The Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) is a ministerial advisory committee established in October 2008 for the purpose of analyzing the economic feasibility of all forms of uranium development in Saskatchewan. On Friday April 3rd, the final report was released to the public containing recommendations which can be summarized as follows:
- Accommodate the mining sector that the province expand incentives, develop key infrastructure, and review the royalty system to attract mining operations.
- Develop nuclear energy as a base load power source and that training programs for the required personnel be developed in Saskatchewan.
- Convene a group of experts to evaluate possible nuclear research and development topics.
- Draw in a next-generation uranium enrichment company to settle here, or obtain the the license for enrichment technology from the international community.
- Lay out a generator time line and begin developing strong common grid ties with Alberta.
- Cooperate with the Federal government to have a waste repository built in Saskatchewan.
- Develop clear parameters for consultation with First Nations communities.
- Processing mining license applications faster
- Develop of a research reactor in Saskatchewan
- Implement the Competition Policy Review Panel (CPRP) recommendations.
- Do not pursue uranium conversion, fuel fabrication, or reprocessing as options for increasing the activity of the uranium industry in Saskatchewan based on short term economic forecast arguments.
The report is very informative on a number of issues but it is important to keep in mind the mandate of the UDP itself. The UDP is a group of industry and community leaders brought together in order to discuss the most profitable avenues of nuclear development in Saskatchewan. The report “recommends an integrated strategy to expand Saskatchewan’s world-leading position in uranium exploration, mining, and milling into thriving broad-based uranium and nuclear power industries”. In short, the report is intended to recommend specific uranium industry development for the purposes of staying the world leader in the industry, and maximizing revenues associated with these industries. The focus of the analysis is on economic feasibility and on barriers to development.
A major consequence of this limited focus is that issues falling outside the idea of ‘nuclear economic feasibility’ are not given a thorough treatment. These issues include the social, technical, and environmental issues and long-term impacts of the nuclear development. The considerations of alternative areas of development, especially in the area of power generation, are similarly incomplete. The UDP’s compilers acknowledge the incompleteness of their study in these respects and admit that more comprehensive study should be done in order to assess the social, technical, economic and environmental issues of a specific nuclear reactor. Although not one of their key recommendations, a targeted study should be conducted regarding their specific recommendations, especially the power plant. Such a study should be commissioned by the government and undertaken for the good and education of the public. The public consultation process would be better served if it is proceeded by such a study in order to give the public better data upon which to make its decisions regarding Saskatchewan’s nuclear future.
The people of Saskatchewan are split on the issue of nuclear power generation some of which is due to a large amount of misinformation. The technical appendices of the UDP report include a clear and well-researched treatment of some of the major social issues regarding nuclear power such as nuclear proliferation. The report selectively deals with anti-nuclear social issues while glossing over other major disagreements such as tar sands development, foreign ownership of large uranium developers in Saskatchewan, and the level of government involvement in the nuclear industry. A major impetus of the UDP proposal is the increased projected energy demand of Saskatchewan and Alberta due to the tar sands project. If Saskatchewan supported the construction of a nuclear power station on the North Saskatchewan River; the generated power would be used for tar sands development. This would be a direct movement of support for tar sands development in both provinces. We base this assertion on the fact that there is little to no advantage to building a nuclear reactor in the relatively undeveloped north rather than situating it closer to a major population center to reduce the cost of power delivery and increase its efficiency. A reactor built in the north would thus entail the government of Saskatchewan underwriting the tar sands industry in Alberta and encouraging such development in Saskatchewan.
The report encourages following the recommendations of the CPRP recommendations on competition policy. These recommendations include, but are not limited to, removing the ban on mergers in the financial sector as well as opening up the restrictions on foreign ownership of Canadian industries and resources. The report’s blanket endorsement of the CPRP recommendations is noteworthy for several reasons. The CPRP is a set of national policy changes far beyond the scope of the UDP as well as far beyond the member’s areas of expertise. The CPRP report is also out of date, since it was delivered June 26, 2008 putting it just before the global financial upheaval. The UDP’s recommendation is understandable however, seeing as AREVA is a major player in Saskatchewan uranium mining, and the largest nuclear power company in the world. The CEO and President of AREVA Canada, Armand Laferrere, is one of the twelve members of the UDP.
Of major concern is a lack of energy security in the UDP development recommendations because we as Canadians would not control all the steps of the uranium process. For example, the uranium enrichment required for the reactor types being considered cannot currently be done in Canada because we do not have an enrichment facility. Additionally there is a lack of intellectual security because we also do not own the knowledge of how to enrich uranium. Canada may incur a large expense in the purchase of licensing for enrichment knowledge and technologies owned by foreign companies or countries. International Non-proliferation treaties leverage further restrictions upon the need for strict licensing and knowledge control which in turn increases the costs associated with acquiring and using these technologies.
In order for Saskatchewan to stay competitive in the uranium mining industry, quick action is required to train or acquire personnel for underground mining operation. Further expansion is recommended in the geological, engineering and environmental Sciences. The benefits for Saskatchewan workers and students need to be clarified, given that a shortage already exists in some of these areas. Further agreement between industry leaders and educational institutions will be necessary to satisfy future demand for the nuclear physicists and engineers required to manage a nuclear power facility. The universities of Regina and Saskatchewan should see an increase in demand for education in these areas. If the mining development programs are marketed properly to industry partners such as Bruce Power and Areva, a large percentage of this spending goes back into the Saskatchewan and Canadian economies.
Partnerships between educational institutions and industry will be advisable to provide entry points for local specialists. A research reactor would be an invaluable addition to the training program and technical ability of our local specialists. The slowpoke reactor at University of Saskatchewan can serve some of these purposes, though 3+ Gen small reactor for training purposes and to potentially produce medical isotopes would be of large benefit to the Health sectors of Saskatchewan and the national and international communities.
These working relationships between educational institutions and industry would need to be extended to northern communities. These communities will be of key importance because they will undoubtedly be strongly affected by such infrastructure development. The inclusion of First Nations and Metis communities serves to strengthen political and social relationships between northern educational institutions and industry. Strong and meaningful communication ties between industry and community such as these have the potential to be of great benefit to all involved.
A number of technical issues were raised in the report that were addressed in insufficient detail, or were considered over time frames that were short sighted. In order to construct a nuclear power plant, substantial heavy industry is required. Where would the heavy industry required to construct such a plant come from? While not directly the responsibility of the government, a lack of foresight and planning in this area could account for substantial delays in nuclear power plant construction. Furthermore, a lack of industrial preparation and planning would lead these potential jobs to be filled by industries in other provinces.
Access to water for cooling is mentioned in passing, yet is one of the key concerns in selecting a location for a nuclear power plant. In Saskatchewan only the reservoirs of existing power plants could service the demand for a large and stable supply of cooling water unless special action were taken, such as the creation of a new dam or construction of cooling towers. If a cooling solution is insufficient, it is possible that the ecosystem of the body of water could be severely damaged, or the reactor’s safety could be compromised. The report does mention that additional cooling towers would entail additional cost, but these costs are not spelled out or their benefits explained.
The other major technical concern in building a nuclear power plant is that the electrical grid would need significant alterations in order to accommodate one or many nuclear power plants. This is the case unless a new nuclear plant was placed in the Estevan area to replace the currently existing coal plants there. Unfortunately this is not being considered because the Saskatchewan government has a very strong commitment to the clean coal development in that area. Bruce Power did not mention that as a feasible site because of this commitment. A major upgrade to the grid would be required if the nuclear power plant is built at any of the other proposed locations. This is because there is no prior large-scale generation in place as there is in the Estevan area. Also, since a very large part of the projected new demand is due to the tar sands industry in northern Alberta, a closer integration with the Alberta grid will also be necessary. The costs of such radical alterations to the power grid are barely mentioned in the UDP report, other than to mention that they are approximated at around $1 billion and it is implied that the government would shoulder this additional cost.
Recent legislation in Ontario has prompted motion toward adding ‘smart’ properties to its electrical grid. Enhanced grid features include real time electrical usage monitoring for household and hourly varying prices. Implementation of such a system at the residential level is inexpensive and quick. Ontario plans to have all residential users on the smart grid by 2010 and will begin in April of this year. While not explicitly required in the alterations of the grid for nuclear power plants and exportation of power, the implementation of the smart grid modelled by Ontario would increase the competitiveness of the electrical utilities and represent a strong and sound mechanism for promoting electrical conservation, particularly during peak usage hours. This recommendation stands on its own without connection to nuclear power development, since it can be equally valuable through application to renewable energy infrastructure like wind, hydro, and solar.
The report mentions a few of the possible uses of the heat output of a nuclear reactor such as desalinization, district heating, and tar sands development. About two thirds of the energy output of a nuclear reactor is in the form of heat. This means that there is significant economic potential in utilizing this heat before it is diverted back into the body of water or boiled off as steam. A more efficient usage of the nuclear energy is to be had by utilizing the heat as well as electrical energy output of the reactor. The use of high temperature nuclear waste heat for heat-intensive industrial applications such as fertilizer production or petroleum upgrading would be accompanied with minimal extra cost to the nuclear generator and would be primarily dependent on co-operation between the two ventures. These possible uses of waste heat, especially from spent nuclear fuel, are not elaborated on in the UDP report.
The report makes substantial comments on environmental assessments, but only in negative light. The report asserts that full environmental assessments do not serve the interests of the public. No evidence supporting this is provided, instead the cost of delaying a mine due to environmental assessment is provided as the key reason not to delay industry with assessments. No proactive solution to what they consider undue delays is provided, instead the document contains a plea to limit the length of such environmental assessments. A proactive solution would perhaps involve the industry making accommodations to help the assessments progress at a faster rate. Some possibilities could include sharing of information, or direct fees leveled at the industry to pay for assessments conducted at a faster pace. Strong long-term planning by the industry would make this issue minimal if not moot.
The environmental assessments are in place to protect the long-term interests of the public from unwarranted damage or exploitation by industry. When that industry asks the government to artificially reduce the amount of time it can take to conduct an assessment, it seems to be asking the government to risk doing a poor job for the benefit of industry. Heavy industry in the world is generally not known to look out for the long-term environmental problems that can come about because of it’s actions. It is the responsibility of the government to plan long-term where industry does not. Planning long term requires careful consideration of future impacts, which takes time.
An issue both technical and environmental is the heat dissipation requirements of the nuclear generators under consideration, presuming that Saskatchewan will be considering the same reactor types that Ontario was recently. These reactors ranged from 1.1GW to 1.6GW in size. Nuclear reactors are generally placed next to very large bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes. This provides the reactors with a secure and consistent supply of new water to cool the reactor. A river like the North or South Saskatchewan does not provide as large a supply of water as this, nor is the flow of these rivers as consistent as would be preferred for cooling a nuclear reactor. During a summer drought or heat wave for instance, the nuclear reactor may have to shut down for fear of overheating of the local ecosystem. The UDP report mentions the Bruce Power feasibility study find that they believed that about 10% of the flow of either the north or south Saskatchewan rivers would be enough to cool a 1.2GW power plant. The ramifications for the ecosystem of the river downstream were not elaborated on. Such a project would necessitate the construction of a new water reservoir to provide such a large and consistent flow even during drought, which would increase the long lead time of a new reactor and would certainly have serious environmental ramifacations.
Uranium development is not the only method with which to strengthen our province. Alternative energy sources should be given as strong an emphasis by our government as uranium is in this report. Alternatives are downplayed in this report, but that is to be expected in a report on the economic analysis of nuclear energy. Just as nuclear energy could be used to strengthen our economic position and electricity generation as we grow and move toward retiring older generators, so too could other forms of energy generation. The government should give serious consideration to alternative forms of electrical generation. These energy sources have their own pros and cons, but definitely have the potential to contribute substantially and sustainably to the Saskatchewan economy. It is our recommendation that similarly supported partnerships are created to explore the opportunities for Saskatchewan to develop it’s renewable energy infrastructure and present that information to utilities and citizens alike.
The UDP report maintains that nuclear power is the only low carbon source of base load energy option available to our province. It predicts that wind power, for example, despite growing from less than 1% to 5% of the energy mix in the past 5 years, in the next 30 years will still comprise only 5% of Saskatchewan’s total energy mix. The report dismisses wind power as a potential contributor to substantial amounts of base load electricity while natural gas is mentioned prominently as a base-load power source. Both natural gas and wind require multiple production units to meet base load demand, but this was counted as a critical flaw only for wind.
Wind power is capable of meeting base load needs. One technique to do so is strategic over-capacity, where we build extra capacity of wind, in different locations, so that the base-load demand can be met. Because of Saskatchewan’s large geographical area this is a potentially viable method deserving of research. Another technique is using energy storage, such as compressed air energy storage (CAES), or our more familiar form of hydrostatic (hydro dam) energy storage. Even during times when a properly planned distributed wind project isn’t meeting energy needs, sufficient energy can be available from the energy storage. Contrast this with nuclear generators, which traditionally need to refuel regularly, and at least partially shut down for about a month to do so. This must be taken into account when considering nuclear generators as a base load form of power. Backup generation must be available to cover the generation of the nuclear power plant that will be missing during refueling or possible accidents. In Saskatchewan this would most likely be in the form of a large number of expensive natural gas generators. These issues were not discussed in the UDP report.
Inclusion of wind power in the Saskatchewan energy grid would have wide reaching and large implications, largely positive. Unlike nuclear energy, wind generators can be locally constructed and designed, and play to the strengths of Saskatchewan. CAES requires large underground caverns fairly distributed, which Saskatchewan has to some extent. Wind power also requires windy regions, of which Saskatchewan has many. When wind is not blowing in one section of the province, it is likely to be blowing harder in another, balancing out the grid. Compared to other regions, the population of Saskatchewan is widely distributed, which serves as an advantage for wind and a disadvantage for coal and nuclear power.
The UDP report acknowledges the incompleteness of their study. They say that a larger study should be done in order to asses the social, technical, economic, environmental issues of a specific nuclear reactor. This is not mentioned as one of their key recommendations however. They should be recommending a targeted study regarding their specific recommendations, especially the power plant.
We wish to consider the idea of what the people of Saskatchewan would like more: 1) staying #1 in uranium mining, 2) building a nuclear power plant or 3) becoming a forward thinking leader in other economic areas of swiftly increasing importance. The recommendations being put forth by the UDP involve Saskatchewan focusing all of its economic, political and research potential into one of many possible fields of development.
In conclusion, the UDP report has several major shortcomings. The report downplays or ignores major social, technical, and environmental issues that are directly related to it’s key recommendations. The CPRP guidelines, which are given a full hearted recommendation by the UDP report, are far beyond the scope of the expertise of the UDP authors and have wide-ranging and complex consequences for industry in Canada. A major impetus for a nuclear reactor is the projected electrical demand of the tar sands. The report avoids mentioning that implementing these recomendations would entail our tax dollars underwriting tar sands development, which is an issue of great controversy. The technical issue of improvements to the electrical grid are not discussed in detail, but are estimated at $1 billion, a number that would at least primarily be footed by Saskatchewan residents. Environmental assessments conducted by the government are criticized for taking too much time, but no alternatives are proposed other than legislating a limit on the time frame of an assessment. Additionally, the context of the report is important because it’s mandate is to recommend the most profitable and feasible avenues of uranium development. This report is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of Saskatchewan’s energy options, nor should it be treated as such. Similar partnerships, especially regarding renewable energy development, should be founded by the government with the aim of considering a wide range of our possibilities for development.
The UDP report may be found online at the Leader Post.
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