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Mine Our Yellowcake and Eat It Too: Nuclear Energy Means Business

U308 is shipped from Cameco's Northern Sask operations to its Blind River Refinery in Ontario. Image Courtesy Cameco.

If you grew up in Saskatchewan, you’ve spent months of your life enjoying the comforts of heated air being forced through your home and held in by a thin layer of construction materials and can be forgiven for not thinking too much about the source of that heat. Out here on the prairies, it was once reasonable to view coal as the king and natural gas as the future energy source. Now, we are talking about getting our energy from cleaner sources, such as wind, solar power, hydro-electricity and nuclear power, to reduce greenhouse gases emitted and reduce our carbon footprint.

Saskatchewan is one of the richest geographies on the planet in terms of natural resources. When the world needed wheat, they got it from Saskatchewan. When they needed to grow their own food using potash, they got it from Saskatchewan. When the world needed uranium to generate electricity with no carbon emissions, Saskatchewan stepped up as the second-largest supplier in the world, with ore that is a hundred times richer than the world’s average.  We have spent generations extracting natural resources from the land, shipping them raw to other parts of the world, and buying back products with value added and higher prices. We have supported secondary industries that depend on natural-resource extraction but rarely recover the added value of additional economic activity in our own province. When we do more than just ship raw products, it can work out well—just look at AGT Foods and the success found when we do more than just extract and ship.

Saskatchewan has an incredible opportunity in the clean energy field and that option is nuclear.

Go Nuclear

As the world looks for ways to generate clean power, reduce carbon footprints, and refine the way entire industries are powered, there are new opportunities for Saskatchewan to build economic activities beyond the extraction of uranium for others. We can be more than a cupboard to raid. We can be a key participant in the chain of uranium extraction, refinement, manufacturing and supply for energy systems throughout Canada and around the world. This is also a moment to improve how we undertake development, with respectful consultation and inclusion of our Indigenous citizens as we undertake new endeavours together.

Dr. John Root, executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation Inc., draws attention to the purpose of the Fedoruk Centre, which was established in 2011 to help place Saskatchewan among global leaders of nuclear research, development and training, for maximum societal and economic benefit. “There is a wide range of nuclear innovations that could be undertaken in Saskatchewan, beyond uranium resource extraction, to everyone’s benefit,” says Root. A good example of this innovation is the Saskatchewan invention of cobalt cancer therapy that has benefitted over 35 million patients globally, over the past 60 years. Today, the Fedoruk Centre is funding research projects led by Saskatchewan scientists, who are contributing to the leading edges of nuclear imaging for health and agriculture, materials research with nuclear methods, as well as the practical and social aspects of nuclear energy.

In late 2019, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe signed a Memorandum of Understanding with his counterparts in Ontario and New Brunswick, committing to research and development of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a part of the future, clean-energy mix, recognizing additional economic activities that could arise from deployment of a new technology.  On April 14, 2021, Alberta premier Jason Kenney joined his colleagues in committing to the same purpose.

Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan form a natural triumvirate of Canadian nuclear provinces. “More than half of Ontario’s electricity comes from CANDU nuclear power plants. Ontario is at the centre of a supply chain with over 100 companies capable of making high-quality parts for nuclear power plants, a substantial economic activity,” says Root.

A 2019 report by MZConsulting for the Canadian Nuclear Association found that the nuclear industry in Canada has created more than 75,000 jobs across Canada and has an impact to the Canadian GDP of $17 billion.  “New Brunswick gets 30 per cent of its electricity from a CANDU power plant at Pt. Lepreau and participates in the nuclear manufacturing supply chain as well. It might make sense to add some more nuclear power there, replacing coal or gas-fired electricity generators, though perhaps a full-sized CANDU station would be step too far, and one or more smaller-scale nuclear reactors might be more manageable,” says Root.

Blue Sky in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan may have the most to gain by embracing an SMR-based nuclear option in its mix of energy sources. Besides reducing the reliance on coal or gas for 75 per cent of our electricity, we could contribute to the whole economic system that will arise from this novel technology. Dr. Root points out that “most SMRs need uranium that has been enriched beyond the level of the fissile isotope, uranium-235, which occurs in nature and is sufficiently potent for CANDU power reactors.” However, Canada does not currently enrich uranium.

Prior to shipping, the yellowcake is packaged into special steel drums. Image Courtesy Cameco.

Adopting an SMR technology in Saskatchewan would mean shipping our uranium resources out of the country for enrichment and fabrication of fuel elements, then reimporting the fuel we need with great value added elsewhere, instead of right here. Dr. Root ‘blue skies’ the opportunities. “Would it be possible to introduce some new capabilities close to home, so that Saskatchewan people have opportunities to work, adding value to our natural resource? Could we deliver enriched uranium fuel to markets across Canada and around the world, wherever SMRs are introduced? Could we imagine other ideas for new economic activities arising from the new nuclear energy system, in areas such as design and testing of components, safety, manufacturing, training highly qualified people, fabricating new fuel, storing used fuel, recycling fuel, and more? “There could be several points at which Saskatchewan could plug into the new economic system surrounding SMRs, supporting high-paying jobs—who knows?”

The SMR Opportunity

Small modular reactors (SMRs) can generate electricity in ranges from two megawatts (MW) to 300 MW, less than a traditional CANDU power plant in the range of 600 – 900 MW. SMRs need different fuel and include new safety features in their designs. The main idea is that each SMR unit is smaller, so that smaller-scale power ‘modules’ can be added to match growth in energy demand, each with a lower capital cost than a traditional large installation. The smallest SMRs might be deployed in remote communities to replace diesel electricity generators. SMRs on the scale of 100MW could be deployed on the electricity grid to replace coal or gas-fired plants as carbon-emitting energy sources are phased out. An SMR could produce electricity and steam-generating heat for resource extraction sites, reducing the need to burn fossil fuels for production.  These possibilities would be steps in the direction of eliminating coal-based electricity generation by the 2030s and all other carbon-emitting sources by the 2050s. “You can partly backfill carbon-emitting energy production with wind and solar power, but you need to manage the ups and downs of these ‘intermittent’ sources with a steady base, such as hydroelectricity or nuclear power to stabilize the electricity supply. With our fairly flat landscape, we lack the waterfalls to generate much hydroelectricity in Saskatchewan. It seems inevitable that we will need a nuclear component in our energy mix,” says Root.

Now or Never

There is an urgency for Saskatchewan to do something to hit coal reduction targets by the 2030s.  It takes seven to ten years to go through the stages of licensing technology and selecting sites, in consultation with experts and the public. After that there is additional licensing to design and construct, and then a license to operate. “Each stage of licensing requires the prospective owner to interact with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s regulator for all things nuclear. Owners explain ‘this is what we intend to do’ and the regulator puts their technical experts on it, asking questions and challenging proponents to prove the installation will be safe for the environment and communities.  Licenses are granted based on proof of safety,” explains Root. “All that work, consultation and refinement of plans take time. It’s 2021. If we want to have some nuclear power running by the early 2030s, it seems now is the time to make decisions and get started on that work.”

More than Mining

We can pull our natural resources out of the ground and ship them out of province, keeping our economy dependent on world market prices for raw materials. Or we can start building a system of industry that includes the mining, refinement, innovation, medicine, and energy that nuclear offers. This is a prospect for industrial growth that can provide high quality jobs with huge potential for the economy as well as providing clean energy.

We can mine our yellowcake and refine it too.