The Role of Nuclear Energy in Ontario

The following blog post was contributed by Paul Acchione, P.Eng., on behalf of OSPE’s Energy Task Force.

Canada’s Nuclear Energy Situation

In November 2018 a Steering Committee, convened by Natural Resources Canada and with the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) acting as secretariat, published a report titled “A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors”. CNA is the voice of the nuclear industry in Canada. Canada is one of six countries with the capability to develop nuclear energy systems.

The Steering Committee’s report proposes that Canada begin a program to develop Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs are being developed by other nuclear energy countries to address several barriers preventing the use of nuclear power to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. SMRs are factory fabricated in modules so they are smaller and more affordable than conventional large nuclear reactors, they have enhanced safety features and they can more easily integrate with renewable energy sources and district heating systems.

Some advanced (Generation IV) SMR designs are also capable of using the present stockpiles of high-level radioactive waste as fuel. The environmentally sustainable fuel recycling technology that is required is currently under development in nuclear research laboratories.

These advanced SMRs are more difficult to develop and commercialize compared to less advanced (Generation III+) SMR designs. However, their advantages will allow nuclear energy to play a key role in helping Canada and the world meet economy-wide GHG emission reduction goals in an environmentally sustainable way.

Canada is a signatory to the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement fits within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The agreement requires global action to limit humans’ contribution to global warming to no more than 2°C and preferably 1.5°C. This effectively means a significant (>80%) economy-wide reduction in GHG emissions by 2050.

There has been much discussion on the best way for the world to address energy system emissions. Some organizations have proposed using 100% renewable sources with sufficient storage to ensure the energy meets consumers’ reliability requirements. While renewable energy and storage costs have dropped rapidly in the past 2 decades, the foreseeable medium-term costs of storage are still too high to make 100% renewable energy solutions affordable relative to alternative low-emission energy solutions.

What Does OSPE’s Energy Task Force Take Have to Say About Nuclear Energy and Ontario’s Power Mix?

Many OSPE members have been following the work of OSPE’s Energy Task Force (ETF). The ETF has been consistent over the past dozen or so years that an optimally integrated mix of energy sources is needed to ensure Ontario’s industrialized economy has an abundant, low-emission, reliable, safe and affordable energy supply. Our economy-wide energy requirements include electricity, heat and fuels for transportation. Electricity deserves special attention because of its critical role in supporting our industrialized society and because there are no alternatives for some applications like powering our information technology infrastructure.

Over the past 20 years, Ontario embarked on an aggressive emission reduction program for its electricity system. Ontario reduced GHG emissions in its electricity sector by 80% from 1990 to 2015 by banning the use of coal, choosing a mix of low-emission energy technologies (ie: nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar and bio-energy generation) and using natural gas generation primarily for operating reserve and back-up. Ontario’s electricity system relies on nuclear and renewable energy for about 60% and 35% respectively of its energy production. Electricity retail rates in Ontario are now approximately at the same level as the average price of electricity in the USA and about half the price in Europe. The GHG emission rate per kilowatt-hour in Ontario’s electricity system is currently about 1/10th that of the USA or Europe.

OSPE’s ETF has published a number of technical presentations and reports from 2012 to 2018.  The most recent OSPE formal report titled “Ontario’s Energy Dilemma: Reducing Emissions at an Affordable Cost” was published in March 2016,” identified the difficult choices Ontario faced in reducing emissions in other sectors of the economy. The report also explained why nuclear energy had to play a key role until storage costs drop much lower if we wanted affordable low-emission energy to power Ontario’s industrial economy.

Wind and solar generation sources will also play an important role in peak load energy demand where variations in output pose a less serious economic challenge. Short term storage (minutes to a few hours) can help manage variable output for peak load energy demand. However, longer-term storage that is necessary to manage variable output for base-load energy demand is still prohibitively expensive. While nuclear energy has a high fixed cost, it produces both electricity and heat at a very low marginal cost – less than fossil fuels, and it has a very high operating capacity factor of 85 to 90%. These production characteristics make nuclear energy better suited to supply base-load electricity, thermal energy and hydrogen.

OSPE wrote to CNA on January 7, 2019 supporting the Canadian Roadmap for SMR’s.  OSPE expressed some concern that the advantages of the advanced SMRs were not sufficiently covered in the Steering Committee’s report.  A subsequent follow-up letter from OSPE to the CNA was sent February 11, 2019 to confirm OSPE had not changed its previous position that it supported the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s Adaptive Phased Management (APM) of nuclear spent fuel.

APM provides an underground storage location for the high-level radioactive spent fuel with the ability to retrieve the spent fuel for many decades so it can later be recycled and used as fuel in the advanced SMRs. APM is essential because it provides the nuclear industry time to develop the required fuel recycling technology. That recycling technology will make nuclear energy an environmentally sustainable partner along with renewable energy sources to meet our GHG emission reduction commitments.

Click here to learn about other topics being explored by OSPE’s advocacy Task Forces and Committees.

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