CANDU reactors key for Canada’s net zero push

Canada’s CANDU reactors will play a pivotal role in the country’s decarbonization drive with a long history of uninterrupted generation, a qualified and readily available workforce, and a well-established supply chain.

Machinery at the Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station near Toronto. (Source: Reuters/Carlos Osorio)

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Recent interest in advanced reactor technology and renewables such as solar and wind have, to some extent, overshadowed CANDU power plants, but a report in May by the NGO Canadians for Nuclear Energy, found here, is calling for a reevaluation of the last generation, yet fully modernized, workhorse reactors.  

CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) reactor technology was developed by the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) in the late sixties and is a pressurized heavy-water reactor (PWR) that runs on unenriched natural uranium, making it cheaper and more efficient than most light-water reactors (LWR).

Canada, the world’s second largest uranium producer with over 8% of total global production, boasts 19 CANDU reactors and produces around 15% of the country’s electricity supply. That includes 60% of generated power in Ontario and 36% of New Brunswick’s electricity.

Other provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta have expressed interest in housing their own nuclear plants.

Development plans to build 10 new CANDU reactors in the province of Ontario would be a ‘no regret action’ that could meet increased power and decarbonization demands promptly and economically, according to the Canadians for Nuclear Energy report, ‘The Case for CANDU: Why Ontario’s Homegrown Nuclear Technology is the Province’s Best Option in a Time of Rising Electricity Demand’.

Making the case

CANDU is far ahead of the competition, electricity shortfalls call for new, large nuclear, and the window of opportunity is now, the report notes.

“The pieces are in place. All that remains is to take the first step. To secure affordable energy for present and future generations, let’s seize the moment and build new CANDU nuclear now,” President of Canadians for Nuclear Energy Chris Keefer says in the introduction of the report.

One of those pieces includes work by Ontario’s utilities to extend the lives of its already running reactors.

Massive refurbishment projects at 12 of Ontario’s 18 reactors at the Darlington and Bruce Nuclear Generating Stations began in 2016 and, with a projected cost of CAN$25 billion ($18.6 billion), are helping to keep an active supply chain and train specialized workers, key elements in restarting a new round of CANDU builds, says Keefer.

“We don't need to retool the whole supply chain; the production lines are there. The refurbishments have quadrupled the number of skilled trades people under 26-years old, which is enormous because we have a demographic reality that skilled trades in nuclear power are aging out. And they're all trained on CANDU, so that’s hugely relevant,” says Keefer.

Increased electrification, a rise in the use of electric vehicles, and plans to produce emission-free hydrogen are all expected to drive a rise in power demand to 208 TWh in 2043 from 147 TWh in 2024, according to the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).

This is enough to require the addition of 10 new CANDU reactors, says Keefer.

If decarbonization goals advance on schedule, 18 GW of new nuclear will be needed by 2050, or the equivalent of some 25 CANDU reactors, IESO says.

Over 60 years of experience in CANDU reactors and the associated costs makes the technology a natural shoe-in for any decarbonization plans.

“What is required to deliver nuclear quickly, as has been done all over the world but especially in Ontario with 22 reactors built in 22 years, is highly competent institutions and active supply chains,” says Keefer.  

“From the political perspective, there should be every incentive in the world for the Government of Ontario to make a decision about which large nuclear to deploy based, not just on LCOE, which is a known with CANDU and an unknown with others, but also based upon this 96% ‘Made in Ontario’ supply chain and the enormous economic multiplier impact of that.”

Timeline of Global CANDU Construction

(Click to enlarge) 

Source: Canadians for Nuclear Energy "The Case for CANDU".

Changing attitudes

The global energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped change attitudes towards CANDU in the political capital Ottawa where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his once-anti-nuclear Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault have recently come around to calls for more big nuclear reactors.

At an event in April, Trudeau said Canada was “very serious” about supporting nuclear power and even Guilbeault, who has dodged questions about the technology since becoming a minister, recently agreed that “experts are saying we will need nuclear energy.”

The Federal Budget 2023 included a new 15% refundable Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for clean electricity that can be applied to all sizes of nuclear power, including small modular reactors (SMRs), large builds, and new refurbishment projects.

In October, the state-run Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) committed CAN$970 million toward Canada’s first SMR through Ontario Power Generation (OPG)’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station.

The ITC and the CIB cash shows a turnaround in attitudes toward nuclear power for the government after, just a year ago, it excluded the technology from the first ever Canadian-dollar-denominated green bond.

The Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) has applauded the CIB loan but noted that the industry is also focused on CANDU, with the refurbishments at Bruce and Darlington examples of the technology’s endurance.

 “Through these refurbishments, Canada is basically building a set of brand-new reactors for a small fraction of the cost of a new build – and at the same time modernizing many aspects of CANDU and strengthening our nuclear supply chain and ecosystem through sharing of best practices,” says CNA President John Gorman.

The possibility of a third refurbishment project at Pickering – a six-CANDU-reactor plant with a total output of 3.1 GW and set to shut down in 2025 – shows Canada continues to bet on CANDU, says Gorman.

“I’d argue that CANDU is as relevant and important in Canada today as it has ever been,” he says.

The BWRX-300 SMR at Darlington, meanwhile, will benefit greatly from the groundwork laid by the CANDU industry, with a minimum of 70% of parts and materials for the reactor sourced in Ontario, Gorman says, showing that the journey to net zero will require all kinds of technology, big and small.

“Canada has a robust, world-leading nuclear supply chain that can contribute to new builds of any size. Whether that’s an SMR from GE-Hitachi, or a new large-scale conventional reactor like CANDU or the AP-1000 from Westinghouse – which as you know is now a Canadian company – the industry here in Canada is ready to deliver,” he says.

By Paul Day