Medical isotope production – a beneficial side project from nuclear reactors. James Scongack, EVP & Chief Development Officer at Bruce Power, joins the Hon. Lisa Raitt to discuss the company’s role in the nuclear power industry and decarbonization, the alternative uses of nuclear and the resurgence of SMRs.
Lisa Raitt: Thank you for tuning in to The Raitt Stuff. I’m your host, Lisa Raitt, and in this podcast, I’m going to share insights on current hot topics in the areas of public policy, politics and business with some guests along the way. And welcome back. I have a fantastic guest today. We’re still in the theme of nuclear. We’re talking about all kinds of different aspects of nuclear from uranium mines. We’re going to talk about disposal at some point in time. But the key areas that we haven’t really talked about yet have to do with the alternative uses for these large nuclear reactors and some of the wonderful side projects that can come off of them that are actually really beneficial to Canadians in general. And today I have with me somebody I’ve known for a long time, James Scongack, who is the EVP and Chief Development Officer at Bruce Power. But James, I knew you a long time ago when I was actually the minister, and you had a different title back then.
James Scongack: That’s right. And it was a very interesting time for the nuclear file then, Lisa. And yeah, I’ve worked at Bruce Power now for 18 years. I’m actually born and raised in Port Elgin, Ontario, so it’s great to be working in a big company in a small town that’s doing a lot of exciting things.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah, that’s really cool. And your title back then was Corporate Affairs, and now you have a different role. So what’s your role now?
James Scongack: Yeah, well, we’re a very operationally focused organization. We have Canada’s largest infrastructure project underway. We’re producing about a third of Ontario’s electricity. It’s actually the largest operating nuclear facility in the world. And as Canadians, we should be so proud of that. And a lot of the work that I do is with the various support services, technical services, to ensure the folks and operations have what they need to run the plant reliably and safely every day, and obviously to safely and effectively carry out our infrastructure projects. So it’s a very interesting portfolio and a lot of exciting things going on at Bruce Power right now.
Lisa Raitt: For sure. And I think you’re coming to the end of the refurbishment project, which I think started around the time when in 2008, it’s been a long time coming.
James Scongack: Yeah, that’s right. We’re in the final throes of our Unit six refurbishment. We have eight units on site, but actually we’ve undertaken a very unique sort of life extension program, Lisa, where you’re right, we kicked it off back in the years when you served in Federal Cabinet, and this is actually a program we’ve extended out to the early 2030s, and the reason for that is levelize out capital levelize out resources, but more importantly, seek to optimize the output of the units. You know, one of the challenging things that we have to do is, we not only have to renew our assets, but we need to life extend them. So what we’ve done by sort of optimizing this schedule is to ensure we gain the maximum value for Ontarians from the asset and carry it out in a manageable, predictable way. And that’s obviously important to the financial community and our investors and TC Energy and OMERS to make sure we can deliver these with a high degree of predictability and effectiveness.
Lisa Raitt: And Bruce Power, the main reactors are located in a very remote part of Ontario. It’s a small community that supports it, but you must be drawing from all around the area for employment.
James Scongack: Over 90% of our spend takes place within the province of Ontario, over 95% throughout Canada. I know previously you had Tim Gitzel on from Cameco. We buy all of our fuel from Cameco. So this is a true made in Ontario, made in Canada success story. But yeah, it’s a small rural region that has grown exponentially. And we actually call ourselves the clean energy frontier region. We have over 70 companies that have relocated from other areas of Canada to support the Bruce facility. It’s quite an interesting economic development story.
Lisa Raitt: Amazing. And the one thing that I always found interesting and not surprising, but a little bit surprising, was that if you take a look at the postal codes around the actual plant, you will find that there’s higher levels of support the closer you go to the plant, which sometimes you would think it would be the inverse, right? The people who live right next door to the behemoth would be the ones that would be annoyed by the presence. But it’s completely the opposite in your case, and it has to do with good community relations.
James Scongack: Yeah, I agree with that. It has to do with good community relations, but I think it also has to do with knowledge is power and demystifying what nuclear power is. And, you know, I think as somebody myself that raises a family in a small community right near the nuclear plant, I want to make sure my family is safe. I want to make sure the beach my daughter’s swimming in is safe. And so they take safety very seriously and they get informed and knowledgeable. But you know what’s really interesting, we just got some polling back last week, Lisa, and in the province of Ontario, 84% of Ontarians support the ongoing operation of our current nuclear assets. Over 90% of conservatives, high levels of 80 amongst liberals. Even New Democrats and Greens support supporters in the majority. So, you know, more and more nuclear is becoming a source of electricity that’s accepted and people recognize it’s an important part of a decarbonized mix.
Lisa Raitt: It really is. So we went through what was called The Nuclear Renaissance, if you recall, back in 2008 to 2000, just before Fukushima happened, and there was lots of enthusiasm and optimism for the industry. And then it all washed away, almost literally washed away. But here we are again in a world that wants to decarbonize by 2050. And Bruce Power is an important part of it.
James Scongack: Yeah, absolutely. If you look at our program underway on site right now. What often people forget about, you know, there’s a lot of policy positions out there on net zero and decarbonization. Very few jurisdictions have actually done anything about it. Ontario is an exception through multiple governments, multiple years, Ontario phased out the use of coal and we should be really proud of that. It’s actually one of the largest climate change reduction initiatives in the world. But what people often don’t know is 90% of the energy needed to phase out coal came from nuclear. 70% of that came from Bruce Power. So nuclear is a part of achieving net zero. It’s not the only solution. It’s not a perfect solution. But as you know from your time as natural resources minister, anybody that ever tells you any energy source is perfect is not telling you the truth. It’s all about, I say, building the right hockey team and the right players on the ice and finding that balance.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah, and I think it’s worth remembering and repeating again that you’re privately owned.
James Scongack: Absolutely. We’re owned by OMERS pension plan, TC Energy, and our unions are also investors in the business, as is a majority of employees. And I think that’s really important because when Bruce Power was formed in 2001, we had to create a different culture. We had to create a sense of ownership and employee investment. Union investment, I think, has been really important towards that innovation and that growth we’ve seen as a company.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah. So let’s talk about the item that I gave a little teaser to as I introduced you today. And I’m going to set the stage a little bit because it was a very difficult time, I think, in the country. Between 2009 and 2010, medical isotopes in the world, Technetium-99m, specifically, we were having difficulties producing them. There were a handful of places around the world that produced them. There is one in Brussels, there is one in South Africa and one in France, and all of them were being shut down at the same time. A previous government to the one I sat in had tried to corner the market on medical isotopes and came up with the Maple Project, which was going to produce the medical isotopes for the world. And the science didn’t work out and it became a danger to actually operate the reactor. We also produce medical isotopes at Chalk River and a crack developed in the actual vessel, and as a result we had to stop producing medical isotopes and scramble to try to figure out how it was going to end up happening. I lost track of the file after that, but I guess the point being is that in times of crisis, you end up coming up with new innovations. What I’ve noticed recently, though, James, is that Bruce Power has been doing quietly, I think, but very effectively filling in gaps that are needed in the world with respect to medical isotopes. So tell me a little bit about why nuclear power plants reactors can be used not only for production of power, but also for these really important devices, tools that are needed in the medical health care system.
James Scongack: Yeah. So, firstly, I think there’s really only two ways of producing medical isotopes. You can produce them through a cyclotron, so facilities out in British Columbia or you can produce them in a reactor. Isotopes you can produce in a reactor, you can’t produce in a cyclotron. And the isotopes you produce a cyclotron. So we’re not competing, but there’s only those two lanes. And Lisa, I think maybe just to talk about the history for very briefly, because I think it sets the tone why we’re doing something different.
Lisa Raitt: Please.
James Scongack: The world was set up for failure ten years ago when it came to isotope supply. Why? Because isotope supply all came from research reactors.
Lisa Raitt: That’s right.
James Scongack: Reactors that were never designed to commercially produce something. They were reactors that were designed to do testing and develop new materials on fuels and isotopes. And so what happened was, as the demand for all these great medical treatments emerged around the world, these reactors that were for research purposes, which were not designed for reliability, became the feedstock for isotopes. And all of a sudden, when one of those reactors was not able to perform because of maintenance or other things, it became a problem. So fast forward to where we are today. What are we seeing at Bruce Power? We have eight reactors on the site. So if we can produce medical isotopes in our reactors, if we have a reactor like Chalk River was down on maintenance to make a repair or a reactor for refurbishment, we have multiple reactors to provide that supply. So I think what’s happened is Canada has always been a leader in the supply of medical isotopes and what we’ve done is said, if we can make a commercial business case to operate our plants just making electricity, because that’s the business case for running a power reactor, it’s not making isotopes. If that is the foundation for that reliability, why not add isotopes to that? Because reliability is really important. But I think the world was set up for failure back ten, 15 years ago. And we’re trying to re-establish a strong foundation using our power reactors, which have redundancy and which have a long time horizon and a reason for running beyond making medical isotopes.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah. And what kind of isotopes do you guys produce?
James Scongack: So right now there’s two types of isotopes we produce and we’re moving into a third category. So the primary isotope we produce right now is called Cobalt-60. There’s one type of Cobalt-60. It’s used to sterilize medical equipment. I’ll give you a staggering number. In 2021, we produced enough Cobalt-60, 40% of the world’s supply to sterilize 25 billion COVID swabs and pieces of medical equipment.
Lisa Raitt: Wow.
James Scongack: We also produce a high specific activity cobalt for brain tumours and breast cancer. And just literally right now today, I just got off the phone before the podcast, we’re commissioning a new isotope delivery system that’s going to make lutetium and that’s used for neuroendocrine tumours. And once we get that system up and running we will be expanding that to other isotopes. I will give a shout out to in Ontario Power Generation. I know you were at Ken Hartwick’s speech earlier on the week. They’re moving into Molybdenum-99 at Darlington as well. So you see these power reactors stepping into this space and they’re building that redundancy, Lisa, which you unfortunately were not afforded when you had that file a number of years ago.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah, and we were also cheaper.
James Scongack: Yeah, absolutely.
Lisa Raitt: So government reactors, the market was very, there was no market. It was, everything was given away for free. And as a result, in a lot of cases, James, as you know, medical isotopes weren’t treated with the level, I guess, of care.
James Scongack: Absolutely.
Lisa Raitt: Meaning that you would open up a pack. And if it went bad, it went bad kind of thing because they only last, there’s certain half times for these things. So they only last for a certain period of time. And since then there’s been a lot more, I would say, caring and control around the use of medical isotopes. So in a given day you’ve got eight reactors. How do you figure out what’s being produced? And you know, you must have come up with a whole different supply chain of how to move these things around than being in the power core. I mean, you’re not sending electricity out anymore. You’re doing something very different.
James Scongack: Yeah. So the way we do this, as the Cobalt-60, that particular isotope, we’re only able to harvest when a unit is out on outage. So we harvest it and we actually replace Chalk Rivers when they closed in March of 2018, we replaced their output there. So that’s easy to plan because, you know, when an outage is and you plan the logistics. The Lutetium project that will be coming online, we will literally be producing that every two weeks. It will go through a cycle. One of the things in business, Lisa, that I think is really important is to recognize where you don’t have a capability and get good partners. Bruce Power recognizes we’re really good at operating reactors, we’re not in the isotope supply chain, so we’ve partnered with international and domestic companies who are our partners. We’re really a provider of the service and we really turn to them for the logistics, the processing, and I think that’s very important for companies to recognize. If you’re operating a research reactor or a power reactor, being in the isotope supply chain does not make sense. You need to partner with those firms that can. But the one thing I think is different in Canada now too, four years ago, myself and a number of individuals formed an organization called the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council. It has over 70 Canadian companies a part of it. Now I’m the chair of it. And it’s really mostly private sector and hospital and not for profit driven around ensuring Canada remains a leader and bringing all these organizations together to have an integrated strategy. Because integration, to your point, Lisa, is really important. We need to recognize the areas we’re strong in and not and partner with people to fill those gaps that we have.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah, and I think it’s a classic example that it’s better in the hands of the private sector than it was in the hands of the government at the time, because the file was just a mess for any government that ended up having it. Just because the only way out was to ensure that there is incentives for someone else to be able to come in and no one was going to come into the space if the government was in there, because as I said, the price differentials were so much in terms of being able to produce. Before I let you go, James and I really appreciate your time today because I know you got a lot on your plate. I’d love to get your thought around the resurgence or the interest in the uptake and small modular reactors and what that means for the bigger scene.
James Scongack: Well, the first thing I would say is I think the emergence of small modular reactors and new nuclear and I actually think also new CANDU is incredibly exciting. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need more new nuclear. But the one thing we need to recognize as a country between Point Lepreau, Darlington and Bruce, we have about 13 reactors that will operate for the next 30 years. Only four of those are fully refurbished, so we have to complete the refurbishment program at Bruce and Darlington. We’ve got to complete that safely with quality on time and on budget. And with that, that now allows us to have a foundation to look at new reactors and move that. And you look at what OPG’s doing at Darlington with an SMR, I think it’s great, but the foundation comes from our current plants operating well, and so I think nuclear has a long runway. We just need to continue to earn the trust of investors, of government, of the public every single day. And we’ll be part of the solution. I don’t see us being 100% of the energy mix, but I think we’re going to be a dominant part of the energy mix for many years, and we’re an enabler to those renewables. You can’t have solar and wind and storage and hydro unless you have that foundation of nuclear.
Lisa Raitt: Yeah, you need the base.
James Scongack: Absolutely.
Lisa Raitt: What about the last part? Tell me a little bit about waste and how you handle waste disposal at Bruce Power.
James Scongack: Yeah. And you know what? As somebody that lives and works in the industry, the waste discussion is incredibly frustrating for me because we’re the only industry that can show you where every piece of waste we’ve ever produced is. It’s fully paid for and it’s safely stored. I think, Lisa, what we have is frankly a political dilemma where we know there are good proven ways to do long term disposal waste. And it’s really about getting the alignment of stars between various levels of government to make a decision to host one of these. For me, I think the waste is a strong story, but it’s often a thing that people view as an Achilles heel to nuclear. And I think sometimes the industry does a poor job of explaining that. It’s safely managed. It has been and it will be, and it’s fully funded. And so we need to be more aggressive talking about. Solar panels have chemical waste and, you know, fossil fuel companies have environmental impacts. Again, no technology is perfect. But, you know, as an operator, we produce the waste. We work to minimize it. We fully fund it, we safely manage. We need the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to be approved to build a final repository, which by the way there’s money sitting in a bank to build.
Lisa Raitt: There is. Absolutely. And it’s the Nuclear Waste Organization that is doing all of the ground work on it and look forward to talking to them sometime. Last question, in terms of waste, is it just a Canada problem or have they figured it out in France? Have they figured it out in other countries?
James Scongack: They figured it out in a lot of countries. There’s other countries that have built the same type of long term solution that Nuclear Waste Management Organization has. So we’re not the first in the world to do that. Those countries in Europe, you can go see a DGR in Europe that is safely operated for decades. There’s other countries like France that actually take some of their fuel and reprocess it, Lisa, but it’s not a technology issue. It’s not a financial issue. I hate to say it, it’s a political issue.
Lisa Raitt: I know.
James Scongack: The technology is not the issue. And, you know, and it really kind of breaks my heart that we sort of have this around us all the time. And it’s a political issue.
Lisa Raitt: Well, let’s hope that this time around with The Nuclear Renaissance, new nuclear, that we get it all done right and that politicians, you know, have the gumption to get it done appropriately. And let’s see what ends up happening. But thank you, James, so much for coming on today. Really appreciate your time and really appreciate your knowledge. And I wish you and everyone up at Bruce all the best.
James Scongack: Thanks very much for having me, Lisa. Any time.
Lisa Raitt: Thanks so much for tuning in. Now, if you have any questions or comments or even requests on topics to discuss, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your interactions actually will make this better. I’m your host, Lisa Raitt, and this has been The Raitt Stuff. I’ll talk to you next week.
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