Skip to main content

Aerial shot of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario.The Globe and Mail

The International Energy Agency is urging developed countries to support their nuclear industries, saying the planned retirement of aging reactors will make it harder to meet climate-change targets.

The Paris-based agency – which acts as an energy policy adviser to the industrialized world – warned Monday that the closing of nuclear plants in the United States and Europe will mean either more emissions from natural-gas-fired plants or higher costs from renewable sources – or both.

Roughly 70 per cent of reactors worldwide are in advanced economies and are, on average, about 35 years old. So they either need to be refurbished — as Ontario is doing with its fleet of reactors — or replaced with new ones in order to maintain nuclear’s share of the electricity market, the IEA said in a report.

“In many countries, we do not see the political appetite to build new reactors, nor to extend the life of existing ones,” the agency’s executive director, Fatih Birol, said in an interview Monday.

“This will have major consequences for climate change and for electricity security," he said. The target of limiting increases in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius "will be very difficult to realize, and in the absence of nuclear, it will be much, much, much more difficult, if not impossible.”

Dr. Birol will speak Wednesday at a meeting of global energy ministers and top officials from 25 major countries who have gathered in Vancouver for a clean energy conference. The ministers will push for faster adoption of low-carbon technologies, which include energy efficiency, renewable power, nuclear and technology to capture carbon dioxide from industrial emissions.

Dr. Birol said governments need to support nuclear power through a combination of policies such as carbon pricing – which tilts the balance against coal and gas – and ensuring nuclear’s ability to deliver power whenever it is needed.

A sharp decline in nuclear in advanced economies would mean a substantial increase in investment for other forms of power generation and the electricity network, estimated at about US$1.6-trillion over the next 20 years. That’s on top of the investment needed to replace coal-fired power, compete with natural gas and meet rising demand.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said the federal government continues to support Canada’s nuclear industry and, in particular, the development of new reactor technology that will allow us to build smaller, cheaper power stations.

Canada is something of an outlier in the developed world, with Ontario pursuing a decade-long, $25-billion rebuild of four reactors at Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington plant and six units at the Bruce Power Ltd. facility on Lake Huron.

Canadian Nuclear Association president John Gorman said Canada’s continued support for nuclear represents “a huge competitive advantage” for the country by maintaining a supply chain that can be used to meet international requirements in the coming decades.

The IEA says a quarter of the nuclear reactors operating in advanced economies are scheduled to shut down by 2025, with few countries building new ones. Germany and Belgium have decided to shutter their nuclear stations, while in the United States aging reactors cannot compete with low-cost natural gas and renewable power in deregulated markets.

“Weak electricity demand, rapid growth in renewable-based power supply and low natural gas prices in the United States are putting pressure on the financial performance of existing conventional power generators, including nuclear plants,” the IEA report said.

It noted that two nuclear plants were shut down in the U.S. in the past three years and that nine more are set to be closed in the next three years, largely for financial reasons.

Critics argue the price of nuclear is routinely underestimated because both new projects and refurbishments often face major cost overruns, while the cost of managing radioactive waste and decommissioning retired plants is higher than typically estimated.

Greenpeace Canada energy strategist Shawn-Patrick Stensil said the IEA remains fixated on large central power sources and should be focused on a low-carbon alternative that marries aggressive energy-efficiency measures with renewable power and storage options to supply a modern grid.

“If the IEA were really concerned about fighting climate change, it would call on governments to develop plans to replace aging reactors with low-carbon options when they inevitably retire," Mr. Stensil said.