Market Snapshot: The Potential Role of Nuclear in Canada’s Energy Future

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Release date: 2022-07-06

Canada has diverse and abundant energy resources that change region by region. British Columbia, Quebec, and Manitoba are known for their hydropower, and Alberta and Saskatchewan are known for their fossil fuel reserves. Canada is also one of the largest producers of uranium in the world and Saskatchewan has the world's largest deposits of uranium, the fuel used in the production of nuclear energy. Canada has long funded nuclear energy research and development, and New Brunswick and Ontario currently use nuclear energy to generate low emissions electricity to their consumers.Footnote1 Canada has the resources, experience, and knowledge to continue using nuclear to help decarbonize its energy system, but new nuclear energy deployments are facing barriers to entry and will continue to depend on enabling drivers, including public and policy support. Other factors to consider are the cost of nuclear and how it changes over time, the regulation of nuclear safety and waste, an ageing nuclear fleet, and new technology innovation.

Nuclear Energy in the Present

Canada developed its own nuclear technology: the Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor.Footnote2 The reactor uses nuclear fissionDefinition* to generate energy with uranium acting as the fuel source and heavy water (deuterium oxide) as a moderator and coolant. Research and development on nuclear energy continues today across the country in laboratories like Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario, research institutes like Triumf in British Columbia, and universities like the Ontario Tech University. Canada also has large uranium reserves, mainly located in northern Saskatchewan. Canada is one of the largest producers and exporters of uranium and nuclear fuel services in the world.Footnote3

Figure 1: Nuclear Energy in Canada

Source and Description

Source: Natural Resources Canada

Description: Figure 1 shows Canada’s nuclear plants as well as its uranium mines, mills, and processing facilities. All uranium mines and millsDefinition* are in Northern Saskatchewan, while uranium refiningDefinition*, uranium conversionDefinition* and CANDU fuel fabrication facilitiesDefinition* are in Ontario. Ontario also has three nuclear plants and 18 CANDU reactors, with a net capacity of 12 894 MW as of 2020. New Brunswick has a single nuclear plant, with one CANDU reactor and a net capacity of 660 MW as of 2020.

Today, four nuclear generating stations in Canada provide about 15% of the country’s total electricity generation.Footnote4 Ontario and New Brunswick rely significantly on nuclear energy to generate low-emission electricity for consumers. However, Canada’s reactor fleet is ageing, with all of its currently operating nuclear reactors first connecting to the electricity grid between 1971 and 1993.

Although nuclear energy is emissions-free, there are safety concerns in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the disposal of nuclear waste. Canada has been regulating nuclear energy since 1946 with the Atomic Energy Control Act. In 2000, the act was replaced with the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, which established the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The CNSC’s mandate is as follows:

  1. Regulate the use of nuclear energy and materials including the safe disposal of nuclear waste,
  2. Implement Canada’s non-proliferation policy and international commitments on peaceful use of nuclear energy, and
  3. Provide scientific, technical, and regulatory information to the public.

Nuclear Energy in the Future

With Canada’s access to uranium resources and its significant nuclear energy experience, what does this mean for the future of nuclear? In the Canada Energy Regulator’s (CER’s) recent Canada’s Energy Future 2021 report, nuclear remained a consistent source of electricity generation to 2050 in the Evolving Policies Scenario.Footnote5 This scenario contained specific technology costs and policy assumptions that influenced nuclear energy over time.Footnote6 Figure 2 shows how electricity generation changes over time in this scenario.

Figure 2: Electricity Generation in the Evolving Policies Scenario

Source and Description

Source: Canada’s Energy Future 2021

Description: This figure shows electricity generation by source in the Canada’s Energy Future 2021 Evolving Policies Scenario. Electricity generation grows about 40% by 2050 from 2019 levels, with much of this new generation coming from wind and solar.

Nuclear energy generates a consistent amount of electricity to 2050 in the Evolving Policies Scenario, however, it contributes to a smaller portion of total generation in 2050. This is due to: 1) costs of other low- or zero-emission technologies outcompeting it and 2) current schedules and plans from utilities, companies, and system operators are the primary basis for the timing and magnitude of nuclear energy generation added over the projection period.Footnote7 Thus, the Evolving Policies Scenario shows steady, but not expanding nuclear generation.

Beyond the Evolving Policies Scenario, as Canada pushes towards a net-zero future, electricity demand is expected to rise substantially. There is potential for increased nuclear generation to meet this new demand. An emerging opportunity for nuclear energy comes in a smaller package. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are simpler, portable, and have the potential to be more cost effective than traditional reactors. SMRs have been gaining attention in Canada as they can provide zero-emission heat and power to difficult to decarbonize industries, such as mining and oil and gas operations, as well as rural and remote communities with no grid access.

SMRs are an innovative technology and are still in the research and development phase. Feasibility, costs, opportunities, and challenges are still being explored. In the past few years, Canada has introduced three initiatives to support their development:

  1. Canada’s SMR Roadmap: a roadmap to establish a long-term vision for nuclear energy in Canada.
  2. Building on a SMR Feasibility Study, a strategic plan for the deployment of small reactors and a signed Memorandum of Understanding amongst four provinces: Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick. The provinces have committed to work cooperatively to advance the development and deployment of SMRs in Canada.
  3. Canada’s SMR Action Plan: a plan for the development, demonstration, and deployment of SMRs for multiple applications at home and abroad.

Both large-scale nuclear generation and SMRs have the potential to be important contributors to a net-zero future. The role nuclear will play in Canada’s energy transition will depend on public and policy support, continuing regulation of nuclear safety and waste, nuclear technology evolution, and cost competitiveness against other low- or zero-emission electricity generation technologies.

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