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What would nuclear power look like for the Prairies?

The Prairies Climate Change Project is a joint initiative between CBC Edmonton and CBC Saskatchewan that focuses on weather and our changing climate. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga brings her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and how they impact everyday life.

There are a lot of options in energy for Canada — hydro, wind, solar, biomass, natural gas, geothermal … the list goes on.

As we work to decarbonize our electricity sources, there is growing interest in nuclear power.

Nuclear power has a long history in Canada, with the first plant, the Nuclear Power Demonstration Reactor in Rolphton, Ont., going online in the early 1960s.

Today, larger nuclear generating stations in Ontario and New Brunswick supply about 15 per cent of Canada’s electricity.

But what about the Prairies? There is no nuclear power in Alberta and Saskatchewan as of today. Alberta currently produces nearly 90 per cent of its electricity from natural gas and coal; in Saskatchewan, fossil fuels provide about 80 per cent of electricity.

But as the country looks to phase out fossil fuel use, what could the future look like?

Nuclear in Canada

While New Brunswick is home to one nuclear generating station, most of Canada’s nuclear power lies in Ontario, which has three generating stations — Pickering, Darlington and Bruce.

Canada’s nuclear power plants use nuclear fission. Atoms from a uranium fuel are split apart, releasing energy in the form of heat and radiation. The heat is used to create steam from water. The steam then spins a turbine, creating electricity.

Spent fuel — radioactive waste — must be stored securely for decades or even centuries. 

While a new large nuclear plant has not been built in Canada since the Darlington plant came online in the early ’90s, there is development on the way for small modular nuclear reactors, or SMRs.

SMRs come with some changes from the larger plants, said Gary Rose, vice-president of new nuclear growth at Ontario Power Generation, which operates the Pickering and Darlington facilities.

“They’re smaller, and because they’re smaller they can be more modular and built in factories and have a much more predictable cost and schedule to deploy,” Rose said.

Ontario Power Generation is leading the country in SMR development. A small reactor under construction at Darlington is expected to be operating by 2029.

The SMR will provide 300 megawatts of electricity, which could be enough to power around 300,000 homes. The plant would run for 60 to 80 years.

“I would say we are leading the world in deploying this technology, and certainly many other countries and provinces are following us,” Rose said.

Nuclear on the Prairies

Alberta and Saskatchewan are no stranger to nuclear talks. Both provinces have signed memorandums of understanding with New Brunswick and Ontario — the intention is to share knowledge in the push toward nuclear power.

“Alberta is a leader in technology and innovation, and Small Modular Reactors have the potential to help support our responsible energy production while reducing emissions,” said Alberta’s Ministry of Energy in a statement.

In April, Alberta signed a memorandum of understanding with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute to explore the viability of deploying SMR technology in the province.

Saskatchewan is a step ahead of Alberta, with plans for the same type of SMR that is being deployed in Ontario. 

Artists drawing of new small modular reactor.
An artist’s rendering of the SMR technology proposed for Ontario’s Darlington location. Saskatchewan plans on exploring the same type of reactor. (Ontario Power Generation)

“We’ll be in a position to make a decision on potentially our first SMR investment in 2029,” said Kent Campbell, president and CEO of the Crown Investments Corporation of Saskatchewan.

Campbell said two potential sites have been identified in the Elbow and Estevan regions of the province, with a final selection expected in late 2023 or early 2024.

“If you look at our power production system right now, we’re still fairly heavily reliant on fossil fuels,” he said. “As we move to a scenario of net-zero electricity production, we’re going to need to look to other sources.”

Along with advancements in solar and wind power, nuclear power is a very good option, Campbell said.

“We are very, I think, optimistic that it will be part of our power generation future as we move forward into the 2030s and beyond.”

Safety and waste

Any talk about developing nuclear power sparks questions about safety and environmental impacts, and accidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chornobyl and Fukushima.

So what about the risks in Canada?

Nuclear safety in Canada is monitored and regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

“Canada has been in the nuclear power business since the 1960s, one of the first countries in the world to produce nuclear power, and we do have an exemplary safety record,” CNSC president Rumina Velshi told CBC in an interview.

Velshi said that for existing plants, challenges lie with ensuring facilities continue to meet new standards and safety codes. The CNSC works with facility operators to ensure they are following international standards.

A nuclear power plant as seen from the air
The safety of nuclear power plants is regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) (Ontario Power Generation)

“We do an assessment of each nuclear facility, not only on a regular basis, but then each year we produce a report card on how well those facilities are doing,” Velshi said.

“When serious accidents happen, like when the Fukushima accident happened in 2011, for instance, it’s our job to understand what are the learnings for us.”

And when it comes to new builds, Velshi said the technology itself has improved safety. 

She said SMRs incorporate passive safety systems, which means that if things go wrong, the reactor shuts down.

Velshi said one benefit of nuclear power is the small, containable amounts of spent fuel. 

“We know exactly how much waste there is and where it is. There are very, very stringent requirements around inventory and we actually have to report.”

Management of radioactive waste is planned for nuclear builds from the onset. Velshi said that as part of the licensing procedure, the plant’s operators are required to prove that they have a plan and the funds for the safe disposal of waste.

“They have to set aside a certain amount of funds which we review every five years … so that there isn’t this abandoned waste with no one responsible because that funding is there.”

Though Canada doesn’t have a permanent waste solution, Velshi said work is being done to change that through a deep geological repository.

“Think about something underground, way down, a couple of kilometres down, and you store the waste there — and that’s the path that Canada is on,” she said.

Velshi said the CNSC is hoping a site with a willing host community will be selected by the end of 2024, so that the licensing process can start for building a deep geological repository.

Viability with climate change

Much of the drive for nuclear comes from the need for reliable, zero- or low-emission energy sources.

Gary Rose, with Ontario Power Generation, said nuclear power comes with that level of stability. 

“In order to advance your renewables, wind, solar, etc., you need baseload energy [for] when you don’t have sun or don’t have wind,” he said. 

“If it’s not nuclear or hydro, it’s [natural] gas, generally, and you don’t achieve the carbon reduction that we’re looking for.”

The turbine hall at the Darlington nuclear site.
Nuclear operates with near zero emissions and can provide reliable baseload power according to Rose. (Ontario Power Generation)

“I’m beginning to see [nuclear] as a kind of a battery for solar,” said Esam Hussein, a former dean of engineering and applied science at the University of Regina.

“If you have nuclear, you can afford to rely on those intermittent sources of power.”

Hussein acknowledges that nuclear power is a more expensive option, with higher capital costs, and that it does come with risks.

“There is a price for everything we do … solar has its own challenges and advantages, disadvantages. Wind, hydro — we all know the problems,” he said.

“Take the risk of climate change that can wipe out humanity, or take a calculated, very well-known risk that I believe we can handle.”

Not all convinced

The conversation around nuclear power is complicated, and while many believe it is the answer for a net-zero emission future, others are not convinced. 

“Nuclear is not only not the answer, I think nuclear is actually a negative for climate mitigation,” said M.V. Ramana, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

“Nuclear energy is a very expensive way to generate electricity,” he said, noting that� nuclear costs have increased over time, as safety regulations and licensing become more expensive.

New nuclear builds around the world have been plagued by delays and missed budgets, Ramana said.

According to Ramana, Russia began building two SMRs in 2007 that were meant to be completed in three years. Delays meant they didn’t get connected to the grid until 2020.

And in terms of cost, Ramana said that while SMRs are more affordable on paper than large plants, they lose out on economies of scale.

“When you build a plant that is generating, let’s say, five times as much electricity, the utility will get five times as much revenue out of it, but its costs will not be five times as much.

“When you go small you lose out on economies of scale and so the per unit cost will actually go up for a smaller reactor.”

While Ramana discounts nuclear power as a solution to the effects of climate change, he does argue for carbon emissions to be reduced as quickly as possible and at the lowest possible cost.

“[Nuclear is] a very expensive source of power, it takes a long time to build. So any dollar that you’re spending on nuclear power is a dollar that’s not being spent on something else.”

He said expansion of renewable energy sources, along with further research into storage solutions, is the best path forward.

“We don’t know anything about what kind of storage technologies will be available [in the future] and how much they will cost,” he said. 

“How do we deal with climate change? There is no easy answer right there. And the short answer is we have to change everything we are doing.”

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

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