The changing face of Canada’s nuclear industry

13 April 2023

In the decade since the global recession and Fukushima slammed the nuclear sector, Canada has made significant advances in its capabilities. But in an era of multiple technologies and burgeoning markets for nuclear, Jacquie Hoornweg considers what defines “Canadian” in today’s nuclear sector.

Above: Thanks to strong performance in the last decade, the six unit Pickering plant has received life extension approvals and the Ontario government is looking at refurbishment

The year 2009 wasn't good for many and certainly not for Canada’s nuclear industry. The “great recession” that began with the US housing bubble in 2007 was the longest recession since World War II and saw the largest gross domestic product drop in the post-war era. Globally, for the nuclear industry the pains of the recession were exacerbated by the March 2011 tsunami that swamped both the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and, with it, confidence in the industry.

The recession dealt a heavy blow to the Canadian nuclear sector but it weathered Fukushima better than many thanks to strong social license in its host communities. That never faltered. Where some jurisdictions are still in early recovery today and others have remained stalled, the Canadian industry has advanced its capability significantly in the past decade. It is well poised as the world rediscovers nuclear, or in some cases, considers it for the first time, with a new appreciation for its ability to uniquely address the urgency of climate change and energy security.

In Canada, the nuclear sector has spent the past decade steadily employed thanks to massive refurbishment projects and early action on small modular reactors that has helped solidify the industry as a cohesive and effective whole. But the genesis for today’s success traces back to the industry’s response to the adversity it faced in 2009 when its future seemed anything less than certain.

From challenged past to promising future

Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, is the epicentre of nuclear power in Canada. In 2006, the provincial government and its power generation utility, Ontario Power Generation (OPG), began preparations to build two additional large-scale units at OPG’s Darlington Nuclear site. The units would be built alongside the pre- existing four CANDU units (3512 MW total), constructed in the 1990s.

But, in June 2009, after an intense bidding process, the Ontario government cancelled the new build. The decision followed a federal government announcement a few months earlier when it stated it would privatise Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL), the national original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for CANDU technology, as a valve for taxpayer relief.

In Ontario’s decision to axe its new build, it cited the uncertainty of AECL’s future, and the price tag. The Province said the company had submitted the only fully compliant bid to the terms, which included that the vendor assume all project risks (France’s Areva SA and then US-based Westinghouse Electric Co. had also participated in the bidding). Downward energy-demand forecasts reflecting the gut-kick to the province’s manufacturing sector also factored in the decision.

The fact there was a competitive process at all had generated significant angst. Many felt the two levels of government should have used the opportunity for a domestic build to give AECL, and the supply chain that largely resides in Ontario, a leg up in the international market; a sore spot that remains for some, today.

The new build cancellation felt like a nail in the coffin for beleaguered AECL and equally for the supply chain that relied upon it and on Ontario’s nuclear programme.

A phoenix from the ashes

At the same time the door closed on new build, decisions had to be made on the province’s existing reactors, coming due for mid-life refurbishments. In February 2010, the Province announced it would move forward with a full refurbishment of the four existing Darlington units. On another timeline, it also signed contracts for Bruce Power to complete life extensions for all of the Bruce’s eight units (6550 MW total) through major component replacements (MCRs). The Province’s commitments were a lifeline but were contingent on on-time, on-budget performance with off-ramps that kicked in if the industry failed to deliver. Recognising the do-or-die reality with no new build in sight, the industry rallied.

The utilities, in collaboration with their Tier-1 suppliers and contractors, invested in innovations in planning, project management, training equipment and techniques as well as procurement and construction. This included integration of artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, robotics and virtual reality training techniques, not just in the projects but for more effective operations and outages. To date, the OPG refurbishments and Bruce Power major component replacement project executions have been cause for celebration.

Pickering Nuclear, Canada’s oldest operating plant directly adjacent to Toronto, with six operating units (3100 MW) has received extensions to continue operation beyond the original planned 2020 closure thanks to strong performance in the last decade. In 2022, reflecting the exponential increase in demand for low-carbon electricity, the four newest Pickering Nuclear units (vintage mid-1980s) are now being reviewed for refurbishment feasibility, as well.

The refurbishments aren’t just good news for the carbon- free energy they’ll deliver for the next 30+ years. They have served as the training ground for a cohesive Canadian supply chain that is evolving its expertise to support continued CANDU operation and new SMR technologies, in Canada and globally.

On the strength of the refurbishment performance and the accelerated speed in increased demand for low- carbon energy, in late 2021, OPG leveraged its existing site preparation license (from the new build that never materialized) and selected GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 for Canada’s first on-grid SMR reactor on the Darlington site. In March 2023, the BWRX-300 hit a major licensing milestone when it completed both phases of the Canadian regulatory Vendor Design Review (VDR). OPG, GE-Hitachi and the related supply chain have already begun to export experience here for opportunities in the global market.

A new era for nuclear science in Canada

Meanwhile, at AECL, 14 years on, stability has long been restored. The government-maintained ownership of the nuclear science and technology agenda by creating a Go-Co (government owned-contractor operated) arrangement, currently between AECL and Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA), to revitalise and operate Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) at Chalk River and to manage remediation and waste management at several legacy sites. Amongst its priorities, CNL, the architect of the CANDU programme, has pursued an ambitious small modular reactor programme with several global design vendors to support Canada’s SMR goals. Recently, CNL signed several memoranda with Canadian universities to strengthen the talent and research pipeline. Canada has two pre-eminent nuclear engineering and science universities in Ontario: Ontario Tech University and McMaster University, as well as several others that also bring some nuclear-specific education and research. With the nuclear expansion ahead, work is underway to expand the reach of nuclear education across Canada.

AECL also sold its nuclear reactor sales and servicing division to SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian EPC company of more than 50,000 employees, globally, though AECL maintains intellectual property rights. SNC-Lavalin has spent the past decade putting its Canadian nuclear team through its paces as the co-lead on the engineering, construction and procurement activities for the Darlington refurbishment alongside partner Aecon. It is also a preferred supplier on the Bruce Power MCR. In a move it called “transformative” SNC-Lavalin acquired London-based Atkins in 2017, strengthening its global reach and expanding its capabilities.

In January 2023, SNC-Lavalin and Aecon entered another agreement with OPG, this time to deploy the BWRX-300 at Darlington before the end of the decade. But should anyone think this SMR focus means CANDU is forgotten, Bill Fox head of SNC-Lavalin’s Canadian nuclear operations and CEO of its Candu Energy division said otherwise in a March 3rd interview with Energy Intelligence.

“In fact, we’ve been planning a new build CANDU for years, and we never stopped planning,” he said. “We’ve been developing our technology since the acquisition of the commercial operations of AECL and looking at advanced reactor designs... designs that are more economical, that are built with digital tools and reducing valves and making components more passive than active, with (no) operator interventions required.” What’s needed to move forward, he says, is a buyer.

Given the needed scale of new low-carbon power to meet Canada’s legislated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, many believe it is just a matter of time before the next large-scale procurement begins. For example, even in Ontario, with one of the lowest-carbon electricity grids in the world, the electricity system operator’s recent demand forecast calls for an additional 17,800 MW of nuclear by 2050 in part, for electrification of the province’s transportation and heating needs, currently dependent on oil and gas.

And here enters a possible new twist. Canadian-owned Cameco, one of the world’s largest suppliers of nuclear fuel with end-to-end services from mining to processing, announced in October 2022 that it was partnering with another Canadian energy powerhouse, Brookfield Renewables, to acquire Westinghouse Electric. In addition to strengthening Cameco’s dominance in fuel, including HALEU capability for SMRs, it also means Cameco and Brookfield Renewables will have ownership of the AP1000 and e-Vinci micro reactor designs, the latter of which is actively in the Canadian market already. Westinghouse opens Cameco up to greater opportunities globally, but it will be interesting to see what it means for the Canadian playing field, as well.

We are Canadian

A half century ago, if you worked in nuclear in Canada, odds were, you worked for AECL or Ontario Hydro, the predecessor mega-utility from which OPG spawned. Today, what it means to be a Canadian in nuclear is as diverse as Canada’s multicultural diaspora.

There are more than a half dozen active purpose-build SMR design firms working in the domestic market, including one Canadian-founded one, Terrestrial Energy. With the Westinghouse acquisition, there are now two Canadian-owned large-scale technologies.

There is a vibrant supply community of more than 200 companies ready to take Canadian experience to other markets, across the technologies they’ve worked on here. Universities and colleges are building the talent pools and collaborating globally to support others looking to do the same.

The Canadian regulator has advanced SMRs through a vendor design review process and leveraging collaboration with other jurisdictions for a harmonised approach that Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission President Rumina Velshi says is to “protect people from risk, not to hinder progress.”

Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization is well on track to site a deep geologic repository for long-term management of the nation’s spent fuel to ensure a socially accepted solution to nuclear sustainability.

There are industries looking to decarbonise with micro and small reactors at their sites. And, there are communities across Canada, small and large, including Indigenous communities, who are engaging as active partners to be part of workforces and to power their lives and economies with nuclear technologies.

For the first time in a long time, the federal government acknowledges the importance of nuclear in Canada’s energy mix. The industry is hoping it will do more, like counterparts in other jurisdictions, such as the UK. Because nuclear has become part of Canada’s DNA and the country is ready to take it global.

Now it can only hope that this time, recessionary forecasts and unsettled geopolitics do not overtake the world’s commitment to a clean energy future.

Jacquie Hoornweg, Executive director, Brilliant Energy Institute and Canadian Global Affairs Institute Fellow

OPG has selected the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 for Canada’s first on-grid SMR reactor at the Darlington site

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