Canada has been called an energy superpower, largely because of the massive petroleum reserves entrained in the Alberta oil sands. But this country is also a major player in the international nuclear industry. Canada is the world’s largest uranium producing country, and a Canadian company, Cameco (formerly the government-owned Eldorado Nuclear), is the world’s leading individual uranium producer.
Most of the major activities in the nuclear fuel cycle—mining, refining, fuel fabrication, power generation, and spent-fuel storage—occur in several provinces in Canada. Canada does not enrich uranium, as the country’s domestic nuclear power generation technology—CANDU, for Canadian deuterium uranium—uses natural unenriched fuel. Canada exports uranium fuel to other countries that use CANDUs, and it manufactures and exports uranium hexafluoride for enrichment, primarily to the United States. In accordance with the terms of various international treaties, Canada’s uranium exports are for peaceful purposes only.
The end of the fuel cycle—sequestration of spent fuel—is the subject of some controversy. Spent fuel in Canada is stored at reactor sites, as it is at every power reactor site in the U.S. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, or NWMO, recently recommended burying it 500 to 1,000 meters deep in the Canadian shield, and mentioned several locations in Canada that may be suitable. A final decision could be years away.
A major concern about deep geologic storage is that, as more nuclear plants enter service in Canada and around the world, the amount of highly radioactive waste will outgrow the available storage space. Enter the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a U.S. scheme in which only several countries would enrich uranium, then lease it to countries for use in moderated reactors. Spent fuel would be returned to the countries that enrich uranium. These countries would then extract the uranium and plutonium from spent fuel and burn them in special reactors that generate electricity while destroying their more dangerous components. Canada is considering participating in the GNEP.
Canada’s role in the scheme would depend heavily on decisions, yet to be taken, regarding near- and long-term power generation investment in several Canadian provinces. Should the bulk of Canada’s nuclear power fleet remain based on CANDU technology, there would be no need to “lease” enriched uranium from Tier 1 countries. Canada would in that case be a net contributor of fuel—in the form of natural uranium for CANDU reactors abroad, and, possibly, uranium- and plutonium-laden spent fuel—to the GNEP system. But would we build burner reactors? Would we receive spent fuel from countries using CANDU technology?
The GNEP addresses concerns related to both spent fuel and weapons proliferation. For this reason, I’m glad Canada is at least looking at it.