Humanist Perspectives: issue 185: Nuclear Power in Canada: Perception and Promise

Nuclear Power in Canada: Perception and Promise
by Jeremy Whitlock

Jeremy Whitlock

n the darkest days of World War II, Canada and a small cohort of nations quietly entered the Nuclear Age.

The Allies’ main concern at the time was racing Hitler to the Bomb, but the science – only uncovered in 1939 – promised so much more: unprecedented medicines and disease-fighting techniques, stronger and cheaper materials, seemingly boundless energy. Nuclear fission was fast becoming a revolutionary discovery of humankind, and by war’s end, Canada had the jump on the rest of the world in exploring its non-military potential.

This happened at Chalk River Laboratories, about two hours west of Ottawa, in the middle of what many Canadians would have considered “nowhere”. Here the National Research Council built (and later turned over to a new crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) the world’s best-equipped nuclear laboratory in its day, sparking a journey of discovery that led to cancer therapy, nuclear medicine, a long list of scientific firsts, and a made-in-Canada nuclear power reactor that today leads the industry for fuel efficiency and safety.

The most remarkable thing about this Canadian achievement is perhaps that hardly anyone in Canada knows about it.

The most remarkable thing about this Canadian achievement is perhaps that hardly anyone in Canada knows about it. In its day it made a splash, but for a long list of reasons this field of endeavour has slipped into a form of faux-obscurity: anonymously underpinning a large segment of Canadian industry, science and medicine, while gaining the limelight only when there’s bad news to tell.

This is not to whine, since the nuclear community in Canada has done quite well for itself: the CANDU reactor, one of two fundamental reactor concepts in commercial operation around the world, powers half of Ontario with technological distinctiveness that can only be compared to this country’s aerospace triumphs: it is the Avro Arrow that flew.

As an economic engine this invisible industry keeps about 70,000 Canadians employed and pumps $7 billion per year into the GDP – long eclipsing its historical investment from Canadian taxpayers. As a source of medical innovation, Canadian nuclear technology has revolutionized clinical diagnosis, and armed doctors with one of the most formidable weapons against cancer.

AECL Chalk River Laboratories
AECL Chalk River Laboratories is Canada’s largest nuclear laboratory, and a pioneer in nuclear science and nuclear medicine
Photo courtesy of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited

But what about this CANDU reactor? Is it a godsend of energy sustainability, as some would have us believe, or a Faustian bargain we tolerate until something better comes along?

Truth is, most people don’t get close enough to the facts of the matter to answer this question rationally. A number of cultural barriers must be consciously challenged first, which is difficult since the primary barrier is subconscious: there is a memetic bias against anything to do with “nuclear”. This bias has its roots in the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima, fertilized with cold-war radiation scares of the 50s and 60s, watered assiduously over the years by the Simpsons, and occasionally super-boosted by a major international reactor accident.

The next barrier is socio-political bias: does one lean left, away from big business, or right, away from big government? It doesn’t matter with nuclear because it’s both. Having no natural constituency, it depends more than the usual techno-gadgetry does upon factual understanding by the populace and their decision makers. That, to say the least, is not an enviable position to be in.

Information bias, the final barrier, is the most rarely overcome since it requires a discipline that few learn and even fewer inherently understand. Most of the population doesn’t make it to this barrier anyway, and those that do must grapple with the ugly truth that we’re all intellectually flawed – requiring a process (known in some circles as the Scientific Method, and more generally as Critical Thinking) for objectively separating the information wheat from the chaff.

The vast majority of the voting public sits shackled at the first barrier, oblivious to it, and making media moguls rich who cash in on it. No small amount of trust is bestowed upon those that make policy decisions involving technological complexity, who themselves are advised by people facing the same barriers to factual understanding. Strangely enough, good decisions do get made, but sometimes bad ones too.

So – godsend or Faustian bargain? Nuclear energy is neither. It is simply a remarkably efficient tool for extracting energy from nature, and like all other tools it has its share of pros and cons. The question of whether or not it is worth supporting must be answered by each of us individually, and it behooves us to do this as objectively as possible.

The good news is that critical thinking on this topic is possible, for anyone willing to put in the effort (arguably, a universal truth). All it takes is recognition of the above biases, and a willingness to overcome them. In recent years some leading environmentalists have done just this and found themselves supporting nuclear technology: Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) and James Lovelock (creator of the Gaia hypothesis on biological interdependence) are two notable examples.

[I]f all the spent fuel generated by Canada’s fleet of power reactors over its half-century of operation were to be piled in one place, it would cover a soccer field roughly to the height of a player.

Eco-documentary director Robert Stone’s new film, Pandora’s Promise (premiering in January 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival – a telling achievement in itself), explores this trend of ideological re-examination within the anti-nuclear movement, with profiles of several prominent environmentalist and formerly anti-nuclear authors who have changed their minds.

This is not gushing, carte-blanche endorsement by any means, but a measured re-assessment of our current energy-environment relationship, and perhaps recognition that nuclear power, like any technology, gets better with time. What are some of these realities?

First and foremost, the widespread concern over Global Warming, and its popular association with anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs), makes a compelling case for nuclear energy. Electricity usage is inextricably tied to standard of living, and regardless of what we think about inefficiencies in our own standard of living, it is a fact that most of the planet’s population lacks reliable access to electricity. As China is currently making very clear, when this situation changes – and change it must – electrical power will be generated by any technology and fuel source that is available.

Nothing is emission free. Even if operation of a technology emits no GHGs, there will be phases of the life cycle, such as construction, mining, or decommissioning, that emit GHGs. This is the situation for renewable technologies like wind and solar, and it is also true for nuclear. In fact, nuclear has been shown to be responsible for comparable levels of GHGs to the renewable options. However, any one of these low-GHG technologies is immensely favourable to fossil-fuels without massive GHG sequestration in place (currently a topic in development).

More to the point, the fundamental nuclear fission process emits little of anything, except energy. There are no toxic gases, particulates, ash piles, or released chemicals: nuclear fuel comes out of a reactor (typically after 1-2 years of usage) looking very much like when it went in, containing all of the toxics created in the process – typically comprising around 0.3% of the used fuel’s mass. The fuel, a high-temperature ceramic encased in steel-like sheaths, then becomes a robust package for this waste material that can serve for thousands of years if necessary, as the first line of isolation from the biosphere.

This is where the waste management story begins, and it is a compelling story indeed. Imagine if all the garbage generated by a family of four over its entire lifetime could fit into a briefcase. That is the volume of spent nuclear fuel that each family would be responsible for creating, if all of its electrical needs were met only by nuclear power, from birth to death. Even multiplied by millions of families, the footprint is remarkably small. If all the spent fuel generated by Canada’s fleet of power reactors over its half-century of operation were to be piled in one place, it would cover a soccer field roughly to the height of a player.

As such, the waste is relatively straight-forward to manage. All of the high-levels toxins are corralled within a controlled, well-characterized, robust waste form. It is, in all likelihood, the most easily and effectively managed waste stream of industrial human activity.

The waste is highly radioactive, which requires unique handling procedures. It must be kept isolated from the biosphere during its period of highest risk, which can last thousands of years. These features cause concern to some, often because they are unfamiliar concepts, but human experience at handling nuclear material is vast, and nature’s experience at isolating it from the biosphere is unimaginably vaster. The world’s highest-grade uranium ore sits half a kilometre deep in water-saturated sandstone of the Athabasca basin in northern Saskatchewan, and has survived there for over a billion years due in large part to a protective clay buffer. This provides confidence that an analogous approach might work for spent uranium reactor fuel, under far less challenging conditions and over a fraction of the time period.

The world’s highest-grade uranium ore sits half a kilometre deep in water-saturated sandstone of the Athabasca basin in northern Saskatchewan, and has survived there for over a billion years.

There are even more astonishing analogues. For example, nature herself operated a collection of “natural” nuclear reactors about two billion years ago in Gabon, Africa, when several high-level uranium deposits underwent nuclear fission after being sufficiently exposed to groundwater. These “reactors” operated on and off for about a million years, fully exposed to their environs, and the long-lived plutonium atoms created in this process are known to have not strayed beyond the mineral grains wherein they were born – despite two billion years of ground water flow.

Clearly, humans are not alone in thinking that nuclear material can be entombed for geologic timescales.

With a manageable waste stream and low emissions, one must complete the picture with high marks in both safety and sustainability for an energy technology to be worth supporting. Achieving this for nuclear energy did not naturally follow from the science of nuclear fission: it was (and continues to be) the focus of significant R&D programs in any country developing its own commercial design.

Reactor safety stems from a combination of inherent features and engineered safeguards, employing the same philosophy of “defence in depth” – inserting multiple layered barriers between normal operation and catastrophic failure – as other complex technologies like the automobile or air travel. A reactor design such as CANDU will have multiple ways to shut the reactor core down rapidly, multiple ways to cool the fuel, and, if necessary, “passive” back up processes that rely on natural forces like gravity.

There have been notable examples of systems without such in-depth protection (e.g. Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, Fukushima in 2011). While technical arguments can be made about the relevance of these unfortunate incidents to more advanced designs like CANDU, the industry as a whole learned from these failures, made improvements, and planned even safer and more “forgiving” designs for the future. The lessons of Fukushima are being widely implemented: for example, the nuclear industry is now taking a second look at extreme external events and if necessary beefing up mitigation measures that are already in place.

The record of the global nuclear industry speaks for itself. It is one of the safest industries on the planet, even considering the few but high-profile international accidents that have occurred. (A test of one’s memetic bias on this topic is to compare one’s awareness of the 1986 Chernobyl accident to the more recent 2009 accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro dam in Russia, which killed twice as many people. It is unlikely that an average member of the public would be familiar with the latter.)

The low risk to the public from nuclear power operation includes consideration of the routine radioactive emissions from normal operation, which sometimes cause public concern, made worse by the topic’s unfamiliarity and memetic baggage. In fact, radiation is part of the energy of nature all around us, and is integral to our health. Contributions from nuclear plants – which are rigorously controlled and monitored by the national nuclear regulator – are miniscule by comparison (and are actually less than what is released from coal power stations, due to the natural radioactivity in coal).

Pickering Nuclear Generating Station
The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto, was the first commercial CANDU station, and the largest nuclear station in the world when completed in the 1970’s — Photo courtesy of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited

In quantitative terms, nuclear power accounts for less than 1% of our annual natural background radiation exposure – much of this coming from the cosmos and the rocks around us – which itself is thousands of times less than the levels which linked to observed negative health effects.

Sustainability is an all-encompassing concept that essentially asks whether we’re punishing our grandchildren or doing them a favour. It’s a subjective notion by nature, but one can marshal projections of everything from economics and safety to long-term resource availability and environmental impact, in making the assessment.

This is where nuclear energy shines.

As a provider of stable, cost-effective electricity for society’s “baseload” needs (i.e. the 24/7 supply that tends to stay relatively constant), nuclear power also provides a foundation for intermittent renewable expansion, such as wind and solar. Far from being in competition, as often portrayed by the media, these technologies work together to provide diverse, low-emission electricity options to fossil fuels.

In terms of future resource availability, the best way to describe nuclear’s prospects is that there is enough to last us until something better comes along. Uranium, one of the more abundant minerals in the earth’s crust, has a few hundred years of currently-identified “economic” resources left, but if the winds of supply and demand blow hard enough it can be extracted almost infinitely from sea water if necessary.

It may not be necessary, though, because waiting in the wings is another bequest from nature: thorium. Four times as abundant as uranium, thorium is a nuclear fuel identified at the outset of the industry in the mid-20th century, and is about to come into its own. It promises safer operation, less proliferation risk, and an easier route to almost endless energy supply than the “uranium-breeder” option touted for decades. Like the uranium-breeder option, the idea with thorium is to “breed” nuclear fuel from otherwise inert material.

With either of the breeding routes the timeline of energy supply is measured in the thousands of years – hence the prospect of sticking around “until something better comes along”. Under the uranium breeding scenario, Canada’s stockpile of spent nuclear fuel actually becomes a “mine” of future energy reserves, stretching that resource by a factor of 100 and bringing into question the very use of the word “waste” to describe this material. What’s more, when it comes to using thorium as a reactor fuel, Canada’s CANDU design is currently the most easily-adapted commercial product for this purpose. International interest in this potential has been growing for a number of years.

In fact, looking at nuclear’s relatively small environmental footprint, reliable operation, and long-term resource availability, it’s hard to believe that this technology is essentially in its infancy. There are many reasons why this stage of its overall development has lasted so long, but by all accounts the field is set to advance in the near future to the next generation of more efficient and even safer models – perhaps some utilizing thorium as fuel. In industry terms, most of the world’s reactor fleet is thought of as “second generation” (sort of the “Model A” of the reactor world), while third-generation units are only now being installed.

The “concept cars”, still decades away from commercialization, are Generation Four. These systems are taking leaps in innovative design, incorporating advanced fuel designs and passive safety and security features that will make the technology not just safer – but transparently safer, especially to their main stakeholders, the public. Included in this requirement is the need to reduce the risk of weapons proliferation – i.e. the diversion of nuclear material for use in a clandestine weapons program. Current designs around the world are safeguarded against this activity with high confidence, but the goal is to reduce the costs and other resources needed for the necessary monitoring by designing reactors that make proliferation inherently more unlikely in the first place.

The future will also see much smaller reactors, self-contained units that can be installed at remote northern mining sites or communities, for example, avoiding the need to burn diesel fuel for heat and electricity year-round. Some proposals call for unusually long periods of operation between refuelling, on the order of a decade or more. The self-contained nature of this technology – whereby refuelling consists of swapping out an old “core” with a fresh one – has lead to the notion of the “nuclear battery”.

From wartime expedient to sustainable innovator, Canada’s nuclear venture has brought dividends in world-leading science, revolutionary medicine, and diverse energy options. Canadians are privileged to face multiple choices in mapping our economic future, and energy is at the heart of this process. It is also our ethical responsibility to ensure that developing nations have as much choice as possible, for as long as possible. Critical thinking today will ensure that at least as many options are open to our grandchildren, from whom we borrow our world.

Jeremy Whitlock is a scientist at AECL Chalk River Laboratories, and currently manager of Non-Proliferation and Safeguards. He is also a writer and speaker on nuclear issues, including The Canadian Nuclear FAQ (, a website of frequently-asked questions (FAQs). Dr. Whitlock lives with his wife and three children in Deep River, Ontario, and feels that canoes are the closest humans have come to inventing a perfect machine.

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