Here in my first article with Pipeline Online, I will outline how I believe Saskatchewan can and must turn its rapidly depleting uranium resource into a foundational value-added industry that will create immense economic value for centuries to come.

First, a little introduction is in order. For the past 20 years I have lived in Alberta, where I went to graduate school at the University of Calgary and earned my Ph.D. in chemical physics in 2008. For the first 12 years of my career I served in numerous technology development roles in the oil sands sector in both Alberta and in Utah.

Over the past 4 years I have built and operated a ranch in the Rockyford region near Strathmore, Alberta, and have been working to reinvent myself as a freelance journalist and Western Canadian energy advocate.

I was born on the Saskatchewan side of the border in Lloydminster and my family hails from the Maidstone – Battle River region. As such, the image of the Tiger Lily conjures up deep emotions of my families roots.

Now for my vision of Saskatchewan’s nascent nuclear industry:

First, I commend the Saskatchewan Party under Premier Scott Moe and those in his cabinet who are demonstrating leadership in conservatively pushing for the province’s first nuclear power generation infrastructure.

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Second, I salute Saskatchewan uranium miners, who have for the past two generations provided fuel for Canadian CANDU nuclear facilities out east. Not only have these hard-working men and women given Central and Atlantic Canada energy security, they have also indirectly saved millions from premature death by cancer through the life saving medical isotopes that are uniquely produced in Canadian CANDU reactors.

I will cut to the chase by declaring that at current rates of uranium mining, Saskatchewan’s uranium reserves will be depleted within the next generation. Furthermore, this depletion rate will accelerate due to efforts underway to introduce small modular reactor (SMR) technologies and by the commitment of many western nations to triple their nuclear fleets by 2050.

The introduction of SMRs, in particular, represents a major long term risk for Saskatchewan.

The reason SMRs currently represent an accelerated long-term risk to Saskatchewan’s uranium mining industry is simply due to their lower fuel economy compared to Canadian CANDU reactors. Canadian CANDU reactors achieve 10x higher fuel economies per tonne of uranium ore than do most emerging SMR designs.

Therefore, adding lower fuel economy SMR reactors to our CANDU nuclear fleet will accelerate the depletion rate of our finite uranium reserve unless fundamental changes are made to our nuclear fuel manufacturing supply chain.

The mitigation strategy for Saskatchewan is two-fold.

First, Saskatchewan must embrace a recycle and reuse strategy by building infrastructure that takes partially spent fuel from its clients and repurposes these materials for reuse. Saskatchewan’s close relationship with the French nuclear fuel giant Orano should be leveraged to obtain access to intellectual property required to build this industrial capacity within Saskatchewan.

This industrial know how is well established and is being implemented in France, Japan, India and Russia.

A benefit of a reprocessing plant built in Saskatchewan, would be that it could repurpose partially spent fuel from American or European light water reactors (LWR) reactors for use in Canadian CANDU reactors. This repurposed LWR fuel would boost CANDU reactor output power by 8 to 10% over straight run uranium ore.

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Second, Saskatchewan must clear the path for the construction of one or two fast breeder reactors (FBR), which as the name implies, FBRs breed (produce) the critical ingredients required in fuel for SMR and LWR reactors. These critical ingredients are called transuranic (TRU) isotopes, which are the fissile elements in enriched uranium or mixed oxide (MOX) nuclear fuels.

This twofold approach is referred to as a Closed Fuel Cycle (CFC), which can produce a wide range of MOX fuels.

MOX fuel fabrication cycle.

Collectively, spent fuel reprocessing and FBRs will position Saskatchewan to not just extend the lifetime of its finite uranium reserves, but will position it as the pre-eminent jurisdiction for the global nuclear fuel industry for generations to come.

Aside from massively extending the longevity of its fuel reserves, a CFC supply chain built in Saskatchewan will likewise act to radically reduce the long-term risks and cost of managing nuclear waste storage.

The skeptics should note that waste from CFC processes are inert within a couple of centuries versus a couple of hundred thousand years as with current Open Fuel Cycles used in Canada, United State and Europe.

They should likewise note that the lower radiotoxicity waste from CFCs can be used in a wide range of high tech products, including batteries that can produce electricity for over a century without recharging.

What I have outlined here is well known within the nuclear industry and our competitor nations, like Russia and India, who have over a decade head start in developing their own CFC supply chain capabilities.

Saskatchewan needs the courage, foresight and apolitical will power to turn its nascent nuclear industry into a multi-generational economic engine that I believe will outlast and exceed the wealth generation potential of Alberta’s massive oil and gas resource if this vision is embraced.

 

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