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Canada flexing its nuclear muscles in medicine, energy production and nuclear waste management

Canada’s nuclear industry is experiencing a renaissance after 15 years of setbacks and stagnation.

It has restored this country’s dominance in medical isotopes, received big federal investments in a new generation of small nuclear reactors (SMRs), and is undertaking billion-dollar life extensions for Canada’s aging fleet of 21 Candu reactors. Of these, three are down for refurbishment and two are in a safe-storage state. And, after 20 years of hunting, it is finally closing in on the final site to permanently store the country’s 3.1 million used Candu fuel bundles weighing more than 59,000-tonnes.

It’s a long way from 2008, when Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) had to write off its $600-million investment in its MAPLE reactors; and 2018, when the Chalk River National Research Universal (NRU) reactor gave up the ghost after 60 years of service, forcing the world to scramble for medical isotopes.

The turnaround comes against a backdrop of renewed interest in nuclear power generation, driven by the fact that its greenhouse gas emissions are far lower than any fossil fuel. What has not changed, however, is unwavering opposition from anti-nuclear groups, who say nuclear reactors are too expensive, unsafe and that there are better renewable energy options.

Much of this opposition comes from those who live next to nuclear power plants and other nuclear industries, including Indigenous groups, who feel they are the most at risk.

Here’s a look at developments in four areas.

Medical isotope production

In 2017, Canada supplied about 40 per cent of the world’s Molybdenum-99 through the NRU reactor. Molybdenum-99 has a half-life of 66 hours and decays to Technetium-99m, which itself has a shorter half-life of six hours, meaning nuclear medicine clinics need a new supply daily. Technetium-99m is used in about 85 per cent of all diagnostic nuclear medicine tests. Although almost all organ systems can be imaged using Technetium-99m, bone scans looking for trauma, infection and cancer and cardiac scans looking for ischemia or scarring are the most common nuclear medicine tests.

When the NRU reactor shut down in 2018, the world relied on other traditional high enriched uranium reactor sources, some of which were as old as the NRU. There were also high hopes that linear-accelerator produced Molybdenum-99 and cyclotron produced Technetium-99m would move beyond proof of principle and become a viable commercial medical isotope source but this has not materialized.

In 2021, Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) Darlington plant just east of Toronto became the first large-scale commercial nuclear power station approved to produce Mo-99.

The eight Bruce reactors on the shores of Lake Huron constitute the world’s largest energy producing nuclear power plant and produce half the world’s medical grade Cobalt-60 that is used to treat cancer and sterilize medical supplies. Nordion (Canada) Inc. processes 90 per cent of the world’s medical grade Cobalt-60.

The Bruce nuclear power plant is the only one that is producing Lutecium-177, which shows promise for treating advanced prostate cancer and other rare cancers. Bruce has partnered with Isogen and ITM Isotope Technologies (Munich) to commercialize the product. As part of an equity partnership, Bruce will also collaborate with the Saugeen Ojibway Nation to market the product.

Advanced nuclear technologies

Canada is investing big time in developing small modular reactors (SMRs).The Canada Infrastructure Bank is investing $970 million towards a 300-MWe (one MWe equals one million watts of electric capacity) SMR to be located next to the Darlington nuclear power plant, contingent on regulatory approval. SMRs use advanced generation designs and are smaller and modular, which allows factory prefabrication. Conventional nuclear power plants produce around 700- MWe per reactor unit.

The federal government has released an SMR Road Map in partnership with the provinces, territories and other stakeholders. SMRs are less expensive than conventional nuclear power plants and can be plugged into existing electric grids, used in energy intensive industrial settings and can provide off-grid electricity to remote communities.

It is estimated that the near future Canadian SMR market is worth $5.3 billion; there are hopes of an estimated global SMR market of $150 billion.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have signed a collaboration agreement on advanced reactor and SMR technologies focusing on the BWRX-300 reactor design, noting there are more than 70 SMR designs in play. So far, there are four SMRs under construction, in Argentina, China and Russia.

Canada will be the “first Western country” to approve an “on grid” SMR, says Rumina Velshi, President and CEO of the CNSC. The target is to have the first SMR up and running in 2028.

The CNSC’s mandate is to “protect Canadians from risk, not progress.”

Saskatchewan has folded SMRs into its Prairie Resilience climate change strategy and is the lead in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to align SMR activities with Ontario and New Brunswick with Alberta planning to also sign on.

However, there are critics to that climate-change approach.

Lawrence Solomon, Executive Director of Energy Probe, says SMRs would not be economical if linked to existing electricity grids but concedes they may be economical in remote locations. Other forms of renewable energy, such as wind, are cheaper and there should be an “orderly phase-out” of nuclear energy sources, says Ole Hendrickson, president of the Sierra Club Canada. In a similar vein, there is unfair “framing of SMRs as an answer to climate change,” says Theresa McClenaghan, Executive Director and Counsel of the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).

CNSC regulates all things nuclear in Canada. The CNSC’s mandate is to “protect Canadians from risk, not progress,” says Velshi.

Refurbishment of aging Candu reactors

Due to the astronomical costs of “new-builds,” some of Canada’s nuclear power-plant reactor units are undergoing refurbishment, also called “major component replacement” in the case of the Bruce nuclear power plant.

But refurbishment is not cheap.

After more than four years of refurbishment work, New Brunswick’s single-unit Point Lepreau nuclear power plant reopened in 2012, about three years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. Current multi-unit refurbishment activities at the Darlington and Bruce nuclear power plants are running to schedule at cost of about $13 billion each.

The Ontario Government recently announced plans to extend operations of four of eight reactor units at Pickering to 2026, two years beyond their current license, and possibly refurbish these units thereafter. These plans will require CNSC approval.

The main opposition to refurbishment activities include continued nuclear operations in densely and growing populated areas; loss of resources that could be invested in renewable energy production and storage technologies; growing inventory of nuclear waste without an agreed upon final solution; and lack of consultation with local communities and Indigenous groups.

Spent nuclear fuel waste management

Radioactive waste is classified at a low, intermediate or high level depending on how active it is and how long it lasts.

Spent nuclear fuel is categorized as high-level waste. It is first stored in a water pool for up to 10 years to cool down and allow shorter lived isotopes to decay. After this, it is stored on-site in above ground dry-cask storage.

The vast majority, 98.9 per cent, of Canada’s nuclear waste is low level, with high-level radioactive waste making up less than one per cent and so far accumulating to weigh more than 59,000 tonnes.

Canada is close  to selecting a site to bury high-level nuclear waste in a deep geological repository (DGR). The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), responsible for designing and implementing Canada’s plan for safe, long-term management of spent nuclear fuel, is down to two potential host sites for a DGR – the Township of Ignace in northwestern Ontario and the Municipality of South Bruce in southern Ontario.

Canada is one of five DGR projects around the world. Finland has the first in the world to be under construction while France and Sweden have made site selections and Switzerland is in the process of choosing a site.

Finding a home for Canada’s DGR is not without controversy.

“Who’s making the decision [on where to put the DGR] and on whose behalf?” asks McClenaghan. “And who has the right to be making the decision?”

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Sandor Demeter

Contributor

Dr. Sandor Demeter is a former International Commission on Radiological Protection committee member and is currently a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) member. He has written this article as part of his fellowship in Global Journalism program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Policy and not in his capacity as a CNSC member.

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