News in Depth: Nuclear, the Next Generation

In our continuing effort to explore what’s next for nuclear, we turn this week to the recent announcement that China will begin construction on a 600 MWe fourth generation fast neutron reactor. While details of the project are few, there is speculation that this project may be the first successful partnership between China and TerraPower, the Washington state based energy firm founded and chaired by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In this week’s News in Depth, we will take a look at the technology behind fourth generation fast neutron reactors, the story of TerraPower, and China’s efforts to be at the forefront of nuclear energy development and deployment.

Next Generation Technology

As the World Nuclear Association (WNA) notes, fourth generation fast neutron reactors (FNRs) have been in development for decades. As of 2010, over 400 reactor-years of operation have been logged with approximately 20 reactors in different periods. The WNA also provides a useful summary of the initial motivation behind FNR tech:

The FNR was originally conceived to burn uranium more efficiently and thus extend the world’s uranium resources – it could do this by a factor of about 60. From the outset, nuclear scientists understood that today’s reactors fuelled essentially with U-235 exploited less than one percent of the energy potentially available from uranium. Early perceptions that those uranium resources were scarce caused several countries to embark upon extensive FBR [Fast Breeder Reactor] development programs.

The technology is incredibly complex, but for reference note that

Natural uranium contains about 0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238. In any reactor some of the U-238 component is turned into several isotopes of plutonium during its operation. Two of these, Pu-239 and Pu-241, then undergo fission in the same way as U-235 to produce heat. In a FNR this process is optimized so that it ‘breeds’ fuel. Some U-238 is burned directly with neutron energies above 1 MeV.

TerraPower‘s Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) leverages the knowledge gained from decades of FNR research to produce what they describe as “Generation IV, liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor.”


Image Source: TerraPower

China’s New Project

According to the WNA, China first began research FNR reactors in 1964 and, in 2003, built “a 65 MWt fast neutron reactor – the Chinese Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) – … near Beijing [in partnership with] Russia’s OKBM Afrikantov [and] OKB Gidropress, NIKIET and Kurchatov Institute.”

This new project is part of China’s efforts to have, according to CIAE projections, fast reactor capacity progressively increasing from 2020 to at least 200 GWe by 2050, and 1400 GWe by 2100. As noted in the opening, TerraPower’s involvement in the project is still unconfirmed, but industry and media sources seem to be coalescing around such a partnership as Gates himself recently travelled in February of this year to China to meet with “with Nur Bekri, a vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and with China National Nuclear Corp chairman Sun Qin.”

In any event, what we are seeing here are the early stages of what looks like a new phase in nuclear technology. 4th Generation reactors – in this case, sodium FNRs – have been in development for over a decade and now we are seeing an example of one of the these new designs taking shape. Development is slow, yes, but it is happening and happening at in increasing pace in China. We can only now wait to see what comes next and, hopefully, to see confirmation that this project marks the first partnership between China and Gate’s TerraPower.


News in Depth: Global Nuclear Growth in Context

This week, in an article for The Energy Collective, Jesse Jenkins, a writer and current PhD student in Engineering Systems at MIT, aimed at putting the growth of renewable energy in perspective. The article provides more than just an overview of renewable energy however, it also provides some interesting context for discussion of the future of nuclear power.

A year in review: thinking about energy capacity worldwide

Before thinking about what comes next in our energy future, it’s important to have some context. In his article, Jenkins provides a succinct summary of the progress made in the last full calendar year:

The world added 103 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity in 2014… That figure excludes large hydropower projects… and is dominated by wind and solar, which saw growth of 49 GW and 46 GM respectively. More importantly, the share of renewable electricity… in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.

As is noted, that figure is close to the 10.5 percent of global electricity supplied by nuclear power.


(Image Source: The Energy Collective)

A link to the International Energy Agency’s (IAE) World Energy Outlook 2014 Factsheet is also provided. The factsheet highlights some additional key points:

  • 434 operating commercial reactors worldwide at the end of 2013 (capacity: 392 GW)
  • Nuclear power has avoided the release of an estimated 56 Gt of CO2 emissions since 1971
  • Almost 200 of the 434 reactors operating at the of 2013 are to be retired before 2040

Finally, Jenkins articulates two visions for future growth in renewables. In the first scenario, growth is linear at about 100GW per year. In the second, growth compounds at a 10 percent per year rate. As he notes, neither scenario is perfect, but they “bracket the realm of most likely outcomes.”

What’s next for nuclear power and renewables?

The IAE’s factsheet provides an apt summary of the challenge ahead for the nuclear energy sector, “the industry will need to manage an unprecedented rate of decommissioning, while also building substantial new capacity for those reactors that are replaced.” It is clear that the next few decades will be filled with difficult problems: how do we handle the decommissioning of so many reactors, how do we balance short and long term cost economic and political concerns, and how do we safely and steadily grow nuclear capacity, especially in the so-called BRIC countries?

From a review of conference topics and recent news articles, it’s clear that the industry is well aware of these challenges and is making positive strides. As we’ve highlighted here at Future of Nuclear, companies are continuing to develop new, smaller reactors that can be deployed in both industrialized and developing markets. In addition, governments continue to explore how to safely deal with radioactive waste. In all, the challenges are great but not insurmountable.

This, finally, brings us back to the topic of renewables. As highlighted earlier, there is no single panacea for our energy needs or a clear idea of what the future will bring. Powering a diverse world takes a diverse set of solutions. As Mr. Jenkins points out in his article, the best way to ensure that low-carbon sources continue to grow is to not put all of our eggs in one basket. What is needed is a toolkit of locally relevant and sustainable technologies that can respond to the growing need for reliable, safe, and clean energy worldwide. That is the industries’ north star. The trick, as it were, is to keeps steering towards it.

Economic Club of Canada hosts Hugh MacDiarmid to discuss innovation in nuclear

On 24 September 2014, the Economic Club of Canada is hosting a talk titled “Nuclear: the Innovation Imperative” with Hugh MacDiarmid, Chairman of the Board at Terrestrial Energy.  Terrestrial Energy is a Canadian developer of integrated molten salt reactor (IMSR) technology.  The following exerpt from the event abstract lays out the context of this important discussion:

“It has never been more important to our future prosperity to acquire substantial new sources of energy; this will require a new generation of innovation. Energy demand is increasing at unprecedented rates, particularly in the developing economies. Each one of today’s available energy sources has a downside — cost, risk, environmental harm — and, without a breakthrough, the world’s economic future is threatened.”

If you are interested in learning more about this event and attending, follow the link below:

The 2013 Future of Nuclear conference featured Terrestrial Energy’s David LeBlanc in a discussion of nuclear innovation.  Future of Nuclear 2014 will discuss exclusively innovations in every part of the nuclear industry.  Click here to read more about the 2014 conference, to be held November 4, 2014.

US Deparement of Energy agrees to fund NuScale SMR to commercialization

The US Department of Energy (DOE) announced this week that it will invest $217 million over five years in the development and commercialization of the NuScale Small Modular Reactor (SMR).  The DOE expects their investment to be matched by private sector investment in the project.  NuScale intends to use the funds to test their reactor and to complete the process of certification through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with hopes of having the first NuScale reactor online by 2023.

NuScale’s 45MW pressurized water reactor is a unique design making use of an unconventional fuel assembly which is passively cooled and more inherently safe than existing reactors.  In the event of an overheating, the reactor is designed to cool without any human input, without any additional water, and without electricity.  The NuScale SMR will be mass produced in a factory and shipped by truck, rail, or barge in sets of up to twelve for power stations between 45MW and 540MW.

Here, the Chief Commercial Officer of NuScale Power explains some of the benefits of a small modular reactor generally and the NuScale reactor specifically.

If NuScale is able to keep to its schedule for commercialization, it could play a major role in achieving US President Barack Obama’s recently stated goal of reducing the emissions of all US power plants 30% by 2013.


General Fusion Lunch & Learn May 30, 2014

On May 30, 2014, OCI is hosting an event with Michael Delage and Alex Fallon of General Fusion.  General Fusion is a Canadian developer of nuclear fusion technology and was featured in last years Future of Nuclear conference.  This session will outline the supply chain opportunities with Canada’s leading nuclear fusion company.

Non-members can receive a 10% discount by using the discount code OCIGUEST when registering online.

To learn about the event, click here.


More on General Fusion…

“Established in 2002, General Fusion has grown to 65 employees and raised over $50M. The company is supported by leading energy venture capital funds and industry leaders, including: Sustainable Development Technology Canada, NRC-IRAP, Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, Bezos Expeditions, Business Development Bank of Canada and Cenovus Energy. General Fusion is gathering global attention due to its progress with developing magnetized target fusion technology.

Fusion energy holds immense promise as a clean, safe and abundant energy source.  Fusion generates neither pollution nor greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Fusion energy is fueled by hydrogen isotopes, which are easily extracted from seawater. There is enough fusion fuel to power the planet for hundreds of millions of years.

As Canada explores its nuclear innovation strategy, fusion is gathering more attention. Recently, Jacques Besnainou, Former President & CEO of Areva Inc., joined the General Fusion Board of Directors. Fusion presents potentially huge opportunity for Canadian nuclear suppliers.  General Fusion is a private enterprise tightly focused on developing a commercial fusion reactor (100MW) and is on track to construct a fusion reactor alpha plant within four years.”

For more information:


Swafford setting course for Candu in China

On February 25, 2014 SNC-Lavalin Inc. (TSX: SNC) announced the appointment of Preston Swafford to the role of Chief Nuclear Officer, President and CEO, Candu Energy. Based in Toronto and reporting to the Company’s Power Group President, Alexander (Sandy) Taylor, Mr. Swafford will be responsible for growing SNC-Lavalin’s nuclear business to meet the needs of its customers for technical services, major refurbishments and new builds across Canada and in key international markets. Mr. Swafford has impressive experience including senior positions at Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Exelon, both companies are major American nuclear operators. On hearing the news industry observers wondered what course would be set by Swafford, and how applicable would his experience be with the iconic, definitively Canadian Candu heavy water reactors. Reports from a major trade show in China earlier this month, China International Nuclear Industry Exhibition, are providing an indication that Swafford is already starting to make his mark.

Candu Energy Inc. has had a rough period in recent years. Demand for new nuclear softened post Fukushima and in the wake of the financial crisis. Nations with stronger economies, such as China and India, have a burgeoning middle class that is hungry for cheap, reliable energy, and also, a need to rein in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for air quality, health and climate change reasons. International manufacturers have made inroads in these emerging markets with innovative new technologies, such as the four Westinghouse light water AP1000 reactors that China started building in 2008. With diminished demand, government support and privatization domestically, Candu needs to reinvent and reposition itself for the new 21st century nuclear market.

Swafford has quickly displayed that he understands the unique attributes of the Candu reactors. Some of the reactor features that made Candu a global leader when first developed decades ago are still highly relevant today. Candu reactors have demonstrated that they can use spent fuel to produce energy. Further, they can be most readily modified to use thorium as a fuel and they have superior safety features. Engineers estimate that for every four new reactors that China builds of various designs, they could and should build one Candu reactor to use the spent fuel. If China follows through on plans to build 100 new reactors in coming decades, this could potentially mean 25 new reactor sales for Candu.

Sales cycles in the nuclear industry are long. It is still early in the game for Swafford and the new Candu. One thing is certain, new innovations, partnerships and financial players are emerging. As with other technology industries, your competitor today may be your partner tomorrow. Who would have thought years ago that western companies would be selling nuclear technologies to China? Who would have thought that China, France and Russia would be involved in building and financing a new reactor in Britain? These are the times we are now in. Candu is setting a course to be a player in this new world.

Henry Vehovec
Chair, Future of Nuclear Advisory Board
President, Mindfirst Inc.


Nuclear Innovation announced as theme for Future of Nuclear 2014 Conference

In recent weeks, sources as diverse as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Dalai Lama have all commented on the relentless growth of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the earth’s atmosphere and the need to mitigate resultant climate change effects.  In all instances the sources have talked about the need for nuclear energy to play an increased role in the global energy mix.  Along with renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, together with innovations in smart grid and energy storage, leading thinkers believe there still may be a chance to rein in overall global warming before certain irreversible tipping points are reached.

In our post-Fukushima world many leading policy makers, politicians, and stakeholders are revisiting and reassessing the role that nuclear power can play in the global energy mix. What innovations have taken place since the Fukushima generation reactors were designed and deployed?  What innovations have there been in safety, regulation, and decommissioning?  Have there been advances in quantifying the risks and liabilities of nuclear projects?  What are the innovations and considerations in public policy, education and awareness that have prompted several jurisdictions to ramp up their nuclear programs?

On November 4, 2014, Mindfirst will host the second Future of Nuclear Conference that will address many of these questions. We are currently in the process of developing the agenda, content and speaker list.  Interested participants and potential speakers may contact  Click here to view the agenda from last year’s Future of Nuclear conference.

Early bird registration is available at:




Westinghouse and OPG agreement a watershed moment for Canadian nuclear industry

With little fanfare, an unassuming tweet came across my screen yesterday afternoon while attending the global carbon leakage seminar at Bennett Jones. Apparently, Westinghouse and OPG had signed an agreement to collaborate and work on selling their nuclear expertise, products, and services in global markets. Under the agreement, the companies will consider a diversity of nuclear projects including refurbishment, maintenance and outage services, decommissioning and remediation of existing nuclear facilities, and new nuclear power plants.

This agreement could represent a watershed moment for Ontario’s economy, certainly for the nuclear industry. Like a sportscaster that tries to call the definitive momentum shifting play in a game, we won’t know for a while yet. But this agreement could be a gamechanger. Let me tell you why. Ontario has been built on the back of cheap energy, first from Niagara Falls and then nuclear. It is cheap energy that allows us to mine economically and manufacture cars with the best the world has to offer. Similarly, in Quebec, the vast hydro projects underpin their economy. In Alberta, oil and gas are key drivers. Any robust economy in the world has an abundant, secure source of energy.

Ontario’s CANDU technology has been a global leader and a gamechanger for many countries in the world. However, as in all technology driven industries, there is great innovation happening, it happens relentlessly,  and CANDU is not the only nuclear technology that growing nations are considering. The thriving economies of the world, China, India and others, are craving cheap, abundant, clean, safe energy. While Ontario does not have the demand to build new reactors now, other countries do. The challenge for our nuclear industry has been to somehow get our tens of thousands of nuclear related jobs serving the global market, not just maintaining our stable domestic market. This means being able to support the multiple and diverse nuclear technologies that are evolving in the global marketplace today.

The significance of the Westinghouse deal is that it ties OPG to a global leader in a non-CANDU technology. OPG is a globally recognized leader in operating nuclear power generating stations. It has an unblemished safety record that is the envy of the world. What a glorious opportunity this represents to market that operating expertise and enter other markets being served by emerging nuclear technologies. There is certainly a place for CANDU in the future. However, Westinghouse has their APS-1000 line of reactors that are making inroads in several countries. Kudos to OPG for seizing this opportunity and diversifying how they deploy their expertise.

Kudos also to Westinghouse. Westinghouse recognizes that in the 21st century the world will need more nuclear energy if it is to stem the effects of GHG driven climate change. In a post Chernobyl world there has been a relative shortage of young engineers and trades trained in the nuclear sciences. Ontario has almost 300 companies in the nuclear supply chain. There are more than 25,000 jobs related to the nuclear industry. There are nine universities that have courses in some sort of nuclear science. We have Chalk River and AECL, world leading nuclear research in medical isotopes and other applications beyond energy. And we have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) which is increasingly being viewed as an innovator and leading exemplar in nuclear regulation by emerging economies and jurisdictions that need to model their own regulatory regimes.

Ontario’s Green Energy Act has spurred wind and solar energy. Cumulatively, renewables represent a single digit percentage of our energy mix. There are thousands of jobs related to renewables, depending on how you count them. This is wonderful news as renewable energy represents an important part of the energy mix. The Westinghouse OPG agreement reminds us that Ontario’s existing nuclear industry, expertise and workforce are an order of magnitude larger than the current renewable industry.

The full press release may be viewed at .

Henry Vehovec
Chair, Future of Nuclear Advisory Board
President, Mindfirst Inc.

The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”