Thought Leadership

CNA Conference: Overcoming Three Key Challenges to Public Acceptance of Nuclear Energy

Category: News & Events
Eric Gould • April 25, 2022

I attended the Canadian Nuclear Association Annual Conference in Ottawa, Ontario, earlier this month. It has been two years since the CNA was able to gather in person, and the impact of its absence was felt.

The CNA conference is always a great forum for those in the industry to exchange ideas and hear thoughtful messages from a variety of places about the importance of nuclear power. One such message, cleverly conveyed on a beer Koozie, was an extremely important one: “if all the power you ever used came from nuclear, your lifetime waste would fit in a pop can.”

Frankly, it was nice to see people again after so long – and to sample the new conference swag.

Much of the conference’s focus predictably revolved around multiple announcements of small modular reactor and advanced reactor deployment in Canada. Recent announcements by OPG and the strategic plan for developing and deploying small modular reactors agreed upon by multiple Canadian provinces are reason for optimism.

While the industry is hopeful, we were reminded of the multiple times in recent years predictions of the “nuclear renaissance” were quickly abandoned, and how this could be the last chance for nuclear power to achieve widescale public acceptance to be part of a clean, carbon-free future. Studies – and scads of polling data – confirm that such public acceptance is tied essentially to three challenges: safety, waste and cost/schedule overruns, each of which was a subject of the CNA presentations.

Safety

As I noted in a recent series on U.S. efforts to license new reactor designs, regulators are currently balancing the speed required by the moment with the assurance they have performed appropriate reviews to ensure safe operation.

At CNA, Rumina Velshi, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission spoke to the challenges with the current design reviews for the various SMR/AR proponents. Ms. Velshi reiterated the CNSC’s risk-informed, performance-based approach and noted how the agency has learned from its cooperation with OPG and Bruce Power on their major refurbishments, as well as its cooperation and collaboration with other regulators on reactor design reviews.

Other speakers cited the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of how a normally slow and steady industry can snap into shape when required.

Nonetheless, the pressure will be on to meet aggressive deadlines, as the plans of many of these new developments hinge on achieving licensing approval. Success in achieving these approvals will require careful planning and management to ensure accountability for each step in the process.

Waste

There was no more important takeaway from the conference than Canada stepping up to resolve its strategy for dealing with legacy and future nuclear waste.

Laurie Swami, president and CEO of Nuclear Waste Management Organization, spoke to the progress being made to site a near-surface waste depository within 18 months. Ms. Swami said Canada “does not have a waste problem, we have a waste solution.”

As Bruce Power’s CEO Mike Rencheck noted, the nuclear industry is the only energy producer that controls all of its own waste and knows exactly how much has been produced and where it is located. Chief Emily Whetung-MacInnes of Curve Lake First Nation said that the Indigenous peoples believe handling and disposing of waste in Canada is a responsibility and obligation that should not be transferred. Canadian National Laboratories CEO Joeseph McBrearty spoke to the importance of CNL’s Near Surface Disposal Facility, which will safely store low level waste from its Chalk River and other facilities. NWMO will benefit from the work CNL is currently doing for its similar facility.

For nuclear to be trusted, it must set the public’s fears to rest with reassurances that waste will be responsibly handled and secured, and this level of focus by key leaders and stakeholders in the industry is essential.

Cost and Schedule Overruns

Considering the recent history of large-scale nuclear new build projects in North America, the public’s fears of nuclear project cost and schedule overruns is well-founded and not a trivial concern.

However, OPG and Bruce Power have exhibited that highly complex, large capital nuclear projects can be done on time and on budget. The excitement exhibited at CNA by the SMR/AR developers who have been selected to proceed with development and licensing of their designs – GE/Hitachi, ARC, Westinghouse – was matched by that of the supply network. John MacQuarrie, president of BWXT, noted that providing key components for the OPG and Bruce Power refurbishments has shown the value of long-term, performance-based agreements where manufacturers can improve through repetition.

Gearing up for the expected wave of SMRs and ARs will require a somewhat different approach. Eventually, but only if the industry is successful, the production of SMRs/ARs will be very predictable and repetitive, with key components made in factory conditions. Ramping up to the capacity required to ultimately reduce cost and risk will take time, and the first implementations will need to be studied and analyzed for critical lessons to shave time and cost from the subsequent iterations. Creating the appropriate public expectations for the cost and schedules of these first-to-market projects will be absolutely essential if there is hope for these projects to be repeated.

As we have seen in our years of support of the Canadian nuclear industry, the business, regulatory and technological environment exists for these planned SMR/AR projects to succeed. There is also wide public acceptance for nuclear, though that would diminish quickly if the challenges associated with safety, waste and cost are not properly addressed.