Why Canada Is Selling Advanced Nuclear Reactors to China

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As Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stood alongside Justin Trudeau at Parliament’s centre block in September, a quiet confidence was growing in Canada’s nuclear industry.

The Prime Minister and the Chinese leader were overseeing a signing ceremony between the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and Canadian engineering giant, SNC-Lavalin, which owns CANDU technology. The agreement will see two next-generation CANDU nuclear reactors installed about 100 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, and could transform nuclear power.

Canada’s nuclear industry is on the upswing, partly because of a global push to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The deal with CNNC is part of that. Teams here are developing advanced nuclear technologies that will ideally help wean us off fossil fuels, which is one reason many environmentalists are starting to embrace nuclear.

If all goes according to plan, the CANDU reactors slated for the Qinshan nuclear site will be powered by what the industry calls advanced fuels: reprocessed uranium recycled from conventional reactors, and later, the radioactive element thorium, said Justin Hannah, Director of Marketing, Strategy and External Relations for SNC’s CANDU division.

Only a handful of sites in Europe and Japan are able to reprocess uranium today, and there is no standard on how to reuse it as a fuel, so it’s not widely used. Even so, it has the potential to reduce stockpiles of radioactive waste and make countries that use it less dependent on uranium imports.

CANDUs could start using thorium, with China’s backing, putting the world closer to what proponents call the thorium dream

Thorium has its own advantages when compared to uranium: it’s about three times more abundant and can provide just as much power, plus it’s far less useful for making nuclear weapons, mainly because its fuel cycle doesn’t produce plutonium.

But thorium is notoriously difficult to mine. Using it as a fuel is also complex, so reactor designs and supply chains aren’t readily available. The fact that CANDUs could start using thorium, with China’s backing, may put the world closer to what proponents call the thorium dream of safer, cleaner and more abundant nuclear power.

China currently has 36 nuclear reactors in operation, another 21 under construction, and wants to double its nuclear power generation by 2021. Most of the existing reactors are conventional pressurized water reactors that run on enriched uranium, but the country is moving aggressively towards advanced reactor designs that can make use of the spent uranium from their current reactors, and the growing stockpiles of thorium that are a byproduct of mining for rare earth elements, a market that China dominates.

China has a growing appetite for carbon-free energy, and the government has declared war on pollution from coal-fired power plants, so nuclear makes sense. But Canada’s technology could also be of strategic value.

“They have the thorium, they have the spent uranium,” said Hannah.

This country stands to benefit from the agreement with China, too. If we get this joint venture right, “Canada’s nuclear industry could be seen as world leaders,” said Jerry Hopwood, President of the University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering, a partnership between 12 Canadian universities, government, and Canada’s nuclear industry.

The new Chinese-Canadian commercial entity is expected to be registered in China by mid-2017, with pre-construction work beginning in 2019 and 2026 targeted for the first AFCR to be operational, said Hannah. Thorium could be in use in the 2030s.

As for whether Canada could one day switch to thorium, we’ve got large, high-quality uranium reserves, so any move to bring a thorium-powered AFCR here will depend on both politics and economics. “There’s no strong economic driver for it,” argued John Luxat, a nuclear safety expert at McMaster University. “The utilities don’t want to switch over, but it’s nice to know that we could.”

After what Hopwood called a lull in Canada’s industry in the early 2000s, he believes recent investments and the push for carbon-free power show there’s a resurgence in nuclear.

The industry got a boost in 2016 from Ontario’s support for the refurbishment of the Darlington nuclear plant, and the 2015 plan to extend the life of Bruce Power’s nuclear reactors—each project projected to cost about $13 billion. Apart from that, SNC may be building another CANDU reactor in Argentina.

Canadian nuclear startups are also chasing new technologies. Terrestrial Energy has plans to build a commercially-viable molten salt reactor (MSR) by the 2020s.

Since the concept was first developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s, it’s been touted as a safer alternative. Terrestrial’s small, modular design is targeted at remote communities and providing carbon-free power directly to heavy industrial installations.

The nuclear fuel used in an MSR is liquid, so it can’t melt down, and it’s chemically bound to the molten salt coolant. That means a loss of coolant, like the one that happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, isn’t possible, said Canon Bryan, Terrestrial’s co-founder.

The molten fuel is highly corrosive, so MSRs still need further development to be proven safe. But the company has garnered nearly $30 million in investment, among other undisclosed grants, and Terrestrial’s application to the US government for a $1 billion loan guarantee through its US subsidiary is advancing well, said Bryan.

While Terrestrial’s MSR design could potentially use thorium fuel in the future, the goal of becoming commercially viable as soon as possible means that the company will be sticking with uranium for now, since it’s well-understood by the industry.

“The conversation is changing,” said Jerry Hopwood. “The fact that Canada is serious about dealing with climate change [has] put nuclear in a good position.”

By TOMAS URBINA

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