Canada has put a lot of time, effort, and money into the nuclear sector. This time, effort, and money pays off every day, in the form of electricity, which is the lifeblood of the economy. Without electricity, we could not run our cities. It also pays off in the form of life-saving isotopes like molybdenum-99, which helps doctors diagnose illness, and cobalt-60, which fights cancer and makes blood safe for transfusion to infants who need it.
Canada’s nuclear investment goes back to the Manhattan Project of the Second World War. Of course, at that time we spared no expense: Canada was part of a military alliance in a fight to the death against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and the members of that alliance were in a race against those countries to build the first atomic bomb.
But after the war, Canada decided to forgo further military nuclear development and pursue only peaceful applications of nuclear energy. Since the linchpin of any weapons program is the ability to separate isotopes of uranium or plutonium, Canada chose the natural (unenriched, i.e., isotopically non-separated) uranium and heavy water route to nuclear energy—this does not require separating uranium or plutonium isotopes. But how would this fundamental technological choice shake out in an actual reactor design? Designers early on considered putting zirconium-clad uranium oxide fuel into a vat of heavy water, and encasing the whole assembly inside a thick forged-steel pressure vessel. This would allow the coolant to reach temperatures around 300 degrees Celsius, high enough to make steam to drive a big turbine generator.
The problem with that was, Canada did not then and does not today have industrial facilities capable of making forged steel components that size. How wise would it be to base a reactor design on critical components that only other countries were able to provide? One of these countries was of course the U.S., and the American civilian nuclear industry was also gearing up to take on the world. The Canadian designers thought it unwise to rely on our biggest competitor for important components. Accordingly, they decided to put the fuel into numerous individual pressure tubes, configured horizontally. This allowed for domestic manufacture of all the critical reactor components. It also allowed for continual refueling while at power, a major consideration for monopoly utilities with legal obligations to provide non-stop electricity to their customers.
By 1957, all these decisions had been made. The CANDU (Canadian Deuterium-Uranium) reactor was born. Within seven years, a reactor incorporating all the above-mentioned strategic design decisions was putting power into the Ontario grid. Five years later, a commercial prototype was operating at Douglas Point, the site of today’s Bruce nuclear generating station. And a station incorporating four 500-megawatt units was under construction at the Pickering site east of Toronto. Pickering began operation in 1971 and by 1973, with all four units running at full power, was producing more electricity than any other nuclear station in the world.
Within ten years of that, Ontario Hydro—the provincial utility that, in partnership with the federally owned Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), developed the CANDU and participated in all the major strategic design decisions—transformed from a hydro-coal utility to a predominantly nuclear one. Today, after a number of restructurings in the provincial power industry and the privatization of AECL’s CANDU division, Ontario’s power system remains primarily nuclear powered. CANDU reactors provide 100 percent of Ontario’s nuclear power. As I write this (at 1216 on Thursday, June 28, 2012—ninety-eight years to the day after the Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, thereby setting in motion the events that led to the Manhattan Project some twenty-eight years later), Ontario’s CANDUs are cranking out 10,536 MW, more power than all the other sources combined.
Now, Ontario has been endlessly waffling on what kind of new reactors to build at the Darlington site; I have covered that issue on this blog. Essentially, the question is whether to stick with CANDU, a proven technology, or go with a light water American or French design, which are also proven.
To repeat: the decision is whether to choose a proven Canadian design, a proven French one, or a proven American one. Since all three are proven, it is not clear why we opted to ever make the choice in the first place. What compelling reason is there to go with a foreign design? Maybe some time in the future when I know more about this I will write about it. But in the mean time, could someone explain why, after a half-century of unparalleled technological and economic success, it is a good idea to abandon the CANDU, which Canadian taxpayers generously and faithfully supported since its inception? Taxpayers have the right to expect some payoff from their hard-earned money. The Canadian nuclear sector has made good on the taxpayers’ expectation. Taxpayers are rewarded, each and every day, with enormous amounts of cheap, clean electricity and cheap life-saving isotopes.