Climate Action, Clean Energy and the Case for Nuclear
By John Barrett
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association
Originally published by Policy Magazine.
With more and more countries struggling to meet the emissions goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, it makes sense to consider all the low-carbon options at our disposal. Canadian Nuclear Association CEO John Barrett makes the case, ahead of the G7 in Charlevoix, for an approach that includes a renewed focus on nuclear energy.
As world leaders gather in Charlevoix, Quebec, this June for the 2018 G7 Summit, the agenda will focus on concrete solutions to global challenges that extend far beyond the borders of these seven countries. Climate change and clean energy will be front and centre. What does Canada have to offer in leadership and real solutions?
Canada and France are leading the way in clean energy generation in the G7 and this is due in part to major investments in low-carbon, affordable nuclear power. In fact, according to a recent report by Natural Resources Canada, Canada’s electrical system is 80 per cent free of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to France out of all G7 nations. Furthermore, thanks to investments in clean energy, Canada’s overall GHG emissions profile went down by a few percentage points in recent years even as the economy grew.
This is important because time to meet international climate change targets is running out.
The International Energy Agency’s first Global Energy and CO2 Status Report found global carbon emissions hit a record high in 2017, after three years of being flat. In Canada, a joint audit, conducted by federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand and auditors general in nine provinces, found Canada was not on track to meet its 2020 or 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets.
Investments in clean and affordable energy aren’t just about reducing emissions, they are the foundation to ensuring access to jobs, health-care and education. Clean and cheap energy is necessary to lift communities out of poverty while ensuring environmental protection. Without proper electricity, countries suffer. As the World Bank reported, “one-quarter of the world population have no access to electricity. In the absence of vigorous new policies, 1.4 billion people will still lack electricity in 2030.”
And, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), seven million people die every year from air pollution. The challenge is to produce policies and investments to transition to a lower-carbon economy. And to help other countries, where appropriate, to acquire the technology and materials for generating electricity from low-carbon sources.
Some propose single solutions based on a preferred technology. Single answers to complex problems invite false hope for technologies that are today neither available nor proven effective when quantity, reliability and affordability are considered. This adds a considerable risk for huge costs as well as detrimental environmental impacts.
For example, Germany’s Energiewende is a cautionary tale on why going green isn’t as easy as it sounds. Germany has shut down nuclear plants while making huge investments in wind and solar energy. However, its emissions have not declined. The new renewable energy has only offset the loss of nuclear—meaning that Germany has given up on meeting its 2020 emissions targets. Coal still represents 40 per cent of Germany’s electricity mix. At the same time, the cost of power over the last decade has escalated, rising by close to 50 per cent.
This begs the question that, if we are really concerned about the impacts of climate change and if we really do need to ramp up energy production as a method of lifting people out of poverty and driving economic growth, why would we not include a low-carbon option such as nuclear power?
Instead of looking to Germany, look to Canada, especially the province of Ontario. Ontario is the real clean energy leader.
Nuclear power is the main driver of Ontario’s almost zero-emission energy grid. The province is home to one of the largest investments in clean-energy nuclear on the planet. Nuclear provides the bulk of the electrical generation to the province; close to two-thirds of the energy supplied every day comes from the nuclear generating stations.
Outside Ontario, New Brunswick has also demonstrated the benefits of nuclear to a clean and affordable electrical grid; displacing tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And thanks to the power of uranium from Saskatchewan, a pop-can sized amount of this rock is all the amount a person would need to power their lifetime; using a small amount of the Earth to create massive amounts of power.
The next generation in nuclear energy technology is already here. Natural Resources Canada is leading a mapping process under the Energy Innovation Program to explore the potential for on- and off-grid applications for small modular reactor (SMR) technology in Canada. Driven by interested provincial and territorial governments and energy utilities, the exercise will assess the characteristics of different SMR technologies and how they align with user requirements and Canadian priorities. The roadmap will be an important step for Canada to advance innovative, next-generation nuclear technologies and become a global leader in the emerging SMR market.
Meanwhile, the CANDU-reactor refurbishment program, supported by Ontario’s Long-Term Energy Plan, is underway and moving through the first phase at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station on time and on budget. This program will replace major components and refurbish 10 reactors in total over the next 12 years at Darlington NGS and at Bruce Power’s site in Kincardine.
This $26 billion program is the single largest clean-energy investment by any jurisdiction in the western hemisphere and possibly beyond. Moreover, it has unleashed creative juices, as both Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power are encouraging innovation and advanced technology use at every step. Already there are important advances in robotics and control systems that will have application in other, non-power sectors of the Canadian economy.
Canada’s nuclear contributions to the G7 aren’t limited to energy. Nuclear science and technology has many proven benefits, meeting nine of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Nuclear reactors provide opportunities for water desalination to communities that experience water shortages. Desalinating water requires a tremendous amount of energy and nuclear can do it while releasing hardly any greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
Research and innovation in health care has helped to make Canada a world leader in the production of Cobalt-60, which is used in many areas of our health industry. Cobalt-60 is used in sterilization, diagnostics and treatments. This includes isotopes to help detect and treat diseases, new research into gamma therapy, and blasting tumor cells from the inside out and protecting healthy, surrounding tissues.
Canada’s nuclear reactor technology and uranium exports have, over the last 30 years, contributed globally to the avoidance of at least a billion tonnes of CO2 (in displacing fossil fuel sources)—a unique and ongoing contribution to global climate change mitigation which no other Canadian energy source can claim.
The next generation of nuclear technology will build on Canada’s track record of excellence, looking to recycle current spent fuel, developing reactors that can provide power and heat to communities and even hold the promise of carbon-free gasoline.
Climate change and clean energy are two of the most pressing issues of our time. Canada has a real opportunity to continue to take centre stage on these issues. The facts still matter. If we are to achieve our climate targets, sustainably manage resources for future generations and provide the world with access to clean and cheap energy, then we need nuclear to be part of the mix. Recognizing this is an important step to bringing real solutions today, without waiting for technologies that are not here now.
With time running out to meet greenhouse gas emission targets and to prevent climate change from increasing temperatures by two degrees Celsius—now is not the time to expect a silver bullet to appear or to rely on one technology over another.
A more effective and realistic approach is to foster collaboration that makes the best use of all available solutions to create a low-carbon future, allowing the world to meet emission targets while avoiding the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Thanks to nuclear’s role in our electricity mix, Canada and Ontario can show how it can be done.