When Russia invaded Ukraine, the energy market became even more unstable, with increasing pressure placed on countries to cut ties with Russian oil. As a result, many began to wonder where our sources of energy would now come from. While some activists and politicians pointed to the danger in falling back on fossil fuels, the future of clean energy had seemingly dimmed.
Although renewables such as solar and wind have been steadily growing in capacity and demand, there is one solution that has both supporters and opponents: nuclear.
The carbon footprint of nuclear power is the same as solar and wind, power plants take up less physical space than wind farms, and energy is produced at a constant rate regardless of the weather. So, where, and how does nuclear fit into this jigsaw puzzle of clean energy and addressing climate change?
Nuclear power has the potential to fill the gap that has been created in the energy market which emerged as a by-product of the war in Ukraine. Despite the flip-floppy nature of whether nuclear power is good or bad, Canada has been funding research and development into nuclear power for over half a century, and has developed their own nuclear reactor technology known as CANDU.
At a time where Canada is exporting approximately four million barrels of crude oil daily to our southern neighbour and energy has reached over 25% of Canada’s exports, economically, it is arguably not viable for Canada to stop producing oil – without a replacement source.
For all the talk and apparent investment in clean energy and renewables, when the decision to remove dependency on Russian oil emerged as a foreign policy solution, it became very evident how much work continues to be necessary in changing the energy landscape. For example, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, argued in favour of increasing the extraction of fossil fuels. Alternatively, others called for amplifying the market for liquified natural gas or ramping up the scale and supply of the hydrogen market.
Continuing the neoliberal conversation where environmental degradation is acceptable in the name of economic growth has become outdated and lazy. This is where nuclear power may be a silver bullet.
Although it seems to be on the back burner, nuclear energy already exists as part of the energy mix for many countries. For example, an estimated 10 percent of electricity in both Italy and Denmark comes from outsourced nuclear power.
But the contribution of nuclear energy to aid in the attainment of global climate goals is significant, especially with many countries (including Canada) struggling to reach their targets. For example, in the annual scenario on energy published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to achieve their decarbonization scenario, “electricity generation from nuclear [will need to increase] by almost 75% by 2050.”
Currently, Canada has 19 nuclear reactors, with nuclear generating almost 15% of the total electricity in the country in 2020. The reason for this extends to Canada’s resource market. To make fuel for nuclear reactors, raw uranium is required, a mineral Saskatchewan and Ontario are rich in; with “Canada [being] the second largest producer and fourth exporter of uranium in the world.” More importantly, three quarters of the uranium produced in Canada in 2019 was exported “for use in nuclear power throughout the world.”
The newest technology that seems to address critics’ concerns are the emerging small modular reactors (SMR). These SMRs are nuclear reactors that “operate at a smaller scale than current nuclear power plants.” In comparison, the current form of nuclear reactors generate around 1000 megawatts of energy, whereas SMRs would generate a fifth of that at 200-300 megawatts, demonstrating the smaller scale they operate at.
According to Natural Resources Canada, “SMRs may also have applications in the production of heat and electricity at both on- and off-grid industrial sites” and have the ability to assist in the transition of northern communities’ dependence on fossil fuels, a priority the federal government is aiming to tackle.
As of March 2022, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Alberta, and Ontario have announced plans to expand the nuclear industry in their respective provinces by increasing the development of SMRs. Currently, “12 proposals for SMR development are winding their way through the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s (CNSC) pre-licensing vendor review process” despite the fact that no SMR has yet to be built in Canada.
In arguing for the acceleration of nuclear power, there needs to also be an increase in demand. But at the moment, the storage capacity for this amount of energy does not exist as part of the electrical grid. Additionally, according to the International Energy Agency, the percentage of nuclear power in the global energy composition has fallen from 18% to 10% in the last thirty years.
Some opposition to nuclear power comes from concerns of radioactive waste and nuclear disasters, which when looking at the events of Chernobyl and Fukushima, demonstrate valid concerns.
However, through increased safety precautions and removal practices, this concern is no longer the main one. A large majority of critics are now arguing that it is too late – that “nuclear reactors are simply too expensive and take too long to build to be of much help with the climate crisis.” Since 2000, 70 nuclear reactors globally have been shut down for varying political and economic reasons, yet many were replaced by fossil fuel generation.
By shutting down the possibility of nuclear power, we have once again become caught between remaining reliant on oil or completely switching to renewables, which is not a current option due to a notable lack of viable storage capacity.
In August 2021, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) published a report that global climate objectives will not be achieved without the scaling of the low carbon energy source that is nuclear power. Nuclear power promotes a way to have a quicker and safer transition away from fossil fuels, demonstrating the importance of having a transition period. Arguments surrounding nuclear power ignore that the best way to address climate change is to ensure a mixture of clean energy solutions because sole reliance on one source creates the potential for dependence issues.
The promise of nuclear energy cannot be undermined. Canada can be a climate leader in promoting nuclear power as the necessary linkage for the transition to a clean energy grid. Capitalizing on the research and development of the last fifty years, Canada has the ability to demonstrate that clean growth is possible, disconnecting itself from the narrative that actions to address climate change will result in economic losses.
There is no longer any extra time for this discussion. Nuclear energy is the path forward: now is the time to act.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Sophia Stavropoulos graduated from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor of Social Sciences, Joint Honours in Political Science and History. She is currently attending the University of Toronto for a Master of Public Policy with a Collaborative Specialization in Environmental Studies. Her research interests include politics, environmental policy, Indigenous issues, and American cultural & political history.