Exporting low carbon electricity infrastructure: what Canada can do for the world

In the economic boom of the 1950s, Canada made a strategic gamble on its industrial future: it invested in developing the CANDU nuclear reactor. The CANDU was invented as a conscious decision to differentiate a product from its competition. Why was this a gamble? Because the CANDU’s competition was a reactor technology invented and marketed by the greatest economic and military superpower of all time: the United States of America.

Canada’s proven zero-carbon solution to skyrocketing global electricity demand: the CANDU reactor. A marvel of engineering skill and marketing guile, the CANDU has successfully provided most of Ontario’s power for decades, without dumping so much as a single gram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Canada’s federal government can and should do more to promote this excellent technology around the world. If the world does not go nuclear to meet its demand for electricity, it will use fossil fuels instead. And the world can simply no longer afford to use more fossil fuel. Photo courtesy of Canadian Nuclear FAQ

The American nuclear technology being marketed around the world was based on enriched uranium fuel, burning in large heavy tanks of light water (normal 1H2O). Canada did not have the technology to enrich uranium, nor the industrial infrastructure to make large heavy steel vessels. So we nimbly stepped over that obstacle, and engineered a reactor that runs on natural uranium burning in many smaller and lighter tubes of heavy water. Heavy water is water whose hydrogen constituent consists of the hydrogen-2 isotope, also known as deuterium (heavy water is denoted by 2H2O). Hence the name CANDU, which is a syllable acronym standing for Canadian Deuterium Uranium.

Did the gamble pay off? You bet it did. If you live in Ontario, you experience every hour of every day that payoff: most of Ontario’s electricity is made in CANDU reactors. Have a look at Table 1 in the upper left sidebar: all of the electric power in the Nuclear row came out of CANDUs. CANDUs are Ontario’s biggest and most important power source.

(The gamble paid off also in the area of medicine. Because of our investment in research and development of the CANDU, we—Canada—lead the world in the production of molybdenum-99, a vitally important radioactive medical isotope that is used in millions of diagnostic procedures every year. We also dominate production of cobalt-60, another life-saving radioactive isotope which, among other things, protects Canada’s blood supply. Most of Canada’s Mo-99 is made in the research reactor that played a vital role in CANDU fuel development. Our production of Co-60 is also done in that reactor as well as in several actual CANDUs. Production of Mo-99 is funded through the federal government’s nuclear budget, which is frequently and incorrectly criticized as a subsidy to the nuclear industry. It is not a subsidy to nuclear; it is a subsidy to health care.)

In today’s world, that early decision to invest in CANDU R&D pays off in another area, of enormous global importance: it ensures that more than half of Ontario’s electricity is made with no greenhouse gases. Nuclear reactions produce heat (which is used to make electricity) and some other elements. They produce no greenhouse gases.

Ontario was the proving ground of the CANDU technology, and the CANDU was the product of the joint development effort by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and Ontario Hydro, the former vertically integrated provincial electrical utility.

Once CANDU had been proven, AECL, a federally owned crown corporation, set about selling its design internationally. Its chief selling point was of course that it had been proven: Ontario could not have enhanced its position as Canada’s richest, most populous, and most economically advanced province without a stable supply of reliable and cheap power; CANDUs were now providing that.

Reassured that this was a viable technology that was powering the most important jurisdiction of the country selling it, foreign buyers then looked a the other features and saw great benefits to them as well. First, the machine runs on natural, non-enriched, uranium. Most countries do not possess the technology to enrich uranium. If they were to go with an American design, they would be dependent on fuel imports from the U.S. or one of the handful of other countries that can enrich uranium. This could make their electric power generation sector, the bedrock of every modern economy, subject to the whims of another country’s foreign policy.

Second, the CANDU can be refueled without shutting down. American reactors must be shut down for refueling every two or so years, which thereby removes a major generator from the grid. The CANDU would therefore offer grid stability for literally decades at a time.

Foreign buyers did indeed step up: from India, Pakistan, South Korea, China, Argentina, and Rumania. Domestic buyers as well: New Brunswick and Quebec.

None of the essential selling features of the CANDU has changed in the years since the reactor was first proved in Ontario. The reactor still proves itself in Ontario: every hour of every day, year after year, for decades CANDUs have provided the lion’s share of our electricity, without dumping so much as a single gram of carbon pollution into our air.

Now, demand for electric power is skyrocketing in the world. Concern over antrhopogenic climate change, tied to emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels, is also skyrocketing.

I believe that that skyrocketing demand for electric power can be met by using nuclear technology instead of by burning yet more fossil fuels.

As a Canadian, I believe that that skyrocketing demand for electric power should be met by CANDUs, which as I write this are powering, without dumping a single gram of CO2 into the air, my beloved province of Ontario.

What an export opportunity. I wrote a few years ago about spurring CANDU exports by allowing export credits to be used on foreign CANDU construction projects. That issue came up a couple of days ago, in a CBC article which pointed out that export credits have been used before to sell CANDUs.

Allowing them to be used that way again would be a major thing Canada can do (pun intended) to help move the world to a carbon-free future. A single CANDU EC6 reactor would avoid roughly 182 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime. A fleet of CANDU EC6s would totally offset the emissions involved in expanding the Alberta oilsands and exporting their product to the U.S. via the Keystone Pipeline.

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10 years ago

The stumbles in building CANDU plants in Canada, or for export, have not been due to technology, but are likely due to financing: a problem that is general across the global nuclear industry (and a problem shared by other capital intensive industries worldwide). We’d be building a new reactor in Ontario now if Stephen Harper hadn’t slammed the door in McGuinty’s face when he wanted to discuss financing. The secret to Russia’s recent relative success compared to its competitors is likely its smart decision to tie sales into financing.

Governments need to fix this. And rich countries like the US and Canada, with essentially unlimited means to raise capital for stategic financing ought to be leading the way.

Steve Foster
10 years ago

Steve: how does CANDU EC6 stack up against the competition? Cost? Time to delivery, fuel/waste streams, safety, etc.? Is CANDU Energy actively pushing for foreign sales now Ontario has stood down (at least for now)?

Dwight Zerkee
10 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

When I started in the nuclear business, we were told that the CANDU design has a higher initial capital cost per installed MW (including the initial supply of heavy water) than a PWR offset by lower operating costs due to the natural uranium fuel. That higher capital cost is driven both by the complexity of a CANDU compared to a PWR and the time to construct.

The AP1000’s under construction right now are using the same modular construction techniques used in the EC6’s built at Quinshan and pioneered in the construction of US Navy submarines. Given that there is less hardware to install in a PWR (no moderator system, no liquid zone control system, no fuelling machines, hundreds of feeder tubes rather than 3 or 4 large coolant loop pipes, etc), one would expect that, all other things equal, they can be built faster than an EC6.

The delays experienced by the EPR’s at OL3 and Flamanville are due to a host of reasons – regulatory (issues with the digital reactor controls), inexperience in the current construction work force (even the French haven’t built a reactor recently), communications (around 15 different languages spoken by the OL3 workforce), etc.

BTW, depending on the size of the break, the core would depressurize as quickly as a PWR’s. Since all CANDU’s built after Pickering have a small amount of boiling in the high power channels, there would be rapid dryout of the channel due to less margin to boiling. Given the (small) positive void coefficient in a CANDU, this could result in a reactor power spike and failed fuel if not negated by either of the two fast shutdown systems. Candu Energy (nee AECL) is/was developing the ACR to eliminate that positive void coefficient in part to allow it to be licensed in jurisdiction where a negative void coefficient is required, such as the US.