Net-zero emissions by 2050.

It’s a lofty goal for Canada, and it’s not the only one. In the shorter term, the country will also have to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels in the next nine years.

The federal government has made clear that, in the wake of its participation in Glasgow’s COP26 climate conference and a cabinet shuffle that saw former Greenpeace activist Steven Guilbeault become Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canada needs an energy sector that “looks towards the future.”

For some, that means looking at nuclear power as the energy source that could answer not only Canada’s climate woes, but its post-COVID economic ones, too.

 

Meeting growing energy demand with small modular reactors

Global electricity demand is outpacing the energy output from renewable sources, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported earlier this year, and some question whether we can rely on renewables alone to support the world’s power grids.

“At the end of the day, when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, you need something there to provide the power,” said Kirk Atkinson, a nuclear science specialist at Ontario Tech University.

This past September, low winds combined with soaring gas prices led the U.K. to fire up an old coal plant to meet its electricity needs.

Small modular reactors have the advantage of being built off-site, produced in factories and scalable. That means they could be built here in Canada and then used in countries still reliant on fossil fuels, or even in remote areas of Canada.

For that reason, Atkinson says meeting Canada’s future energy demands isn’t just a question of swapping out carbon-intensive energy sources for renewables, but also supplying Canada’s renewable mix with nuclear.

Currently, New Brunswick and Ontario are the only provinces with large nuclear power stations. Nuclear accounts for around 60 per cent of Ontario’s total energy supply.

Atkinson thinks small modular reactor (SMR) technology could fill those nuclear and renewable supply gaps and help Canada reach net-zero. SMRs are a category of nuclear reactors that are much smaller and produce less energy than traditional nuclear plants — 300 megawatts or less, with some generating as little as one megawatt.

Like traditional nuclear plants, they produce energy without emitting carbon, but SMRs have the advantage of being built off-site, produced in factories and scalable. That means they could be built here in Canada and then used in countries still reliant on fossil fuels, or even in remote areas of Canada.

They could also provide a clean fuel source for electric vehicles, which Atkinson says will require large amounts of energy to run.

SMR technology isn’t exactly new. Atkinson, who runs the Centre for SMRs at Ontario Tech, says navies in the U.S., the U.K., Russia and China have operated nuclear-powered submarines with similar technology on-board.

But today, the governments investing in SMRs expect them to yield high returns. The World Economic Forum is forecasting an SMR market worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually by 2040.

Canada started working on its SMR roadmap pre-pandemic — as early as 2018 — and since then, several provinces including Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta have signed an agreement to explore the technology’s feasibility.

Atkinson says Canada’s first SMR is expected to be built and in operation in Ontario at its Darlington station by 2028. The environmental impact assessment is already complete, and the site preparation licence obtained.

“There are going to be high-paying, high-value jobs in Canada, if we grasp the technology early enough,” he said.

Atkinson anticipates that the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-term impact on the Canadian economy. A fleet of SMRs could open up employment opportunities in provinces winding down fossil fuel production, such as Alberta. Canada is already well-positioned to become a global leader in the technology, he adds, because it’s the world’s second-largest producer of uranium (the fuel that powers nuclear reactors) and its fourth-largest exporter.

 

Will nuclear draw investment away from renewables?

SMRs might be gaining traction, but some researchers don’t think nuclear should have a place in Canada’s climate strategy and COVID-19 recovery.

Nuclear power has actually declined over the past 25 years. In 1996, it generated nearly 18 per cent of global electrical energy, but in 2019, it produced just 10 per cent.

That decline has been attributed primarily to the high cost of building and maintaining plants, says M. V. Ramana, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

He says Canada should focus on renewables, not nuclear, to get to net-zero, and argues that the claims made about SMRs — that they’ll be fast, cheap and safe — are greatly exaggerated.

“For many of these decision-makers, they just like the story that’s being told,” said Ramana. “It allows them to pretend somehow that they’re doing something about climate change.”

Policy-makers need to be strategic and give a greater share of the financial pie to technologies that are rapidly scalable and can be implemented and approved here and now. Right now, that means renewables.

In 2019, a World Nuclear Industry Status Report said that nuclear energy was too slow and too expensive to stave off the climate emergency. While the forecasted cost of SMRs is already relatively high in the energy landscape — and could rise further — the costs of renewables are plummeting.

Ramana says that if and when this new wave of SMR technology is built, there’s little doubt the electricity it would generate would be far more expensive than if it were generated by solar or wind.

Traditional nuclear projects have long suffered from high capital costs. High costs have contributed to thwarting new builds in Canada, like the 2009 bid for two more reactors at Ontario’s Darling generating station. The bid was killed due to a $26 billion price tag, a cost that the Toronto Star reported was three times higher than initial estimates and would have exhausted Ontario’s nuclear budget for the next 20 years.

As to whether SMR technology could help Canada recover economically from the shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Typically, the nuclear industry generates far less jobs per unit of investment compared to other technologies,” said Ramana, because the work is highly specialized.

He says that any investment creates jobs, but it’s a matter of deciding which investments will secure the most jobs.

“You might generate a few high-paying jobs as compared to a large number of middle-income jobs that might be generated in renewables.”

 

Prioritizing high-return climatic and economic investments

Today, it’s generally agreed that nuclear power and renewable energy are the two primary contenders for reducing carbon emissions. But the global journey to net-zero doesn’t have the luxury of unlimited funds — or time, for that matter. If global carbon emissions continue at their current rate, nations could have as few as 10 years to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That pressure means policy-makers need to be strategic and give a greater share of the financial pie to technologies that are rapidly scalable and can be implemented and approved here and now. Right now, that means renewables.

Canada’s current nuclear reserves are a foundation on which the economy can rely as we shift away from oil. However, further nuclear development, whether that be SMRs or traditional nuclear, comes at great financial cost and requires more scrutiny and consideration on the part of policy-makers.

If policy-makers want to ensure a substantial, rapid and cost-effective action plan to lower emissions, they need to invest aggressively in green infrastructure to ensure it is capable of weathering future demand.

On the economic front, they’ll also need to prioritize investments in the energy sources that create the highest number of well-paying jobs and the most potential for long-term economic security.

The IEA’s roadmap to net-zero says that in the short-term, as we approach a climatic tipping point, renewables will be important in meeting demand, but that governments will need to invest in major technological innovation this decade to meet energy demand 30 years from now.

What’s clear is that no single technology will be the answer to achieving net-zero. The emerging SMR market will have to prove its worth in helping Canada reach net-zero and bolster an economy in transition. In the meantime, we can’t afford to take our eyes off renewable energy.

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Jade Prévost-Manuel is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and green innovation.