Bring Back the CANDU

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Note: I’m not an unmitigated fan of nuclear, but here I argue that the CANDU is a necessary addition to the existing nuclear fleet, acting as a kind of recycler. Underwriting the argument is that nuclear is a necessary evil given climate change, an evil limited by the ‘virtues’ of the CANDU.

Originally published: The Globe and Mail, April 10, 2008

Who do you trust with a burgeoning nuclear industry – us or the Russians? 

Comparing the CANDU to the Russian equivalent is like comparing a box of candles to a box of dynamite.  Like it or not, the world needs nuclear energy, and the world is better off with us supplying the technology rather than our competitors. Iran currently seeks a reactor. Should we sell it to them, or leave it to the Russians?

Canada currently supplies much of the world’s uranium, so we’re already hip-deep in the nuclear game. So why should we raise our stake in such a maligned industry? The CANDU is safer, contributes much less to the weapons-producing chain, and makes better and more sustainable use of the world’s remaining uranium reserves.

The CANDU reactor is a national treasure that needs to be resurrected, re-polished and sold world-wide. Canada needs to embrace the new Advanced CANDU design, and back up that design up with a strong, international sales effort.  The money the Conservatives government recently allocated to that design is a good start – but a real commitment means getting out in the world and aggressively selling it, starting in Ontario.

The CANDU has had more than it’s share of boon-doggles.  There have been bribes by Canadian officials to purchasers, India purportedly ‘cooked’ the plutonium it needed for its first bomb in a CANDU design, there were massive debts incurred by Ontario Hydro largely due to the CANDU-based nuclear industry, and the American nuclear industry has determinedly and gradually improved the design of the light-water reactor, although it’s still not as safe as the CANDU.

Each one of these setbacks has eroded the competitive edge of the CANDU and collectively they have led to many calling for the federal government to stop investing in the CANDU’s future.

A nuclear power plant in Iran doesn’t have to destabilize global politics. It’s the ability to process or enrich the fuel, upgrading it from an energy-generating isotope to a weapon, that is generating global panic.

India may have cooked some plutonium in a CANDU-based reactor, but it was further fuel-processing abilities that enabled them to produce a bomb. No refining process – no bomb.  The CANDU is a small, much-needed piece in a larger nuclear puzzle.

The CANDU is unique in that it does not require enriched uranium in order to operate, unlike the Russian reactors that are to be built in Iran. CANDUs were originally designed to use natural uranium that comes (almost) right out of the ground, an un-enriched product that is not weapons-ready, nor particularly dangerous to handle.

Uranium-235, which is fissile and can by itself sustain a chain reaction, is the really dangerous stuff, but the natural uranium used by CANDU is made up almost entirely of U-238, which is not fissile and requires many fewer safeguards.  CANDU fuel is a kitten compared to the tiger in the Russian nuclear plants.

If you use a CANDU, you have no need for the processing facilities that can make the fuel a weapon.  That’s why it’s safer.

It’s also more efficient, in a number of ways.

Using natural uranium, the CANDU is about twice as efficient as reactors using enriched uranium. The world has only got about 60 years of uranium left at current rates of use, and much less if China weans itself away from coal and grows its nuclear power base, so efficiency is vital if existing uranium reserves are to last.

Waste reduction is vital, and disposing of nuclear waste is the most significant barrier to environmentally friendly nuclear power.  If we double the energy we get from the fuel, we also cut the amount of nuclear waste produced in half

The CANDU also can recycle used fuel from competing ‘light-water’ reactors – notably those made by the Areva French and the U.S.  Areva recently made overtures about buying Atomic Energy Canada – the makers of the CANDU – and one strong motivation they have to do so is because of the role the CANDU can play as the ultimate nuclear recycling depot.

Pretty much every country with a nuclear energy program uses these light-water reactors, and Canada should be actively pursing these markets. The primary selling point is easy – the nuclear fuel will go twice as far if you have CANDUs  to use.

The CANDU also can use a new and easier-to-handle fuel, thorium,a non-fissile material, that is  less dangerous to handle than natural uranium and even more abundant.

Nuclear may scare us, but carbon-emitting fuels are becoming scarcer and scarier, and nuclear power has in important role to play in getting off the fossil carbon train. 

The CANDU should be part of our participation in the nuclear game. By selling these reactors world-wide, we are adding value to our uranium production, while reducing global tensions around atomic weapons and carbon emissions as well.

Canada, with a renewed commitment to the CANDU reactor, could do much more than just feed the nuclear machine. We could, with a focused effort, ensure that machine is run  safely and efficiently.  The new Advanced CANDU design can put Canada back in the nuclear game, contributing to making that game safer and more sustainable.

Who do you have more trust in to build the world’s nuclear plants – us or the Russians?

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