This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
In a post-Fukushima world, the ideal opportunity exists for Canada to regain its competitive position in the global nuclear industry. The recently elected federal majority government must exercise leadership now to fully leverage Canada's present nuclear advantage.
That advantage rests with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the arms-length federal corporation, which possesses a highly successful CANDU reactor technology. Beyond the myriad other benefits CANDU technology offers, if this technology had been present in the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, much, if not most of the disaster following the earthquake and tsunami could have been averted.
Unfortunately, since 2007, the federal government has let AECL's restructuring and potential sale languish. The delay in decisions on this file has created uncertainty in the global nuclear marketplace about the future of CANDU reactor technology. At risk is Canada's $6.5-billion-a-year nuclear industry, employing more than 70,000 people in direct and indirect industry jobs, and generating more than $1.5 billion in federal and provincial tax revenue. All this, at the time when the world has no choice but to focus on using greener technologies like nuclear, and perhaps more importantly, when the global nuclear industry is taking a serious look at the risks posed by the nuclear technology used by Japan and many other countries around the world.
The Fukushima nuclear reactors, and similar reactors in other parts of the world, use enriched uranium fuel and pressurized water, which is all housed in a single, large pressure vessel. In contrast, CANDU reactors are not one large pressure vessel, and they use fuel fabricated from natural uranium, with heavy water as the coolant and moderator. Natural uranium has proven to be a lot less volatile than its enriched counterpart, and the surrounding vessel of water is one of the major safety features of CANDU reactors compared to the Japan reactor.
Once the earthquake hit Japan, its reactor safety system shut down the reactor but the temperature of the fuel within it became dangerously high and had to be cooled. The subsequent tsunami cut off power causing the cooling pumps to not work and the outer metal casing surrounding the fuel to heat up and react with water to produce highly explosive hydrogen gas. The operators had to pump water in to cool the reactor down, whereas CANDU reactors already have water; there's no need to pump it in. If that fails, CANDU has other backup systems.
In response to the events at Fukushima, Germany recently announced its plan to phase out all nuclear power in that country. However, nuclear power is not going the way of the dinosaur. In fact, nuclear power remains safe and environmentally friendly. It is much safer than hydroelectric power or the coal industry, with vastly fewer deaths and injuries from a small number of industrial accidents in the global nuclear industry to date. Nuclear power plants also emit no greenhouse gas and most nuclear waste is low-level waste, which quickly decays to near ambient background radiation levels, while the same cannot be said of fossil fuel. The nuclear industry continues to work to minimize the risks posed by nuclear waste.
Thus, in the environmentally conscious and more risk averse global nuclear industry of today, this is the time for CANDU technology to shine. While continually striving to perfect and refine its CANDU technology, Canada has an obligation to provide leadership by sharing its safer technology with the world. Climate change is increasing the frequency and destructive force of natural disasters, and countries looking to invest in nuclear power today and in the future will look seriously at the advantages CANDU reactors provide over their competition.
While AECL has weathered its share of international criticism from being forced to shut down its Maple nuclear research reactors at Chalk River that supply the world with medical isotopes, we should not confuse this issue with the benefits CANDU technology presents. If AECL is to regain a foothold as a player in the nuclear technology arena, using its CANDU technology and the advantages it provides in a post-Fukushima world, clear and decisive leadership from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and the federal government is necessary. In a recent speech to the Canadian Nuclear Society, Minister Oliver acknowledged the "robust" and safe design of Canada's reactors. He also referred to the key position of nuclear in our energy mix, as well as its valuable role in the context of employment and the billions of dollars in economic entrepreneurship.
Canada must seize the day, it may not get another chance. Canada has an obligation and a responsibility to act now.