Areva is still in the Ontario reactor competition, and remains open to playing a role in the future of Canadian nuclear research, a company executive said in a conference call on September 18. This follows the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s announcement on August 31 that it sees “no fundamental barriers” to licensing the new CANDU reactor in Canada. AECL, the maker of the CANDU, published the CNSC’s announcement on September 10. The day after that, federal natural resources minister Lisa Raitt, whose portfolio includes AECL, urged the government of Ontario to resume the reactor selection process, which was halted back in late June (see article).
This indicates the federal government considers the license-worthiness of the advanced CANDU reactor (ACR) to be one of the issues whose resolution would tip Ontario’s favour toward the ACR. In a discussion with me and others on The Agenda with Steve Paikin on September 8, Bruce Power’s Duncan Hawthorne, who is on the Ontario bid review committee, strongly indicated that AECL is already Ontario’s preferred vendor. The feds hope the regulator’s announcement may have provided the decisive information.
If this is right, where does it leave Areva in Canada? The French company still sees a shining future in this country. Whichever design wins in Ontario, it will need enriched uranium fuel, and Areva is building an enrichment plant in Idaho. Areva is very active in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining—which it does in Saskatchewan—to enrichment and fuel fabrication, to fuel disposal and recycling.
The latter especially requires enormous amounts of research and development. Areva, as I mentioned back in June (see article), has led the industry call for recycling the 50,000 tons of spent reactor fuel in the United States. In the September 18 conference call, the company executive pointed out that this spent fuel contains enough energy to keep the 104 power reactors in the U.S. running night and day for 8 years.
Areva’s current technical proposal for recycling U.S. spent fuel is to co-extract the unburned uranium and plutonium (via a chemical process called COEX) and refashion these fissile materials into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, whose isotopic composition makes it suitable as fuel for light water–moderated reactors.
Another, more direct, way to re-use uranium and plutonium in the U.S. is to mechanically chop up spent fuel and reform it into fuel elements that fit into a CANDU. Most spent U.S. fuel is isotopically ideal as fuel in heavy water–moderated reactors. This is the famous DUPIC fuel cycle. (DUPIC is one of the more tortuous acronyms you will encounter; it stands for direct use of pressurized water reactor spent fuel in CANDU.)
The DUPIC cycle has been developed and studied in a joint effort involving the U.S. State Department, AECL, and the nuclear R&D organization in South Korea. Some of the actual fuel fabrication and testing was done in Canada, at the now-decommissioned Whiteshell labs in northern Manitoba and at the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River Ontario. Yes, the same NRU that—when it is not down for maintenance, as it is today and will be until hopefully no later than April 2010—makes most of the world supply of medical diagnostic radioisotopes.
Minister Raitt’s September 11 announcement ostensibly dealt more with restructuring AECL than encouraging Ontario to resume its reactor competition. But the two issues are inextricably related. Specifically, the minister said the government is thinking about splitting AECL into its power reactor business and R&D. Presumably the latter involves a plan for maintaining Canada’s role in cutting-edge nuclear research. That role is fulfilled today by the NRU. The NRU, when it reenters service in April 2010 after undergoing a comprehensive maintenance fix, will run until 2021. What then?
That’s where Areva, also heavily involved in fuel-cycle R&D, might be interested. There is a good chance that the U.S. under the Obama Democrats might like the idea of recycling spent fuel but not Areva’s COEX proposal. Would DUPIC—which many experts believe is more proliferation-resistant than separative chemical processes like COEX—be more acceptable? If yes, Areva’s involvement in refining DUPIC, not to mention Generation IV fuel cycles, in a new Canadian research reactor might be a good strategic move.