Oshawa’s Ontario Tech teaming up to study environmental impact of nuclear and low-carbon tech

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Published May 25, 2023 at 9:22 am

Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science researchers Dr. Jennifer McKellar, Dr. Kirk Atkinson and Dr. Xianke Lin, in Ontario Tech University's Energy Research Centre

Ontario Tech researchers are teaming up with nuclear operators OPG and innovation and go-between specialist Mitacs to study the environmental impact of nuclear and other low-carbon electricity technology.

A team of researchers from the Oshawa school is launching an Ontario-centric investigation to evaluate the environmental impacts and costs of technologies used to supply low-carbon electricity. The ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ (LCA) will cover lithium-ion battery tech, small modular reactors (SMR), solar photovoltaics and wind turbines.

The two-year study is jointly funded by Ontario Power Generation and Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that powers research and development by connecting the private sector with post-secondary institutions to fund research projects and “solve organizational challenges.”

The Ontario Tech research will apply the LCA methodology to different energy processes, considering impacts from the point where raw resources are extracted from the ground, through to the final management of all waste.

“No energy technology is inherently perfect: there are always going to be pros and cons,” explained Ontario Tech’s Dr. Jennifer McKellar, an Associate Professor with the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and one of the project leaders. “For example, solar photovoltaics do not create carbon dioxide emissions during actual electricity generation, but the land requirements for their deployment can be significant. Similarly, both PV panels and wind turbines require critical minerals. It is important that we have a complete picture.”

As part of the project, the research team will recruit multiple postdoctoral fellows, PhD and master’s students for several internships to assist with the research.

The study will allow the team to analyze more than just carbon footprints: they will also examine other environmental impacts, including potential contributions toward ozone layer depletion and land use.

One of the ground-breaking aspects of this project involves the relatively recent advent of SMRs, said Dr. Kirk Atkinson, also an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering and the Director of the appropriately named Ontario Tech Centre for SMRs. “This study will be one of the first to comprehensively undertake this type of analysis for an SMR, simply because most of these are still in the development stage.”

The small reactors – about a third the size of a conventional CANDU reactor – offer scalability, much lower initial capital investment and siting flexibility and are gaining a lot of traction around the world of late, especially as nuclear energy has powered back into popularity.

“Although we have a good handle on what SMR environmental performance will look like,” Atkinson said, “this study will examine the details.”

OPG and its partners – GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, SNC-Lavalin, and Aecon – are currently building North America’s first SMR at the Darlington nuclear plant near Bowmanville. The BWRX-300 GE Hitachi design is expected to be operational by 2027.

While extensive studies on solar and wind technologies have been done, the emerging realm of lithium-ion batteries requires its own set of studies to assess the environmental impact of battery production, use, and end-of-life management,” said Dr. Xianke Lin, an Assistant Professor with the Engineering faculty.

Given Canada’s rich mineral resources, there is potential for the country to become a leader in lithium mining, and it is important to investigate the potential environmental impacts of this emerging industry, Lin added.

“As interest in lithium mining grows, it is important to accelerate studies on the environmental impact of the entire life cycle of lithium-ion batteries, from mining to disposal,” he said. “Our collaborative study with OPG and Mitacs Accelerate will be unique in that the analysis is an Ontario-specific examination of these four technologies, simultaneously. This means we will be able to compare across technologies in a way that would not be possible if all four technologies were studied separately by four different researchers. This ensures a consistent and level playing field.”

In addition to being a good opportunity for Ontario Tech graduate students to work in conjunction with the industry, the project will explore an important hypothetical question for Ontario-centric supply chains:  What if instead of importing materials and technologies from around the world, we maximized production and manufacturing in Canada, and Ontario?

With files from Bryan Oliver, Ontario Tech

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