Power: The Nuclear Renaissance

Politics, public opinion and Chinese demand have reinvigorated the industry.

When it comes to building nuclear power plants, fluctuations in political thinking and public opinion are crucial. Not long ago, Canada's nuclear industry found itself facing a crisis of confidence. The last Canada Deuterium Uranium, or CANDU, reactors to be built in Canada, at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto, were ordered in the late 1970s. Its four units were to be completed by 1988 at a cost of $5 billion. Instead, they cost more than $14 billion and weren't completed until 1993, hammering Ontario deep into electricity-related debt. Other CANDU reactors have since been shut down long before their manufacturer's best-before date. Attempts to refurbish them have sometimes come in significantly over budget and behind schedule, as with rebuilt reactors at Pickering A Nuclear Power Station.

Tom Adams, executive director of Toronto-based Energy Probe, is a frequent energy commentator and a vocal critic of the nuclear industry. Just after the blackout that left much of North America in the dark in 2003, Adams told Canadian Business he was certain no new nuclear plants would be built in Canada because the experiences at Darlington, Pickering and other CANDU sites had been so bad. Today, he's not so sure. “Politicians are so excited, it's tough to say where things are going,” he says. “There is a possibility they could overlook the record and the costs and just barge on forward.”

The change is also felt at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which designs and manufactures CANDU reactors. David Torgerson, AECL's senior vice-president and chief technology officer, says governments “have realized that there is really no other option for large-scale energy production that can meet their requirements.”

The industry's hopes are brightest in Ontario, where the gap between forecast electricity supply and demand is wide. Dwight Duncan, Ontario's energy minister, says that Ontario needs to replace, refurbish or conserve 25,000 megawatts of capacity by 2025, or 80% of the province's total. (Part of that need stems from the provincial government's decision to phase out four coal-fired plants that provide a quarter of Ontario's power but also pollute prolifically.) The province has set up a new body, the Ontario Power Authority, to draw up a long-term electricity supply scheme; it is scheduled to report to the government this December.

Nuclear is being taken more seriously in part because the inputs of other generation alternatives, such as natural gas, are becoming more expensive. And because nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gases, they could help Canada meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. Finally, Torgerson says, energy security issues are making nuclear more attractive. “With a nuclear reactor, it's nothing to have at least a year's supply of fuel right at the station,” he explains. There's no pipeline or shipping to be disrupted.

In Canada, the decision to refurbish nuclear plants or build new ones rests primarily with provincial governments. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said that while refurbishing old reactors may not always make sense, “we are not ruling out new nuclear.” Federally, Minister of Natural Resources John Efford came out strongly in favour of nuclear earlier this year. “We are on the threshold of a new age for nuclear energy,” he said at the annual meeting of the Canadian Nuclear Association in March. He proclaimed that Canada cannot meet increasing demand for energy without nuclear power generation, and claimed new reactors are performing better than their predecessors. “We need to increase our capacity–and we have not as yet seen commitments to build new reactors in Canada,” he said. “Decisions need to be made soon.”

Despite the Pickering debacle, Ontario's government continues to push for nuclear units to return to service. In August, it wrote off two Pickering A reactors. But two 750 megawatt units at the Bruce Power facility on Lake Huron have re-entered service since October 2003, and the provincial government is negotiating with the facility's private-sector operators to refurbish two other dormant units. Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, the provincial government decided to refurbish reactors at Point Lepreau, at a projected cost of $1.4 billion.

AECL is now developing the next-generation Advanced CANDU Reactor, or ACR. Two years ago, the company claimed it would be ready to build ACRs by 2006. But it is now far behind that schedule; the current target is 2010. Torgerson says AECL slowed development because it believed potential buyers were further from purchasing new units than originally thought. AECL continues to attempt to prelicense the reactor with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, in parallel with its design work. The federal government has already pledged $81 million toward its development, and Efford recently promised more would follow.

AECL's ability to sell new reactors in Canada could prove critical, because the company has encountered serious setbacks in the most promising global markets for nuclear reactors: China and the United States. The former is rapidly expanding its reactor fleet; the latter, which hasn't ordered any since 1973, is seriously considering it. Speaking at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, Md., this summer, President George Bush claimed that there's a “growing consensus” among Americans that nuclear power will lead to a cleaner, safer nation. “It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again,” he said.

AECL is trying to get the ACR licensed for sale in the States. Last year, it announced a partnership that would have seen it join forces with Dominion Resources Inc. to incorporate ACR technology in a proposed new power station in Virginia. The arrangement could have attracted as much as US$250 million in U.S. government financing. Late last year, AECL CEO Robert Van Adel was effusive. “We've established ourselves as the leading next-generation technology in North America,” he told the Toronto Star. “The fact that we've been selected in the U.S. will, I believe, have a huge impact on markets like China and other markets around the world, including Europe.” But then the whole thing fell apart; last January, Dominion decided to drop AECL.

In China, the situation looks better for AECL. The company has completed two CANDU-6 reactors at the Qinshan facility in China's Zhejiang province, and has hailed the project as a “blueprint for collaboration.” AECL recently finalized an agreement to further develop CANDU technologies with the China National Nuclear Corp. The Chinese, however, are planning new reactors at Qinshan, and AECL technology is not in the running.

As it stands, AECL is constructing just one CANDU reactor, Cernavoda 2, in Romania. AECL spokesman Dale Coffin says it's on schedule. But ominous signs are emanating from the company's non-power-reactor business. For example, it is building two reactors, designed to produce medical isotopes, called multipurpose applied physics lattice experiment (MAPLE) reactors. The customer, nuclear medicine isotope supplier MDS Nordion, is not happy. According to the most recent annual report of MDS Inc., its parent company, the project is four years behind schedule and more than 100% over budget. “We continue to be disappointed with AECL's performance in resolving technical and regulatory issues,” MDS complained. “We do not have sufficient, reliable information from AECL to predict with any reasonable degree of accuracy when commercial production will commence.” An appeals court judge was brought in to mediate the dispute last March. AECL has called the units a “one-off,” but such performance may have a chilling effect on potential customers.

At Energy Probe, new nuclear facilities are not Adams' favourite thought. Earlier this year, he called on other activists to “re-defeat” the nuclear industry, whose “lobbyists never stopped their backroom dealings,” he wrote in an open letter. “While nuclear controversies faded from the public's radar screen, the pro-nuclear camp and its supporters in government became emboldened.” The Sierra Club of Canada also opposes further nuclear refurbishments and new units. The industry, meanwhile, is redoubling efforts to win public support. Last year, the Canadian Nuclear Association (its non-profit mouthpiece) commissioned the Canadian Energy Research Institute to study the economics of coal, gas and nuclear technologies for power generation in Ontario. The study came out in favour of its patron: the ACR-700 was an attractive option for Ontario, it concluded, particularly if it was built with public financing. The association also commissioned Ipsos-Reid, a pollster, to survey Canadians on how they felt about nuclear energy. The poll claimed 67% of Ontarians–and 57% of Canadians–supported the refurbishing of existing nuclear facilities, while half of Ontarians purportedly favoured new nuclear facilities.

Politicians, too, have complained that the public suffers from “outdated perceptions”–as Efford puts it–about nuclear power and needs to improve. The battle for hearts and minds has begun anew.