Is it time for BC to go nuclear?

To be both anti-carbon and anti-nuclear is to be pro-blackout, writes Margareta Dovgal.

Margareta Dovgal, Resource Works' Managing Director at LNG 2023.

Is 2023 nuclear energy’s breakout year? After a recent past of federal apathy, new attitudes in Ottawa are coinciding with real progress on the provincial level – at least in Ontario.

Back in Spring, the federal government seemed to have changed its tune on the only viable zero-emissions source of baseload power. The new tone on nuclear energy is a welcome acknowledgment of Canada’s energy needs, even as the government aims for net zero emissions by 2050.

Prime Minister Trudeau said, “We’re going to need a lot more energy. . . We’re gonna have to be doing much more nuclear.”

The Prime Minister’s call had the usual suspects howling, but it’s hard to see how anyone anti-carbon and also anti-nuclear is anything but pro-blackout.

The growth of renewable energy sectors in Canada over the last decade is a tremendously positive development. But at the end of the day, it’s important to recognize the difference between intermittent and baseload power – and where renewables, like wind and solar, differ from energy sources like hydro, natural gas or nuclear.

Until Energizer has a battery big enough to power Vancouver, for example, wind and solar will only be helpful when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. When those conditions aren’t met, the city needs to rely nearly entirely on FortisBC or BC Hydro’s networks for baseload power.

In Ontario, that’s a function largely met by nuclear reactors.

In Robert Bryce’s new book, he details how the US can lead the world’s energy transition by embracing a path of natural gas to nuclear, two low to zero emission sources of energy that have the added benefit of being reliable and affordable – even for energy-intensive industrial applications.

It’s a path that would also work here in Canada.

Canada already draws some 15 percent of its power from nuclear plants, with 19 uranium-fuelled CANDU reactors. Yet those plants are entirely in Central and Eastern Canada, with all but one in Ontario, producing around 60 percent of the province's power.

As Canada displaces coal reliance at home and abroad through natural gas and LNG, it should simultaneously build the nuclear reactors and small modular reactors (SMRs) to hit net-zero goals while keeping the lights on and the economy growing.

It’s a vision supported by most Canadians. A January 2023 poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that 56 percent of Canadians favour nuclear expansion. Among the provinces, support was highest in Saskatchewan at 73 percent, Alberta at 71 percent, Ontario at 70 percent and New Brunswick at 63 percent.

The federal government should work with provincial counterparts to turn net-zero aspirations into reality, with the help of nuclear energy. Otherwise, Canada risks falling further behind the US’s latest push for decarbonization.

The Inflation Reduction Act, much discussed by green-eyed energy proponents in Canada, has less to do with inflation and more to do with positioning US industry to become the world's winner in the energy transition. Nuclear plays a big part in that plan.

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, the US is offering tax credits to produce zero-emission nuclear power. Energy watchers say the credits, which start in 2024 and last until 2032, will even inspire the building of small modular reactors. In either case, it puts nuclear on the same playing field as renewables, making some forecast the creation of more than 300 reactors within 30 years.

To put that in perspective, there are currently 437 operational nuclear power reactors in 32 countries, and 56 new reactors are under construction in 19 countries. In other words, some experts argue that the Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives could almost double the world’s nuclear power reactors in the US alone.

The US is already the world leader in nuclear power, with 93 reactors, the latest of which started up in March. They have generated about 20% of total annual US electricity since 1990, powering industry and tens of millions of homes.

Canadian action needs to match rhetoric if we are to keep up. From carbon taxes to clean fuel standards and emissions caps, federal and provincial governments have been pursuing fairly intensive decarbonization policies for several years. But until recently, there have been scant details on how decarbonization policies will shrink emissions without shrinking the economy and living standards with it.

The Prime Minister’s comments on nuclear from the spring offer a possible vision. The most recent federal budget, following the progress of the SMR action plan, put aside money for technologies like small modular reactors.

SMRs are non-emitting and have the ability to generate a massive amount of power, from grid-scale electricity generation to use in heavy industries. Unlike large, conventional nuclear reactors, they are small plants that can be built closer to where the power is needed, reducing transmission and infrastructure costs and serving as game changers for rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Alberta have developed a strategic plan for deployment of small modular reactors. Alberta even recently signed a third small modular reactor agreement with Korea, while Ontario and New Brunswick are looking into introducing SMRs into their grid.

Ontario has already made significant progress. In December of 2022, Ontario Power Generation broke ground to prepare for the first grid-scale SMR in Canada (and the entire G7) at Darlington – a historic milestone for the implementation of the potentially revolutionary technology. The first unit of the project is scheduled for completion in 2028.

Similarly, the province recently announced it is working with Ontario Power Generation to commence planning and licensing for three additional SMRs at the Darlington nuclear site, for a total of four. The SMRs are expected to be online in about ten years. Once deployed, these four units would produce a total 1,200 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to powering 1.2 million homes, helping to meet increasing demand from electrification without compromising economic growth.

Not long after the Prime Minister’s statement in the Spring, the province also unveiled plans to add a third nuclear generating station to Bruce Power near Kincardine.

If built, it would be the first new large-scale nuclear plant construction in Canada in three decades, and would nearly double the plant’s power output. Ontario Energy Minister Todd Smith said it would generate up to 4,800 megawatts, enough to power 4.8 million homes.

In the end, Canadians all want our families to have economic choice. We want to eat tasty, nutritious things. We want to live in comfortable homes. We want to travel. We like having opportunities to pursue highly paid work so that we can position our children for success with a good education and a safe upbringing.

Everything that we've been able to accomplish in this respect over the last number of decades, has come down to abundant affordable energy.

Nuclear power does a phenomenal job meeting all of these conditions with the added benefit of zero emissions. Perhaps it is time BC re-evaluates its opposition to nuclear energy. Back in 2010, the province’s Clean Energy Act specifically stated its intention to “to achieve British Columbia's energy objectives without the use of nuclear power.”

“I know the federal government is looking at small modular reactors (SMRs),” said BC Premier David Eby. “It might be appropriate for other provinces to look at that kind of initiative because they don’t have what we have here in BC, but we have a massive clean energy resource here.”

And yet, beyond Site C, I see no other major plans for new, grid-scale zero-emissions projects. If not through nuclear or hydro, how will BC get its electrified baseload power?

Without more nuclear, there can be no prosperous net-zero future. 2023 could be the year BC, like Canada, pivots toward a realistic net-zero plan. Let’s hope it follows Ontario’s example.

Margareta Dovgal is the Managing Director at Resource Works. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn for more hot takes on natural resources and making the world a better, more secure and prosperous place.

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