As Canada and the rest of the world continue to move towards a low-carbon economy, governments and other decision-makers have once again turned their attention to nuclear energy.
It’s not surprising. Nuclear energy – which releases no greenhouse gases – has been critical to lowering carbon emissions and strengthening energy security for more than three decades. In a May 2019 report by the International Energy Agency, nuclear power is credited with reducing carbon-dioxide emissions over the past half-century by over 60 gigatonnes, or nearly two years’ worth of global energy-related emissions.
“Nuclear energy is seen today as a logical and, really, inevitable solution to greenhouse gases,” says Suraj Persaud, an assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Queen’s University who also holds a University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE) research chair in corrosion control and materials performance. “It’s widely considered to be an important part of a green energy mix because it consistently and reliably delivers that baseline power we need.”
In Canada – which in 1947 became the second country in the world to produce nuclear power – this uranium-based energy source accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s electricity, generated by 19 reactors based in Ontario, where 60 per cent of all electricity is nuclear-powered.
With the announcement last month of $970-million in federal financing for the development, at Darlington, Ontario, of a small modular reactor (SMR) – the first of this new type of nuclear technology to be built to commercial grid-scale in a G7 country – the future of nuclear energy in Canada appears brighter and more promising than ever.
Researchers at Queen’s are helping to build an innovation-powered pathway to this bright and exciting future. At the university’s Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory, scientists are advancing knowledge of how nuclear materials behave by simulating radiation fields and radiation damage using a proton accelerator.
Mark Daymond, a mechanical and materials engineering professor at Queen’s who holds two research chairs – one in nuclear materials with UNENE and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and another with the Canada Research Chairs program – said some of the recent work at the lab has focused on SMRs, whose smaller footprint and pre-assembled structures could make it easier for Canada and other countries to either adopt or expand nuclear power within their energy mix.
“We have facilities that combine the radiation aspect and coolant aspect in nuclear reactors, and this allows us to study how SMR materials perform in different environments,” says Dr. Daymond. “We’re one of a few institutions in the world that has the infrastructure, technology and the expertise to do this.”
Materials research in nuclear power generation is critical because jurisdictions that operate nuclear reactors need to know how well and how long these structures will perform before they’ll need maintenance and if their life can be extended or they will have to be replaced.
Suraj Persaud Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Queen’s University
" Nuclear energy is seen today as a logical and, really, inevitable solution to greenhouse gases.
“While building nuclear reactors requires capital investment, long-term operation is relatively cheap and very economical for Canadians,” says Dr. Daymond. “So, if we can keep our reactors in Canada going for as long as possible, Canadians can benefit from lower electricity prices and low carbon emissions.”
In addition to research focused on the performance and life cycle of nuclear reactors, Queen’s also boasts a thriving research focus on nuclear waste storage. As part of the work of its Nuclear Materials Group, researchers at Queen’s have been exploring various materials and technologies for the safe long-term storage of nuclear waste.
“We’re working to figure out how we can safely isolate used nuclear fuel for the long-term – we’re talking about a solution for at least a million years – considering many aspects, including factors like ice ages,” says Dr. Persaud.
Nancy Ross, who is the vice-principal Research at Queen’s, highlights that the university is home to researchers across disciplines who are advancing technologies and policy to support Canada’s energy transition – and that nuclear is critical to this discussion.
“We believe that bringing diverse perspectives together will help Canada meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, and we’re motivated to come up with solutions that tap into the full potential of nuclear energy to support the transition for Canada and the rest of the world,” notes Dr. Ross.
For more information on the Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory at Queen’s, visit https://rmtl.engineering.queensu.ca/
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