Canada’s nuclear future II: tough questions and no clear answers

To no one’s surprise, the Canadian government has announced it wants to sell the reactor part of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL). What exactly that entails is not clear. The government says it is open to any and all offers, from some kind of public-private partnership to full 100 percent private ownership. It looks like the goal is to raise cash fast. Does this mean the future of Canada’s nuclear industry depends on the intentions of whomever can quickly make an acceptable offer?

In these circumstances it’s safe to say the current Ontario reactor new build process is truly submerged, perhaps permanently. That means the sale price of AECL will be low. It is somewhat ironic that the feds couldn’t arrive at an agreement with Ontario over the price of the two reactors Ontario says it needs at the Darlington generation station. A firm sale in Ontario would have increased AECL’s value, thereby paying off better for Canadian taxpayers.

For those riveted by the recent Copenhagen climate change debate, 3,000 megawatts of new nuclear capacity at Darlington would have displaced an equivalent amount of natural gas–fired capacity in Ontario. This would avoid over 13.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Nothing comes close to nuclear when it comes to emission reductions in power generation.

And what about the company’s research and development? AECL is as much a cutting-edge R&D company as it is a reactor vendor; the first is a sine qua non of the second. The world is going nuclear in a big way, and questions regarding the nuclear fuel cycle are inextricable from those regarding the industry’s future development. Canada, led by AECL, was an early adopter of nuclear energy. We have been involved with the technology since the ZEEP, the first nuclear reactor to go into operation outside the U.S. And that was a week after World War II ended.

Since the ZEEP went critical in September 1945, AECL has been in like Flynn in the nuclear industry. It has developed solutions that will win its future owner(s) major prizes—if the right decisions are made today.

The interesting thing is, AECL’s R&D has been focused primarily on fuel cycles involving heavy water. There are many opportunities here, including thorium and DUPIC. The latter was proposed as recently as last year as a way of recycling the thousands of tons of spent reactor fuel in the U.S. Of all the fuel cycle options proposed recently, DUPIC would be the most proliferation-resistant. For this reason it needs political support. But since the “C” in DUPIC stands for CANDU, what does the Canadian government decision to sell the CANDU part of AECL mean for the prospects of further R&D into this fuel cycle?

It gets murkier. Canada is part of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), an international effort to develop next-generation nuclear reactors. Canada’s offering to GIF is the supercritical water-cooled reactor (SCWR). Cooled with light water at supercritical pressure, the SCWR system could be based on either a moderated or fast reactor. Canada’s nuclear expertise is of course in heavy water–moderated machines; AECL’s SCWR work has therefore focused on that.

The SCWR would be smaller and more efficient than the reactors in service today. Its outlet temperature would be in the range of 510°C to 625°C—ideal for hydrogen generation via the copper-chlorine water splitting cycle. As I mentioned earlier, hydrogen will be a vital commodity in the future hydrocarbon fuel economy. This is an area Canada should be intensely interested in: we’re already a major producer of one kind of synthetic hydrocarbon fuel (from hydrogenated oilsands bitumen); for environmental and energy security reasons we must seek lower-carbon alternatives. Cheap, plentiful, low-carbon hydrogen is essential for this.

What happens to the SCWR, and all the government-sponsored research into copper-chlorine hydrogen that has occurred so far, if AECL’s purchaser isn’t interested in the company’s R&D? Will the federal government continue supporting nuclear R&D, vital as it is to the industry’s commercial future and to world anti-proliferation efforts; or will it walk away from this research?

These questions raise further ones, which have to do with the NRU. Two weeks ago a panel of experts recommended a new NRU, one that can also make medical diagnostic radioisotopes (see article). How likely is it that a private company will be interested in building a new research reactor that also makes medical isotopes? Isotopes are a thin-margin business today. Who in that business would pay money to acquire an R&D division whose research focus has always been on power reactor development and the accompanying fuel cycle?

I guess we’ll find out.

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