Nuclear cooperation and Canadian energy policy: Harper’s complicated decision tree

A couple of Canadian newspapers are on the prime minister for being coy about the prospects of Canada joining the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). They’re trying to pin him down on how Canada will deal with radioactive waste, i.e., whether we would import it or not. Harper is too smart to answer right now. Any positive statement at this point would send nationalists and greens alike into a frothy paroxysm.

Plus, there’s a whole lot of negotiating going on about Canada’s role in the GNEP. Canada has major potential clout in nuclear matters, but realizing this potential means thinking through some pretty complex issues.

Laying out the terms of Canada’s involvement in the GNEP won’t be easy. This decision depends on a number of investment scenarios, which have major bearing on Canadian industry, security, energy, and environment policy. The successive decision points in these scenarios beget further branches in the decision-tree. Following them illustrates how complicated it can get. In one scenario, the power reactor fleet in this country remains based on heavy water. Because CANDUs use natural unenriched uranium, Canada could be a net contributor of fuel to the system, in the form of plutonium in spent fuel.

Sounds straightforward, but it gets complicated depending on subsequent decisions. If we decide to allow spent fuel reprocessing (or recycling, or re-use) in this country, then Canada could also be a major recipient of spent fuel waste. And the implications of this activity would in turn depend on how we re-use spent fuel. Would it be in fast burner reactors, or CANDUs via the DUPIC process (the proximity of which to technical and commercial viability has yet further bearing on Canada’s decision)?

And what if a Canadian utility decides to go with light water technology? That utility would have to import enriched uranium (not difficult; that’s the commercial front end of the GNEP). The advantage would be that it is viable now, since a third-generation light water reactor does exist—as opposed to the third-generation CANDU, which is still in development. Another advantage would be that the utility would be part of an emerging international supply chain of standardized reactor components, a critical consideration in terms of construction timelines.

Also, a light water decision would of course have an impact on the federal government’s plans for AECL.

And remember that each decision point is fraught with political danger. Never mind that recycling spent fuel turns a dangerous waste product into huge amounts of useful energy. You just have to mention “spent fuel waste” and imagine the headlines.

Whether or not to join the GNEP is, arguably, the most important decision on energy and security policy Canada has had to take in decades. No wonder Harper is being non-committal.

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Ohadi Langis
16 years ago