Turning the climate corner with nuclear energy

Nuclear energy could figure large in the global push to cut carbon emissions, and Canada is well positioned to play a major role.

By John Stewart
Wednesday, May 3, 2017

At a conference held last month on what it will take to decarbonize Canada’s economy, one of this country’s top economists asked me whether the nuclear industry would be ready to deliver even half of the added electricity that electric cars, green buildings and transit are going to need. He wanted to know whether we had the investment channels, the construction capacity, the public acceptance, the government support.

As a nuclear industry leader, I was glad to hear the question asked at last. I want to be able to say “yes.” We keep our industry positioned to say “yes” to the needs of a green economy. As with so much in climate change, it is not so much a question of ready or not, but rather of how quickly the response can come.

To a large extent, the countries that promote and export new technologies also gain long-term commercial and technological relationships that allow them to influence international standards, regulation, rule-making and best practices. That will happen in clean technology as much as it did in shipping, aviation and telecoms.

The Global Nexus Initiative (GNI), of whose working group I am a member, is a joint NGO-industry policy project that is tackling the question of how our countries can exert influence on the uptake of clean energy technologies worldwide. Its latest report, Nuclear Power for the Next Generation: Addressing Energy, Climate and Security Challenges, includes several recommendations that are particularly relevant to Canada. Here are the main ones.

The world needs more nuclear power

Just four of Canada’s past reactor customers — China, India, South Korea and Pakistan — together have about 30 reactors under construction (not all of Canadian design) and another 70 or more under consideration, according to the GNI report.  (That’s more reactors than are currently operating in the United States). The potential commercial revenues, pollution avoidance and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions savings from these reactors will be mammoth. China’s National Nuclear Corporation is collaborating closely with SNC-Lavalin Nuclear on the Advanced Fuel Candu Reactor.

Global governance must be strengthened

No country’s expertise on science, regulation, governance and safety is more trusted by all stakeholders than Canada’s. As countries that are newcomers to nuclear energy lay the foundations of their projects — planning research reactors, academic programs, training systems, safety rules, oversight laws and disposal facilities — our experts, with seven decades of nuclear science and working experience behind them, are well positioned to play a major role.

Nuclear energy is a geopolitical asset

Nuclear energy has long been a major part of our international leadership in clean technology. Decades ago Canada marketed its clean, safe nuclear energy technology to five developing countries — including three of the fastest-growing ones: India, South Korea, and China. The technology worked. It kept those countries’ air clean, used little land, operated safely and delivered much GHG-free power. We gained strategic influence and technology linkages with those countries as a result.

Canada’s roughly 10 percent share of the nuclear energy market may not sound like much, but in a big and about-to-get-much-bigger market, and for a country that’s less than 1.5 percent of the world economy, it’s big. If we hang on to even half that share, Canada could be a huge winner — commercially, diplomatically, and in terms of its influence on global human security. We are one of only a few countries that have mastered all the important segments of civil nuclear technology — uranium mining; fuel design, fabrication and testing; reactor design and refurbishment; operational excellence; governance; science and engineering education and training; environmental controls; medical technologies; materials science; decommissioning; and waste management. This mastery is the accumulated result of a century of visionary decisions and coordinated investment. Maintaining and managing the industry well will help keep Canada in the diplomatic big leagues.

With new partnerships, the nuclear industry and civil society can break the mold

Evidence-based environmentalists and climate activists are looking for real, proven GHG reductions and safe, clean electricity. Canadians can build these bridges. Civil society has turned a corner on nuclear energy. The nuclear energy industry is getting ready to shift to a bigger role in the world, with potentially revolutionary, small and advanced reactor designs.

Countries in the developing world are going to advance with the help of nuclear energy because it’s clean, it’s safe, and it delivers. Canada already has the strategic assets to participate in shaping that future. We might as well use them.

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