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Energy and Environment

Nuclear Energy: Challenges and Opportunities

Jean-Luc Bourdages, Mohamed Zakzouk

Issue | Challenges and opportunities face the nuclear energy industry in Canada and around the world.

Synopsis | The rising global demand for energy and concerns over climate change are contributing to a possible global “nuclear renaissance.” However, the nuclear industry, particularly in Canada, faces a number of economic, safety and environmental challenges.

Timing | The federal government will soon have to make major decisions concerning its nuclear energy sector, including the partial privatization of AECL, the construction of new reactors, the reintroduction of a new Nuclear Liability Act and the future supply of medical isotopes.

The nuclear sector is growing around the world as demand for energy increases. Canada, with its involvement in many aspects of the nuclear industry, will soon need to make major decisions concerning its nuclear sector to respond to this demand, both at home and abroad.

Canada’s Nuclear Industry

Nuclear energy accounts for about 15% of electricity production in Canada and 55% of production in Ontario. The industry employs over 20,000 employees directly and 10,000 indirectly. Its main activities include uranium milling, mining and processing; the design and operation of nuclear power plants and facilities; electricity production; and isotope production for nuclear medicine. Nuclear scientific facilities in Canada contribute as well to research and development in the aerospace, automotive, manufacturing and engineering sectors.

Canada is also a leading producer of uranium fuel for nuclear power generation around the world. Saskatchewan has the world’s largest known high-grade natural uranium deposits and accounts for about 21% of the total global production of natural uranium.

Canada has 22 reactors (18 currently in service), 20 of which are located in three nuclear generating facilities in Ontario: Darlington Nuclear, Pickering Nuclear, and Bruce Power. The remaining two reactors are in Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, and Gentilly, Quebec. Ontario Power Generation is contemplating building four new reactors at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, increasing the province’s total potential output of electricity by 4,800 megawatts. Public hearings for the first two proposed reactors began in Toronto in March 2011 as part of the project’s environmental assessment.

Sources of Electricity Production in Canada, 2009
Sources of Electricity Production in Canada, 2009 - Hydroelectric: 63.1%; Coal: 17.4%; Nuclear: 14.8%; Natural Gas: 4.1%; Internal combustion, renewables: 0.5%
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data from Natural Resources Canada and Statistics Canada.

In November 2007, the Government of Canada indicated that it was considering restructuring Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a Crown corporation that provides nuclear technology and services.1 By May 2009, a review team had concluded that AECL should separate its commercial business activities – the CANDU Reactor Division – from its research and technology activities. The government therefore invited private investors to submit proposals to acquire the Reactor Division.

Rising Global Demand for Energy: A “Nuclear Renaissance”?

Key in any decision-making process regarding the development of nuclear energy is the worldwide demand for energy, which is expected to grow in the next 25 years. With it, nuclear power generation will grow.

As of April 2011, there were 439 nuclear power plants in operation in 30 countries, accounting for 14% of the global supply of electricity. According to one scenario, global energy consumption is projected to increase by 49% over the next quarter century, from 522 exajoules (EJ) in 2007 to 779 EJ in 2035.2 Under the same scenario, electricity generation from nuclear power worldwide would increase by 73%, from 9.36 EJ in 2007 to 16.2 EJ in 2035.

Currently, 61 nuclear reactors are under construction around the world. According to the World Nuclear Association, an additional 158 reactors are in the planning stages and a further 326 have been proposed.3 China, India and Russia are expected to have the strongest demand for new energy supply, making them potential markets for new reactors.4

The growing interest in nuclear energy is also influenced by the role it might play in climate-change-reducing efforts, since nuclear technology produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-fuel-based plants.

Challenges for the Industry

The opportunity for growth in the nuclear power generation industry is offset by a number of major challenges faced by Canada and other countries around the world:

These challenges have become more daunting following the recent crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, resulting from the 2011 earthquakes and tsunami, as well as due to heightened concerns regarding nuclear safety around the world.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has ordered all operators of nuclear plants to conduct a general inspection of their facilities, with special attention to external hazards. Several other countries, especially in Europe, are also reviewing safety aspects of their nuclear facilities.

These and other issues will present challenges for the Canadian and worldwide nuclear industries in the coming years.

Further Reading

  1. Natural Resources Canada, “AECL Restructuring,” Backgrounder 2009/123 (a), Ottawa, 2009 (see the Natural Resources Canada website).
  2. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “World Energy Demand and Economic Outlook,” in International Energy Outlook 2010, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., 2010 (see the Administration’s website).
  3. World Nuclear Association, World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements, London, 1 April 2011 (see the Association’s website).
  4. U.S. Energy Information Administration (2010).

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© Library of Parliament 2011