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The Most Polite Strikers Ever and Nuclear Energy in Canada

candu fuel assembly
The CANDU's fuel assembly
Way up north, a group of nuclear engineers are striking against contractors of Canada’s Candu Energy. They haven’t had a new contract since January 2011 and, presumably, want to negotiate a new one.
Striking nuclear engineers from SNC-Lavalin Group Inc's Candu Energy subsidiary escalated their dispute with the company on Wednesday, setting up picket lines at Ontario reactors for the first time and delaying shift changes at the plants.
Uh-oh. Does this close the plants?
The reactors' operators, Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation, both said the pickets do not threaten safe operations at their facilities.
"They delayed staff coming in but there was no impact on operations," said Ontario Power Generation (OPG) spokesman Ted Gruetzner.
Canadians being as they are, the whole thing seems very polite.
"We decided to do this to try to get our customers to send a message to our employer that it's time to do something about this," said Michael Ivanco, a senior scientist and vice president of the union.
Following the morning picket, Bruce Power announced that it has struck a deal with the strikers that will ensure no further picketing at the Bruce plant.
None of the stories I’ve seen have said anything about how contract negotiations are going or even if such negotiations are happening. So we can’t assume anything – well, except that strikes and pickets can happen at Canadian nuclear energy facilities without shutting down the plants.
Everyone is operating within the spirit and letter of the law – I looked for, and couldn’t find, editorials from local newspapers weighing in, and news stories about this haven’t escapes the business pages - so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.
It’s an old joke that Canadians are the tidy cousins to the anarchists to their south, but consider: nuclear energy in Canada contributes to a fairly responsible mix of energy types:
Canada generated 603 billion kWh in 2009, of which about 15% was from nuclear generation, compared with 60% from hydro, 15% from coal and 6% from gas. Annual electricity use is about 14,000 kWh per person, one of the highest levels in the world.
Well, I guess energy efficiency could be better, but I wonder how much of that kilowatt usage has to do with avoiding deep freezes. Still, if Canada scales back on coal in favor of nuclear energy (it is building an 18th reactor currently) or natural gas or renewable energy beyond hydro, it will be near perfect on the environmental front. Still, energy security is enhanced by using coal, as Canada mines nearly all of it domestically.
Canada uses a home-grown technology for its nuclear reactors, called CANDU. These reactors use unenriched uranium – which saves money by bypassing enrichment – which is possible because the nuclear reaction is moderated by heavy water (deuterium oxide) – an additional expense. CANDU stands for Canada deuterium uranium. (Look here for a much fuller explanation of how the CANDU reactor works. It’s really fascinating.)
Canada chose this method in part because it didn’t have access to enrichment facilities when it began its nuclear energy effort in the 50s, but it has stuck with it and built a global business on it. The CANDU site lists several international buyers, including China and India, the latter creating its own CANDU-like design to create a native industry.
Within Canada, all but one of the operating reactors are in Ontario, with the exception being Gentilly in Quebec. Consequently, 56 percent of electricity in Ontario is generated by nuclear energy with hydro second at 22 percent.
How popular is nuclear energy in Canada? Although this poll from Innovative Research Group released this year covers the whole country, it’s probably fairest to focus on Ontario. For example, the whole country is against building new facilities by 63-33 percent, not great. But in Ontario, 48 percent support the proposition (and Saskatchewan is in the 40s, too, maybe because of talk of using nuclear energy to extract oil from the tar sands.)
But the majority (or plurality) of Canadians think nuclear energy is dirty, expensive and overseen by vipers – “63% distrust big nuclear energy business” - except, when the provinces are broken out, in Ontario. Is knowing nuclear energy to like it better? It would seem so – plus, I wager, more effort was made in Ontario to explain its benefits.
There’s likely some overhang from the Fukushima Daiichi accident impacting these numbers, but they do suggest that Canadian nuclear interests need to offer some facts and figures to the public west of Ontario. It’s not that it needs to be a love feast – you can’t be loved by everyone everywhere - but it just isn’t true, for example, that nuclear energy is more expensive that solar power, as most Canadians believe. Just getting the facts straight would do a world of good.


talknuclear said…
Nice article on the Canadian situation. We here at TalkNUclear (the CNA) are supportive of all parties currently in negotiation.

Just one quick comment. You mentioned there are operating reactors in Ontario and Quebec but missed New Brunswick. NB Power's Point Lepreau generating station has been in refurb for a few years but recently moved into the testing and verification stage of the restart. We're looking forward to welcoming Point Lepreau back to the the grid!

"After receiving approval from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) the Point Lepreau
Generating Station staff safely and successfully completed the low power restart of the reactor on
July 25, 2012."

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