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Logo for the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA).

Is Peterborough the Right Place to Make Nuclear Fuel?

Written by
February 29, 2020
Is Peterborough the Right Place to Make Nuclear Fuel?
Logo for the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA).

In early March, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) will hold public hearings in Toronto and Peterborough, about the renewal of BWXT Nuclear Energy Canada’s operating licence.

The CNSC regulates every part of the nuclear industry in Canada to ensure the safety of employees, the public, and the environment. So, BWXT needs this licence to continue its work. This includes producing natural uranium fuel pellets in its Toronto facility. These are shipped to Peterborough, where BWXT places them in zirconium tubes that are manufactured in its Arnprior facility. The fuel bundles made by companies such as BWXT and Cameco are then used in nuclear reactors, which provide about 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity. For its licence renewal, BWXT applied to keep operating for another ten years, but also for the option to manufacture fuel pellets in Peterborough.

This last point has given rise to a lot more opposition from activists, who plan to turn out to the CNSC hearings in force. This is unusual for a fairly innocuous part of the nuclear supply chain, so it drew my attention. Opposition groups have been in the media lately, raising several concerns: that the Peterborough plant might emit uranium dioxide dust, or that contaminated water might be dumped into nearby waters.

However, one objection from the activists stood out: why Peterborough? Why, they said, allow the handling of nuclear materials so close to where people live, work, and play?

First, the CNSC ensures that Canada’s entire nuclear industry is safe – not just the reactors, but the mining, transportation, processing, and the eventual disposal. That’s why the total number of deaths from nuclear operations in Canada since it began in the 1950s is zero.

But BWXT takes safety to a level far higher than what is required by regulation. For example, the CNSC has set a limit for radiation exposure to the public at one millisievert per year – but the estimate for people living near the Peterborough facility was less than one thousandth of that in 2018. When one considers that we all get about 1.8 millisieverts per year naturally from the environment, BWXT’s almost-unmeasurable addition fades into insignificance.

But BWXT still takes any risks seriously. That’s why the Peterborough facility stores any wastewater that could be contaminated with uranium in tanks, then filters uranium dioxide out, and sends water samples to an outside lab. The lab tests have to show that the water meets regulatory requirements before BWXT can release it. In Toronto, where BWXT makes fuel pellets, the emissions into the air are about one per cent of the limit CNSC sets, and the release into the water is about 0.3 percent of the limit. The very small amount of dust created within the facility is dealt with by several layers of filters.

Still, ensuring that BWXT is safe doesn’t fully answer the question: why here? The answer is because Peterborough has the skilled workforce that BWXT needs. The Peterborough facility employs about 300 people, including about 120 engineers. The assembly of fuel bundles requires both rigorous training and understanding of safety procedures. However, this is not the only work BWXT performs here, as Peterborough is also home to its reactor inspection and maintenance tooling teams.

These jobs are not only skilled, but also stable: BWXT’s operations help to supply Ontario’s nuclear power plants, which are now undergoing a mid-life refurbishment, and are expected to run for decades more. So, if a young engineer enters the nuclear industry now, they can expect a solid career. But there’s more: increasing concern about climate change is making zero-emission nuclear power more attractive than ever. And with the recent excitement about building new-generation small modular reactors, the nuclear industry could be headed for considerable growth. This could greatly benefit Peterborough and its surrounding communities, where the nuclear industry is responsible for over 3000 direct and indirect jobs.

So, BWXT should continue operating in Peterborough because that’s where it's highly skilled and educated employees are – where they send their kids to school, play hockey on the weekends, and shop after the workday. And they, like anyone else who works in Canada’s nuclear industry, know well that the air and water around their workplace is safe for them and their families.

The CNSC, which is independent of any industry group, will make a decision on the BWXT licence application after the March hearings. I am confident that the CNSC will base its decision on the available facts, and I hope that the hearings will reflect the interests of the Peterborough community as a whole.

John Gorman is the president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA).

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