Calls Begin For Canada To Build A Full Nuclear Supply Chain

“Canada appears on the verge of a nuclear-power renaissance instigated by the need for reliable carbon-free energy, with the provinces and the federal government putting their weight behind a wide range of initiatives. How did we get here and what could be next for Canada’s nuclear fuel structure?”

This is the question poised by Dr. Esam Hussein, a nuclear engineer and a professor emeritus at both the University of Regina and the University of New Brunswick.

In a recent memo to Canadian nuclear observers, Hussein highlights Canada’s imminent renaissance in nuclear power and the critical need to fortify the nation’s nuclear fuel supply chain.

“To date, the only full supply chain available in Canada is for natural uranium that fuels CANDU reactors. There appear to be no explicit policies yet in Canada on enriching uranium,” the letter explained.

Hussein wrote that historically, Canada has been a trailblazer in nuclear technology, notably with the pioneering CANDU-reactor design. This system, unique in its utilization of natural uranium and heavy water, has been a hallmark of Canada’s nuclear energy landscape. However, as global standards lean towards pressurized and boiling water reactors reliant on low-enriched uranium (LEU), Canada faces a pivotal juncture in its nuclear evolution.

The professor further explained that of the 47 pressurized heavy water reactors worldwide, 19 are operational within Canada, providing a significant portion of the nation’s energy grid. These reactors, strategically positioned across sites like Pickering, Bruce, Darlington, and Point Lepreau, NB, rely on a robust supply chain for natural uranium. Mined in Saskatchewan, this uranium undergoes domestic refinement before being transformed into fuel pellets and bundles for CANDU reactors. Despite Canada’s status as a leading uranium producer, the majority of this resource is exported, underscoring the need for a renewed focus on domestic nuclear infrastructure.

While Canada has not commissioned new reactors since the 1990s, Ontario Power Generation’s forthcoming BWRX-300 small reactor signals a potential shift in this trend. Yet, this shift brings fresh challenges as the BWRX-300 necessitates enriched fuel, a resource currently sourced from overseas enrichment facilities in the US, Europe, and the UK.

Additionally, Ontario’s aspirations for a new nuclear generating station at the Bruce Power site, alongside ventures into microreactors in collaboration with Saskatchewan, underscore the diverse demands facing Canada’s nuclear industry. These endeavors, particularly those reliant on high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), highlight the urgency for a comprehensive domestic supply chain.

The development of innovative reactor designs such as the ARC-100, X-Energy, and Moltex further accentuates Canada’s nuclear ambitions. However, the absence of policies governing uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing presents formidable hurdles.

“As a first step, the federal government should clarify its policies on uranium enrichment and the processing of spent fuel. Governments should also continue to support domestic nuclear-related industries, to add value to our valuable uranium resources,” Hussein added.

Can it be done?

These sentiments have been echoed by Sasha Istvan, a Calgary-based engineer with Census Energy, with experience in both the nuclear supply chain and the oil and gas sector. In an op-ed, she relayed that Canada stands at the precipice of a nuclear renaissance, propelled by a robust domestic supply chain and ambitious plans for the future of nuclear energy.

“The pledge from 22 countries, including Canada, to collectively triple nuclear capacity by 2050 drew cheers and raised eyebrows at the United Nations Climate Change Conference last fall in Dubai. Climate commitments are no stranger to bold claims. So, the question remains, can it be done?” she wrote.

With successful refurbishments underway in Ontario and plans for small modular reactors (SMRs) in several provinces, Canada’s nuclear ambitions are taking shape, said Istvan. The infrastructure required for nuclear energy production necessitates not only advanced technology but also a resilient supply chain. Over five decades of nuclear generation have enabled Canada to cultivate a world-class supply chain, primarily servicing CANDU reactors, with the potential now to expand into the realm of SMRs.

Istvan also said that she can attest to the readiness of Canada’s nuclear supply chain to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s energy landscape.

“The CANDU reactor is the unsung hero of the Canadian energy industry: one of the world’s safest nuclear reactors, exported around the world, and producing around 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, as well as 40 per cent of New Brunswick’s,” she added.

She further explained that Canada’s advantages in the global nuclear arena are twofold. Firstly, as a major producer of uranium, Canada boasts unparalleled reserves in northern Saskatchewan, positioning itself as a crucial contributor to the success of the global nuclear renaissance. Secondly, Canada’s established and active supply chain, nurtured through ongoing refurbishments and innovative SMR projects, provides a solid foundation for future growth.

The commitment to SMRs represents the next phase of nuclear technology, offering scalability and modular construction benefits. Investments in SMR supply chains now position Canada for substantial economic gains in the future.

“SMRs are the next phase of nuclear technology. Their size and design make them well suited for high production and modular construction. Investing in the supply chain for SMRs now positions Canada for significant economic gains,” Istvan wrote.

While Ontario currently hosts the bulk of Canada’s nuclear supply chain, other provinces are investing in local capacity development, ensuring a decentralized and resilient nuclear industry across the nation. This flurry of activity positions Canada as a first-mover in the global nuclear market, poised to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for nuclear components and services.

A study in 2019 showed that it contributed $17 billion to Canada’s GDP and created over 76,000 jobs. Most of these jobs were highly skilled, and many workers were under 40 years old. Another report found that building just four small nuclear reactors could add $15.3 billion to the GDP over 65 years and keep 2,000 jobs each year.

People are starting to like nuclear energy more. In 2023, 57% of Canadians wanted to see more nuclear power, up from 51% in 2021. Even the Business Council of Canada supports expanding nuclear because it sees the benefits.

“While the critical minerals and manufactured goods required for batteries, wind and solar energy rely heavily on China and other politically unstable or authoritarian countries, nuclear provides energy independence. Canada is well positioned to help our allies improve their energy security with our strong, competitive nuclear supply chain,” Istvan concluded.

Canada plans to speed up approval for new nuclear projects to help with energy and climate goals. Energy Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says they’ll make the process faster without skipping environmental checks, as Ontario wanted. The move follows a Supreme Court ruling about the process crossing provincial lines. Changes to the law will try to fix this without slowing things down with long talks. Wilkinson says they’ll balance speed with environmental safety.

Information for this story was found via the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to the organizations discussed. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

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