Nuclear Energy in Canada: Past and Present

Charlie Walker
February 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: The Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Bruce County, Ontario (Source: Wikimedia Commons )

The Canadian nuclear industry is dominated by federal and provincial Crown corporations. The primary federal Crown corporation is Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), which was created in 1952. [1] AECL is "the designer, engineer, distributor, patent holder, and marketer of the CANDU nuclear reactors and provides a range of nuclear services from R&D support, construction management, design and engineering to specialized technology, waste management, and decommissioning in support of CANDU reactor products." [2] (CANDU, standing for CANada Deuterium Uranium, is a Canadian-developed, pressurized heavy water reactor. Fig. 1 shows the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, which comprises of 8 CANDU reactors.) While the federal government has important responsibilities relating to the regulation of nuclear energy, the actual investment decisions fall to the provinces; provincial utilities are thus important actors in the Canadian nuclear sector, and drive the current and historical trends in Canadian nuclear power: in the words of one author, "if the provinces move away from nuclear power ... they will kill the nuclear industry in Canada." [2]

The other side to Canada's nuclear industry is the production of medical isotopes, a global industry in which Canada has a virtual monopoly. Canada's National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, a 135 MWt reactor in Ontario, can, in a normal week of operation, supply almost half of the global demand for Mo-99. According to a 2014 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) report, Canada's significance in the global market for medical isotopes "was underscored during the reactor's extended outage between May 2009 and August 2010, which ... resulted in a severe disruption in the global supply of Mo-sup." [3]

Recent Developments

Fig. 1: Canada nuclear generation as a percent of total. [4] (Source: C. Walker)

Canada's commitment to its nuclear project, although initially a source of great excitement and prestige on the global stage, began to dwindle in the latter part of the 20th century. Incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, as well as a disastrous deal with India in which Canadian uranium exports were used by New Delhi to develop a nuclear bomb, had substantially dampened public and political support for nuclear technologies by the late 1970s. [5]

Government support for nuclear energy returned beginning in 2006, when Stephen Harper's conservative party won a slim minority in the 2006 federal election. Although Harper's government initially seemed an unlikely advocate for nuclear energy - Harper, an MP from Alberta, was a global warming skeptic and a staunch supporter of Albertan oil sands - nuclear investment announced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (whom Harper greatly admired) and President George W. Bush signalled a renewed global push for nuclear which the Tories were eager to join. On the provincial level, Ontario's Liberal government tabled an electricity plan calling for two new reactors and the refurbishing of old ones. In New Brunswick, the Liberal party won the 2006 provincial election on a platform that included adding a reactor to Point Lepreau, Atlantic Canada's only nuclear power plant. Even Alberta, home of Canada's oil sands, began contemplating investment in nuclear power as a zero-emission way to produce the massive amounts of steam required to separate oil from sand. [6]

Unsurprisingly, despite support on the provincial and federal levels, plans to expand nuclear capacity faced considerable opposition. Environmentalist groups, perennially opposed to all things nuclear, were far from sold on Canada's nuclear plans. Despite this opposition, however, Canada has still expanded its nuclear capacity, increasing its production from 12% of Canada's total electricity production in 2000, to 17% in 2015 (Fig. 2). It is yet to be seen what stance Justin Trudeau's Liberal government will take on nuclear energy, if any. While in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), Trudeau pledged to increase federal funding of research and innovation in low-carbon, clean technologies, and is pushing for a carbon tax, but details on specific investments and distribution of funding have been few and far between.

© Charlie Walker. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. A. J. Hurst, Canada Enters the Nuclear Age: A Technical History of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited as Seen from Its Research Laboratories, (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997).

[2] D. Bratt, Canada, the Provinces, and the Global Nuclear Revival: Advocacy Coalitions in Action (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012).

[3] "The Supply of Medical Radioisotopes," Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA/SEN/HLGMR(2014)4, July 2014.

[4] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016," British Petroleum, June 2016.

[5] V. Koithara, Managing India's Nuclear Forces (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

[6] J. Geddes, "Harper Embraces the Nuclear Futures," Maclean's Magazine, 7 May 07.