Features

The Nuclear Option: It’s Time to Talk about Uranium

Cigar Lake Mine Underground. Photo provided by Cameco.

There has been a shift in thinking about nuclear energy. The climate change debate that dominates international headlines has inspired many to reconsider their opinions towards this controversial energy source. One needs only reference Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima in order to invoke fear entrenched in people’s minds about nuclear energy. We’re going to take a look at the case for nuclear energy, its role in addressing climate change, and its importance in the Saskatchewan economy.

Climate Change and Nuclear Energy

Climate change is one of the fastest growing concerns in the world. In Canada, a recent poll showed that 42 per cent of Canadians regard it as a national emergency.1 With the international community demanding steps to combat growing CO2 emissions, heavy emitters are under greater scrutiny to curb output. Fossil fuel industries are a key target for these concerns, but the opposing argument is simply…how do we generate sufficient energy to meet the global need?

To put this in perspective; though renewable energy is on the rise, it’s still a long way from replacing baseload sources. Between coal, gas, and oil – these fuel sources alone represent over 85 per cent of the world’s energy consumption.2 Despite international efforts like the Paris Climate Agreement, emissions continue to rise. The latest United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) emissions gap report suggests that there is no sign that greenhouse gas emissions will peak in the next few years.3

The result is paradoxical. The unstoppable force of climate activism is meeting the immovable object of the global energy infrastructure. Ultimately, governments are the unwilling arbiters of this confrontation. Opting for the climate activism side and initiating strong environmental protocols has many economic and security risks. On the other side, supporting a status quo approach with the traditional energy industries risks alienating a growing political movement and does not address climate change. Herein lies the growing appeal of nuclear energy, a proven baseload energy source that emits zero carbon.

The History of Nuclear Energy

Cigar Lake Mine. Photo provided by Cameco.

It’s important to go over why nuclear energy has a negative reputation. Uranium was first discovered in 17894, but it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that scientists began making breakthroughs and discovering the potential of this mineral. However, the World War II motivated the weaponization of nuclear research and the world was introduced to the atomic bomb.

After the war, attention, still firmly on weapons development, also shifted back to the beneficial applications of nuclear energy. During the in-depth development of weapons, the Soviet Union and the United States had made considerable insights into the use of nuclear energy as a source for power generation.5 In 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the “Atoms for Peace” program which reoriented research efforts towards electricity generation and set the course for civil nuclear energy development in the United States.

Canada has been in the nuclear technology game since the beginning. Attracting scientists from around the world to Chalk River, Ontario. In 1945, Canada successfully started up the second reactor capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction, the Zero-Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP). In 1947, the National Research Experimental Reactor (NRX) started up and was, by far, the most powerful research reactor in the world.6 In parallel, a second research reactor, ten times as powerful was under construction and commenced operation in 1957 – the National Research Universal (NRU). The NRU reactor was a versatile research platform that delivered more than 60 years of service, for example producing 40 per cent of the world supply of molybdenum-99 (the source of technetium-99) widely used for medical diagnosis, and cobalt-60 for cancer treatment.7 The NRU was also the facility where all the fuels and components were developed for Canada’s own line of nuclear power reactors, known as the CANDUTM (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactor.

Development of the CANDU reactor began in the late 1950s. The reactors are unique and innovative as they use heavy water (deuterium oxide) as a moderator and coolant, and they are fueled with natural uranium (as opposed to enriched uranium).8 Speaking with Dr. John Root, executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, he pointed out, “The CANDU is a brilliant system; in that it can use natural uranium. And because the moderator is water it cannot burn, unlike the Chernobyl reactor, for example, where the moderator material was carbon.”

Canada operates 18 CANDU reactors, with 17 in Ontario generating 53 per cent of its electricity production. The remaining operating CANDU is in New Brunswick at Pt. Lepreau.9 Worldwide, there are 31 CANDU power reactors in Canada, South Korea, Romania, India, Pakistan, Argentina, and China. In India, there are also 13 ‘CANDU derivative’ reactors that are based on the Canadian design.10 “Canada is a leader and an innovator,” says Root. “We have a very capable nuclear supply chain that is able to build new and refurbish CANDU reactors.” Moreover, Dr. Root states, “Canada has an excellent record of running CANDU reactors. There has never been an accident affecting public safety, and capacity factors have been high. It has been a very successful program.”

The Case for Nuclear Energy

Opponents of nuclear energy typically point out two major concerns: the use of radioactive fuels and the problem of disposing with the waste. Like everything, there are pros and cons. Since the commercialization of nuclear power in the mid-1950s, there have been three large-scale accidents involving nuclear reactors: Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and Fukushima in Japan.11 These accidents have gripped people’s imaginations due to the perceived danger of radiation. New studies though, explain that even the worst nuclear incidents are less destructive than other major industrial accidents.12

Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania

On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI-2) in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It was given a rating of five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale. The incident released only a minimal quantity of radiation in the surrounding population.

“The approximately 2 million people around TMI-2 during the accident are estimated to have received an average radiation dose of only about 1 millirem above the usual background dose. To put this into context, exposure from a chest X-ray is about 6 millirem and the area’s natural radioactive background dose is about 100-125 millirem per year… In spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment.”13

Fukushima, Japan

On March 11, 2001, a major earthquake caused a 15-metre-high tsunami to hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant causing a nuclear incident. The major accident was rated Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale due to radiation release during explosions and release of contaminated water to the sea.14

“No harmful health effects were found in 195,345 residents living in the vicinity of the plant who were screened by the end of May 2011. All the 1,080 children tested for thyroid gland exposure showed results within safe limits. By December, government health checks of some 1,700 residents who were evacuated from three municipalities showed that two-thirds received an external radiation dose within the normal international limit of 1 mSv/year, 98 per cent were below 5 mSv/year, and 10 people were exposed to more than 10 mSv… [There] was no major public exposure, let alone deaths from radiation.”15

Chernobyl, Ukraine

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl accident captured the world’s attention. It was the result of a flawed reactor design as well as inadequately trained personnel. Steam explosions and fires released at least 5 per cent of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere. Two plant workers died on the night of the accident and a further 28 people died within weeks due to radiation poisoning.16

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has reported regularly on the health effects of the Chernobyl accident. Subsequently, no long-term health consequences to populations exposed to Chernobyl fallout except for thyroid cancers in Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia where children and adolescents drank milk contaminated with 131iodine.17 There have been 6,500 cases of thyroid cancer attributed to the accident by 2008, with 15 deaths.18

“The average effective doses” of radiation from Chernobyl, UNSCEAR also concluded, “due to both external and internal exposures, received by members of the general public during 1986-2005 [were] about 30 mSv for the evacuees, 1 mSv for the residents of the former Soviet Union, and 0.3 mSv for the populations of the rest of Europe.”  A sievert is a measure of radiation exposure, a millisievert is one-one-thousandth of a sievert. A full-body CT scan delivers about 10-30 mSv. A U.S. resident receives an average background radiation dose, exclusive of radon, of about 1 mSv per year.19

These peer-reviewed findings have been generated after extensive investigation by the International Scientific Agency of the United Nations. The fear that has plagued the nuclear energy industry needs to end.

Nuclear Energy in Saskatchewan

Yellowcake Uranium at Rabbit Lake.

There are few better people in Saskatchewan to ask about nuclear energy and the uranium industry than Cameco’s CEO Tim Gitzel. Back in the days when he was playing amateur hockey, he started work as a summer student at COGEMA/Orano’s Cluff Lake mine. Over the past 40 years Gitzel has been involved with every uranium project in the province other than Uranium City which ended in 1982. He points out that the industry is a good one, especially its impact on northern Saskatchewan communities with job creation, education opportunities and economic growth through all the contractors. “A large majority of the dollars we spend on capital and operating are up north and with northern contractors. And the money ends up in those communities. We’ve been able to hire and train thousands and thousands of people over the years,” says Gitzel.

Considering the future of the industry, Gitzel says, “If you talk to anybody under the age of 30 and ask them what their number one issue is in the world, they’ll say climate change. People are worried about it and want to know what we can do about it. We’re working in an industry that provides the solution, or at least part of the solution. Nuclear is carbon-free power generation; baseload energy working seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Gitzel laments nuclear’s military origins and that this is often what people associate with the industry, rather than remembering Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” and developed countries that successfully embraced the technology. Like France, Sweden, or Japan, Canada took on nuclear energy development and we’re really good at it.

Gitzel’s main concern though is the importance of energy globally. If you look at the bigger picture, the population of the world is going from 7 billion to 8 to 9 billion in the near future. Unfortunately, the most impoverished billion people in the world have little to no access to electricity. “We have existential problems and how are we going to solve them?”, asks Gitzel. “People say renewables…wind and solar. Well maybe someday, but they can’t fully meet the planet’s needs today. We need massive amounts of electricity. Your quality of life depends on electricity. We can sit here smug as say…well we’re fine here, we have lots of energy options. But in those developing countries where populations are rising, people want to improve their quality of life, and they need electricity to do it.”

The human element is often lost in the global energy debate. Quality of life is intrinsically linked to energy usage. The climate debate is largely associated with developed countries that are the big emitters of carbon, but it ignores the broader picture of how the world drastically needs more energy. Of course, carbon emissions need to be reduced, but try explaining that to developing countries that are struggling to build functioning infrastructure or treating drinking water. And with this, Gitzel makes an important point: “If you’re going to be intellectually honest with the energy discussion, you have to look at nuclear and how it factors into the equation. It’s the only huge base-level, carbon-free power source that you can have and be readily available.”

Uranium production is incredibly important for the Saskatchewan economy. Saskatchewan is a world leader in its production. Moreover, the sector has created thousands of jobs and promoted considerable investment and economic development in the province. We’re home to Cameco Corporation and Orano Canada Inc., the sole uranium producers in Canada. Canada’s uranium is used exclusively for generation of electricity at nuclear plants.20 Nuclear power supplies 15 per cent of Canada’s electrical needs and accounts for approximately 10.6 per cent of the world’s electrical production. These exports of uranium account for $1.2 billion to the Canadian economy every year.21 As of December 2018, the industry employed 1,844 employees and contractors generating $290.9 million annually in salaries, wages and benefits.22 That is impressive, indeed.

If antiquated negative perspectives of nuclear power generation can be dispelled, the world would have a strong and tested solution to combat climate change. Moreover, for Saskatchewan the economic spin-offs of an improved market for uranium would be highly beneficial to the province and the country.

So, what is a Nuclear Reaction? The CANDU Process

We asked Dr. John Root, from the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation to explain.

“Coming out of the ground, natural uranium has a mixture of two isotopes, a light isotope (Uranium 235) and a heavy one (Uranium 238). It’s the U-235 that’s easy to split and it’s easy to make energy out of it. By placing the U-235 in some material that slows down neutrons (a moderator), a slow neutron can trigger a U-235 nucleus to split apart, which is called “fission”.  Fission releases a few neutrons as well as the pieces of the split nucleus that carry a lot of energy.  The released neutrons are slowed down in the moderator so they can trigger other U-235 nuclei to split. That is called a “chain reaction”.  Each fission event releases energy that can heat water and generate steam to turn a turbine and produce electricity.

The CANDU nuclear reactor is one of the few designs that can be fuelled effectively by natural uranium, which comes from the earth with a little less than 1% U-235. CANDU fuel is in the form of solid ceramic pellets that are contained in metal tubes, which are assembled into a bundle. The bundles are then fed through metal pressure tubes that are arranged in a large vessel full of heavy water and through which heavy water flows to carry the heat from the fuel to generate steam. All this heavy water is the moderator that slows the neutrons down and keeps the chain reaction going … that’s the CANDU reactor.

It’s a brilliant system because it’s so forgiving in what kinds of fuel it can use effectively, even natural uranium fuel. And its moderator is water, which is fireproof, unlike the moderator of the Chernobyl reactor, which was made of carbon.

With any nuclear power system, you generate the heat for making steam with no smoke, no consuming of oxygen and no emission of carbon dioxide into the environment.  The fuel is contained in metal tubes. When the fuel is no longer potent enough to keep the reaction going, the bundle comes out of the reactor. It is placed in storage so that there’s time for the immediate radioactivity to cool down.  In due course, it will be cost-effective to extract even more energy by recycling this used fuel.  The Canadian system has a lot of clever physics in it and it’s somewhat unusual on the world stage. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants around the world and about 10 per cent of them are this CANDU type.”

References

142% of Canadians see climate change as a national emergency: poll, Toronto City News, toronto.citynews.ca/2019/08/12/canada-climate-change-national-emergency-poll/
2World Energy Resources | 2016, World Energy Council, worldenergy.org/assets/images/imported/2016/10/World-Energy-Resources-Full-report-2016.10.03.pdf
3Emissions Gap Report 2019, UN Environment Programme, unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019
4,5Outline History of Nuclear Energy, World Nuclear Association, world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/outline-history-of-nuclear-energy.aspx
6,7,8,9,10 Nuclear Power in Canada, World Nuclear Association, world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/canada-nuclear-power.aspx
11,12Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution, Yale Environment360, e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate
13Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html
14,15The Situation at Fukushima, World Nuclear Association, world-nuclear.org/focus/fukushima/the-situation-at-fukushima.aspx
16Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association, world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx
17,18,19Why Nuclear Power Must Be Part of the Energy Solution, Yale Environment360, e360.yale.edu/features/why-nuclear-power-must-be-part-of-the-energy-solution-environmentalists-climate
20Uranium in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Mining Association, cameco.com/uploads/downloads/2017_Uranium_Fact_Sheet.pdf
21The Canadian Nuclear Handbook, Canadian Nuclear Association, cna.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/2020-Factbook-EN-digital.pdf
22Uranium in Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Mining Association, saskmining.ca/ckfinder/userfiles/files/2019%20UinSK%20factsheet%20final%20web.pdf