Business lobby calls on Canada to become global champion for nuclear technology

Debbie Lawes
August 22, 2017

The head of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) is calling on Canada – and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically – to step up as global champions for nuclear technology, notably its civilian applications in medicine and as a low-carbon energy source. President and CEO Dr John Barrett made the comment in response to the release of a House of Commons committee report urging the government to “reaffirm its long-standing support for Canadian nuclear energy and research”.

“I don’t see anyone stepping into this leadership role internationally,” says Barrett, who prior to joining CNA in 2013 was Canada’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. “One can easily imagine our prime minister taking a leadership role in the area of international nuclear power … he is well regarded internationally and wants to contribute to global issues.”

Tabled June 9 in the House of Commons, The Nuclear Sector at a Crossroads: Fostering Innovation and Energy Security for Canada and the World report includes seven recommendations related to regulatory and safety practices; research and innovation; leadership in nuclear power generation; and the development and commercialization of next-generation nuclear technologies.

“The report does a very good job of identifying key areas of research, development and demonstration and commercialization — all of these are bread and butter issues for the continuation and sustainability of the industry,” he notes.

The report – part of a broader study on innovation, sustainable solutions and economic opportunities in Canada’s energy and mining sectors – also calls on industry and academia to establish a nuclear innovation council with representatives from the federal and provincial governments with the aim of leveraging non-power nuclear applications in other Canadian sectors, such as healthcare, agriculture and manufacturing.

According to the CNA, the council would align the nuclear industry’s innovation roadmap, currently under development, to the Canadian Energy Strategy and to a pan-Canadian framework for clean growth and climate change, as well as investments in clean energy innovation.

“Furthermore, a council could be part of a national climate change innovation council. Such a council would bring together innovative technologies from diverse low-carbon energy sources and would help to give strategic direction to federal and provincial funding and investments instruments — for example, the federal government's Mission Innovation and Canada's new Low Carbon Economy Trust,” Barrett told the committee last year.

A key component of the roadmap will be a push for the research, development, demonstration and deployment of new builds: small modular reactors (SMRs), off-grid SMRs (e.g. for mining sites), very small SMRs (e.g. for remote communities), and on-grid larger units (e.g. a new Candu reactor).

The report’s sunny view of Canada’s nuclear future echoes comments made by senior federal politicians. At the CNA’s conference in February, Natural Resources Canada minister Jim Carr urged the sector to demonstrate to the provinces and territories how nuclear energy can help Canada meet its climate change goals.

“We see Canada’s nuclear industry for what it is: a strategic asset, a lead driver of innovation and, most of all, an important part of Canada’s growing clean energy mix,” said Carr.

The feds have proven they are willing to put money on the table to support nuclear research, development and demonstration. The government has committed $800 million to revitalize infrastructure at the Chalk River nuclear research facility northwest of Ottawa – an investment Barrett describes as “one of the biggest clean energy investments in the western hemisphere”.

The government has also directed a $775 million commitment to Mission Innovation – a global effort to double investments in clean energy innovation by 2020. Canada is one of only nine Mission Innovation countries to include nuclear energy as part of its clean energy portfolio.

“The inclusion of nuclear energy should tell you something about the importance of your industry and how Mission Innovation is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that nuclear energy can contribute to Canada’s clean innovation landscape,” Carr told CNA delegates, noting that Canada is the world’s second-largest exporter of uranium.

While such support is welcomed by the nuclear industry, Barrett suggests an even stronger voice is needed.

“The government could be bolder in acknowledging, recognizing and raising awareness of the nuclear energy sector and industry in Canada. It’s been very lukewarm,” he said.

“If you’re talking about clean tech then nuclear is part of that,” adds Barrett. “If you’re talking about clean energy, nuclear is part of that. If you’re talking about de-carbonization, nuclear is part of that. It’s part of the low carbon suite of technologies that Canada has and it’s a proven technology in all of those areas.”

Not everyone shares the CNA’s push to embed nuclear in a low-carbon energy policy. Tom Rand, managing partner of ArcTern Ventures and senior advisor, clean tech at MaRS Discovery District, questions if the traditionally high capital costs associated with nuclear, coupled with public concern over waste disposal and risks of an accident, are worth the potential benefits.

“You can sink tens of billions of dollars into that sector and not get much for it,” he says. “I don’t think Canada should be supporting nuclear. Nuclear is a hot button issue for a lot of people.”

Similar concerns were raised by the NDP in a supplementary opinion appended to the committee’s report. (Richard Cannings was the only NDP representative on the 10-member committee). The statement noted that testimony from Greenpeace senior energy analyst Shawn-Patrick Stensil was not included in the final report, notably whether the business case for nuclear is weakening as the cost for wind and solar continue to drop.

“While decisions on construction of energy generation infrastructure fall to other levels of government, we believe that the testimony on the rising competitiveness of alternate forms of renewable energy technology merit consideration in the allocation of federal funding for research and development,” the NDP opinion states.

Related R$ article: MPs see resource industry’s problems as potential boon for clean tech

Report Recommendations related to RD&D

  • Continue to invest in R&D and innovations to advance the sector’s safety profile
  • Consider long-term options to provide a reliable, high-flux neutron source for Canadian researchers
  • Collaborate with industry to ensure that researchers and experts have access to the services and infrastructure they need to excel in their innovation and R&D pursuits
  • Work with industry, the healthcare community and provincial/territorial governments to ensure that the Canadian supply of medical isotopes remains uninterrupted in the short, medium and long term
  • Continue to provide funding that applies to the full spectrum of the sector’s operations
  • Provide financial support to help small businesses cover their capital expenditures for large projects (e.g. through SR&ED tax credit program)
  • Support efforts by Canadian universities and research/training organizations to build new facilities and equipment and/or to advance education and research in areas that benefit the sector’s development
  • Support programs that train highly skilled professionals in the sector
  • Support the development of small modular reactors (SMRs)
  • Establish a Nuclear Innovation Council


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