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When shutting down the world isn’t enough to fight climate change: Why nuclear? Why now?

Guest blog by Marla Orenstein, Director of the Natural Resources Centre, Canada West Foundation
March 17, 2021

This is the third in a series of blogs from the Global Public Affairs webinar Nuclear Power: Part of Canada’s Energy Transition. If you want to learn more from some of Canada’s top nuclear experts, don’t miss the previous blog in this series: What are SMRs? And what is their role in decarbonization and electrification? by John Gorman.

BY MARLA ORENSTEIN | Canada’s climate change goals present both a challenge and an opportunity that nuclear energy — particularly small modular reactors (SMRs) — are well-positioned to address.

The COVID lockdowns of 2020 highlighted just how difficult it will be to reach our goals for decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the main driver behind climate change.

An analysis by the International Energy Agency in March 2021 found that – despite large areas of the world being locked down or severely restricted in movement for most of the year – global energy consumption in 2020 dropped by only around 4 per cent, with emissions decreases of 5.8 per cent for the year. 

This compares with a needed decrease of 25 per cent of GHG emissions (compared to 2018) if we are going to hold to a 2°C warming scenario — and a decrease of 55 per cent if the goal is 1.5°C of warming.

This means we couldn’t reach our GHG-reduction targets even with much of the world’s population staying at home, next to no air travel, decreased purchasing and the almost complete shuttering of the commercial sector in many countries.

Why not? Because behaviour changed but fuels did not

What this points to is clear. If Canada and other countries are serious about reducing GHG emissions, fuel switching must occur rapidly. And nuclear power must be considered a serious option.

Currently, slightly more than 10 per cent of the world’s electricity comes from utility-scale nuclear energy, generated by 440 nuclear power reactors. Most nuclear energy is produced in North America and Europe, with the United States, France, China, Russia, South Korea, Canada, Ukraine and Germany leading production. About 50 more reactors are under construction, which will add about 15 per cent to existing global capacity.

Nuclear energy has many advantages. Its operation creates no GHG emissions, but unlike solar and wind, the power output is constant and doesn’t rely on weather conditions. It produces a high energy output suitable for industrial uses that require intense heat. It has a very small site footprint, avoiding problems with land use and biodiversity. And it supports electrification of processes currently powered by fossil fuels.

This is not to downplay the problems, however. Although surveys from the University of Ottawa and the Canadian Nuclear Association have shown that many Canadians are open to nuclear energy as a way to address climate change, the public also has strong concerns around safety, contamination, waste and security. But knowledge makes a difference. The more Canadians understand nuclear, the more they support it. But a 2020 study found that only 10 per cent of Canadians had sought information on nuclear energy in the last 12 months. This means building the public’s knowledge of nuclear is key to ensuring Canadians make informed decisions around our energy future.   

Both the federal and provincial governments are also starting to throw their weight behind nuclear energy. The federal government produced a Small Modular Reactor Action Plan in 2020. On the provincial side, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2019 to promote SMRs, with Alberta joining the group in August 2020.

There are no easy answers. But advances in materials, technologies and safety systems make a case for seriously reconsidering nuclear energy as a key component in a low-emissions energy system. To get there, we will need not only these new technologies but also an informed public and supportive governments.

If you want to learn more about the potential of nuclear energy and SMRs in Canada, check back soon for the next blog in our SMR series.

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