear reactors that have the capacity of up to 300 MW per unit.” Key differentiators include the fact they are a fraction of the size of a conventional power reactor. They’re modular, making it possible for systems and components to be factory assembled and transported to a location for installation.

Initial plans called for a single SMR to be built at Darlington. However last summer, Minister Smith announced that total would be bumped to four reactors. “So, it will be a four-pack of small modular reactors going onsite at Darlington. That will be 1.2 gigawatts of clean, reliable, affordable electricity coming out of that site on top of the CANDU reactors located there,” which have a current installed capacity of 3,512 MW.

Smith observes there are a “number of partners collaborating on a first of a kind project. Partners that were involved in building the CANDU reactors years ago. Atkins Réalis and Aecon are leading the work along with OPG and E.S. Fox.”

Embracing Smith’s “first of a kind” description of Ontario’s SMRs, Sandra Dykxhoorn, Ontario Power Generation’s vice president, New Nuclear Growth proudly observes that “OPG was the first utility in the Western world to declare it was going to build a commercial scale SMR [so] we’re hoping to receive a licence to construct by the end of this year… begin construction in 2025… and complete construction of the first one by end of 2028. Which would then be operational by 2029. So that is far and away the furthest along of any utility company in the Western world.”

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Dykxhoorn is also quick to tie OPG’s efforts in with what she describes as “the climate change bucket (with) industrial companies, ESG targets and public policy decisions driving certain transportation, building and industrial sectors to get cleaner.”

As part of efforts to decarbonize, Canada has committed to getting off of coal-fired electricity by 2030. And towards meeting that target, Dykxhoorn says provinces such as Saskatchewan “are planning to put nuclear on their grid for the first time. They’re actively working with OPG and following what we’re doing at Darlington and building the first grid scale SMR.” Saskatchewan is one of four provinces that have agreed to a Strategic Plan for the Deployment of Small Nuclear Reactors, joined by Ontario, Alberta, and New Brunswick.

To outside observers, Saskatchewan’s entry into the nuclear power game may come as a surprise considering that as recently as 2022 it was the world’s second largest producer of high-grade uranium deposits, with sales of nearly $1 billion.

However, there should be little to no surprise that New Brunswick is involved, with a history of generating nuclear energy at its Point Lepreau station since 1983. Mike Holland, New Brunswick’s Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development describes his province’s foray into SMR development as “not just for generation of electrons… but for decarbonization of the industrial sector.”

Not unlike Ontario, New Brunswick has also produced a long-term energy strategy, with the overarching goal of producing clean, affordable, and reliable energy. And plans call for nuclear to be part of that mix with the decision to construct four ARC-100 reactors. Advanced small modular reactors, designed to produce 100 MW of energy, which according to the company “can supply energy to a quarter of a million people in a space smaller than a city block.”

“For our purpose in New Brunswick for power generation… we’re creating a deck capable of producing 600 MW,” says Holland. And considering the modularity and small footprint of the ARC-100’s, he predicts that “there’s no limit to the amount of ARC units we could see throughout the country and the globe.”

From Holland’s perspective, in addition to playing “a key role in decarbonizing the industrial sector… with modularity being a key component (of the ARC-100) … we have the genesis of an export model for product that can serve (energy) purposes,” virtually anywhere in the world. And “we have over 600 companies in the province of New Brunswick that have the ability to feed into that supply chain,” with the numbers just in his province alone adding up to “in excess of 10,000 jobs and over a billion dollars worth of GDP and taxes.”

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The promise of SMRs has become a hot topic, however, the commentary isn’t all positive. In a recent op-ed piece published in The Globe & Mail entitled “The Folly of Ontario’s Nuclear Power Play,” York University questions the government’s decision to refurbish reactors at Bruce and Darlington while considering four new reactors at Bruce, as well as the four planned SMR reactors at Darlington, stating that “the total cost of these plans are unknown at this point, but an overall estimate in excess of $100 billion would not be unrealistic… and even that figure would assume things go according to plan.”

Speaking with Renew Canada, Winfield observes that in addition to major construction costs, he projects there will be much higher generation costs as well, predicting that “the 20 to 30 cents per KW hour range of actual delivered electricity (from nuclear energy) … will be double renewables (e.g. wind and solar).”

Winfield of course is not alone in pushing back over everything from cost to environmental concerns that have dogged the nuclear industry since its inception, with organizations ranging from the Suzuki Foundation to the Atmospheric Fund lining up in opposition to nuclear.

But when all is said and done, even “green energy sources” have their challenges, whether it pertains to achieving economies of scale sufficient to meet energy demands, to end of life recycling challenges the solar industry is grappling with to the NIMBY threat to wind farms.

Perhaps the solution, not unlike any good investment portfolio… is a balanced one. A mindset Minister Holland certainly embraces, recognizing there is still work to be done towards decarbonizing the electricity produced in New Brunswick. “We talk proudly about the fact that 81 per cent of our electricity is generated through non-emitting means. But the toughest part is that last 19 per cent. So where do we go from here?” he asks.

Answering his own question Holland says to “get to non-emitting means completely, nuclear is a component of that (with 600 MW of new nuclear planned). But it’s also important to recognize the diversity of our energy strategy… because there’s an additional 1,400 MW of renewables we plan to introduce into our system as well. So, the gap is going to be filled with several different means to meet our climate targets.”

Mark Douglas Wessel is an urban journalist and communications consultant. He writes a regular column called Green Living for Postmedia.

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: In the summer of 2023, Ontario Power Generation completed the refurbishment of Darlington Nuclear Generating Station’s Unit 3, 169 days ahead of schedule. (OPG)

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