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Ontario is refurbishing four reactors at the Darlington generation station near Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario is refurbishing four reactors at the Darlington generation station near Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

JOHN BARRETT

Canada’s green nuclear tech could help close the GHG emissions gap Add to ...

John Barrett is president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association.

Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is a tough job. Environment and Climate Change Canada projects that Canada’s GHG emissions in 2030 will be 55 per cent above the previous government’s target. You can bet that that percentage increase will be even higher once the current government sets its more ambitious national target. As Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said, “More needs to be done to close the gap between where we are today and where we need to be.”

Indeed. Which is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting first ministers in early March to discuss a national climate-change strategy. Aspirations will be high, but what’s the plan? What kind of realistic road map do we need to get us there?

First, make sure that all low-carbon energy technologies are on the innovation table and given a fair hearing – not only for what they promise tomorrow, but also for what they deliver today. Second, recognize the important role of low-carbon nuclear power and new reactor technologies in making the ambitions of the United Nations Climate Change Conference a reality. Third, mobilize Canada’s strategic advantage in innovative fields such as reactor fuels, design, manufacturing, testing and applications. Fourth, bring those assets into partnerships with our continental neighbours.

Canada’s current nuclear power fleet provides 20 per cent of our clean electricity. That is a significant contribution. Recognizing and expanding that percentage should be a key element of a national climate strategy. It is a clean, safe, Canadian-produced tool for closing the gap between our 2030 GHG reduction aspirations and hard reality.

Let’s start with the oil sands, where the government sees emissions rising 124 per cent from 2010 to 2030. The value of one of Canada’s greatest natural resources is being badly undercut by the GHGs emitted in producing it. Something innovative – even revolutionary – is needed, as the industry itself has acknowledged.

That innovative and revolutionary step is already known. It was researched by the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada in a detailed 2011 study with the United States’ Idaho National Laboratory. Canada could pioneer the use of small modular reactors (SMRs) in a range of natural resource applications, including bitumen extraction from oil sands.

This would achieve three major goals: shore up the economic value of the resource; lead the world in decarbonizing resource processing; and leverage Canadian science and engineering in mining, petroleum, forest products and nuclear.

It would also promote cross-border partnership with the United States, where SMR development is rapidly advancing. The ingredients are at hand. The U.S. Department of Energy is actively supporting design, certification and site licensing for SMRs. Canadian companies are designing their own innovative SMR technologies. Meanwhile, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is considered by many on both sides of the border to have the most suitable licensing approach for these low-carbon power sources.

The timeline for SMR licensing and deployment is the early 2020s. Policy and investment support to help bring these reactor designs to fruition should start now, as part of Canada’s climate-change strategy.

We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. Decarbonizing is a big economic process. Taking a continental approach by working with our neighbours will make this easier.

The Minister of Environment’s mandate charges her to seek “an ambitious North American clean energy and environment agreement.” What could Canada bring to the table to foster regional co-operation in support of this ambition?

In the United States, coal alone provides more than 35 per cent of electricity generation. The climate challenge creates a powerful new reason to displace coal and other fossil-fuel-fired plants. To this end, the U.S. administration is seeking greater GHG reductions through its recently announced Clean Power Plan. How can Canada assist?

Here’s where Canada’s low-carbon, clean electricity has a role to play. No matter that Manitoba’s and Quebec’s electricity is largely from hydro dams, while Ontario’s clean electricity is provided mainly by nuclear power plants, plus some hydro. The point is that all three provinces could produce greater amounts of clean electricity available to markets in the United States, mainly in the northern region. It comes down to having sufficient export capacity.

Ontario is well placed to expand its exports south. It is making North America’s biggest investment in clean energy by refurbishing the province’s reactor fleet for at least another 25 years. By leveraging this strategic asset, Ontario can use its nuclear technology to help our neighbours reduce the continent’s GHG emissions – and earn export revenue to boot. An ambitious, clean and collaborative outcome. This, too, should be part of the road map to 2030 and beyond.

At a time when we need all hands on deck in meeting national and global GHG targets, let’s not overlook what Canada’s nuclear technology brings – in reality as well as potentially – to “closing the gap between where we are today and where we want to be.”

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