Deja vu? Fusion energy ‘Centre of Excellence’ to be built in Ontario with Clarington in the mix

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Published June 17, 2024 at 10:35 am

Thermo nuclear reactor
Thermo nuclear reactor

In 2003 Canada pulled out of a bid to build an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) beside the Darlington Nuclear plant in Clarington and walked away from any involvement in the fusion energy business.

Twenty-one years later the country – and potentially Darlington – is right back in the mix, with last week’s announcement that Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and Stellarex Inc, a Princeton University fusion energy spinout, have signed on to look at establishing a centre of excellence for fusion energy in Ontario to explore the development and deployment of fusion energy.

It was a busy week for nuclear announcements in Ontario and former Energy Minister (now in Education) Todd Smith’s trip to the south of France to tour the world’s only thermonuclear reactor and sign the Memorandum of Understanding flew a bit under the radar.

OPG’s failed bid to build the ITER plant in Clarington in the early years of this century was a big deal and a future centre of excellence for fusion energy would have a massive economic impact, both in terms of the influx of the high-tech brains that would be attracted to the venture and the high-paying jobs that come with that.

“Ontario’s nuclear advantage – including our well-established supply chain and experienced operators – is making Ontario the place to be when it comes to the growing fusion-related industry, creating another opportunity for more good-paying jobs in our communities,” said Smith, who added that the agreement “demonstrates continued interest in Ontario as a global destination for advancing and building new technologies.”

ITER (‘The Way’ in Latin) is one of the most ambitious energy projects in the world today.

In southern France, 33 nations are collaborating to build the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers the Sun and stars.

Former Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith (right) on a tour of the experimental thermonuclear reactor in France

The experimental campaign is preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow, with the primary objective the investigation and demonstration of burning plasmas where the energy of the helium nuclei produced by the fusion reactions is enough to reduce or eliminate the need for external heating.

The ITER plant in Aix-en-Provence, France will also test the availability and integration of technologies essential for a fusion reactor (such as superconducting magnets, remote maintenance, and systems to exhaust power from the plasma) and the validity of tritium breeding module concepts that would lead in a future reactor to tritium self-sufficiency.

The ‘stellarator’ approach to fusion energy is among the leading technologies scientists believe will lead to real-world fusion power. It uses extremely strong electromagnets to generate twisting magnetic fields to create the right conditions for fusion reactions.

“Stellarex is delighted to be working with Ontario Power Generation, in the pursuit and rapid realization of commercial fusion energy deployment by way of the stellarator design,” said Stellarex Chair Richard Carty, a University of Waterloo graduate. “Ontario has unique global competitive advantages which we will harness, and Stellarex is proud to be working with the province to further this landmark industrial strategy for economic development.”

Smith and new Energy Minister Stephen Lecce were also in Romania last week with OPG subsidiary Laurentis and other partners to sign a deal to provide project management services for the refurbishment of the country’s CANDU-powered nuclear plant (Unit 1).

Meanwhile, Darlington’s own refurbishment is on time and on schedule and site preparation for the small module reactors to be built on site – the first in the G7 – received the green light from regulators in May, with a license to construct expected in the fall.

Nuclear prep work Darlington

Site preparation work for the future small modular reactors at the Darlington nuclear plant

The fusion energy centre of excellence project will have an immediate impact in Durham Region, with Ontario Tech University and a host of local companies already itching to pay a big role providing in the supply chain of big brains and skilled workers needed to make the enterprise work.

“Establishing a centre of excellence for fusion energy in Ontario has many exciting possibilities,” said Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “This centre would allow Ontario to tap into our highly skilled workforce in collaboration with partners to advance clean energy research and capitalize on innovative technologies that create new jobs.”

Ontario Tech’s expertise in the nuclear sector was also augmented last month when the school was awarded a four-year $537,900 research grant to see how gamma-ray images can help better understand small modular reactors, now under construction a nearby Darlington.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Natural Resources Canada awarded the new research grant to the Oshawa university to develop a gamma-ray imaging system to examine SMR fuels and materials. The imaging, dubbed ‘RIDGEBACK 2,’ won’t generate or emit radiation itself, rather just measure it in a special way and will be developed on campus in the Centre for SMRs, housed in Ontario Tech’s Energy Research Centre.

It’s far from a done deal the centre would be located at Darlington – OPG and Stellarex will work to identify the best potential site – but the expertise is already here and Stellarex has established supply-chain and ‘fusion ecosystem’ relationships at Ontario Tech, as well as with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Hatch, and Kinectrics, along with other Ontario universities at the University of Toronto, Queen’s and McMaster.

“Ontario Power Generation has watched with interest as fusion-related technology has progressed over the past few years,” said Kim Lauritsen, OPG Senior Vice President, Enterprise Strategy and Energy Markets. “As the technology moves toward commercial implementation, this (agreement) recognizes the role fusion may play as Ontario’s demand for clean energy increases over the next several decades.”

The ITER experimental thermonuclear reactor in France

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