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Nuclear generating station in Pickering, Ont.Getty Images

As Canada aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the impacts of climate change, could nuclear energy be part of a long-term solution?

Much of the future in nuclear energy hinges on developing small modular reactors (SMRs), suggests Nicolle Butcher, chief operations officer at Ontario Power Generation (OPG). SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that can produce a large amount of low-carbon electricity and have a capacity of up to 300 megawatts per unit.

This equals about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional power reactors, making them “much simpler and smaller than other nuclear projects,” she says.

Ms. Butcher was one of the expert panelists at The Globe and Mail’s “New Nuclear: Where does it fit in a net-zero nation?” webcast on Oct. 20.

OPG’s Darlington nuclear power generating station, located 70 kilometres east of Toronto, is bringing Canada’s first SMRs online. Panellists spoke about the benefits of SMRs in bringing nuclear energy to places that don’t already have it, including Canada’s north. But some expressed concern that that SMR concept exists only on paper, and could take decades to complete.

“They’re basically unproven,” said Allison Macfarlane, professor and director of the University of British Columbia School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Ms. Macfarlane cautioned that there are uncertainties around the supply chain, particularly the uranium needed for the fuel. SMRs will also produce a different kind of radioactive waste than its larger counterparts, which means an added cost to cover a “complicated waste-handling process that we’ve never done before,” she said.

The subject of radioactive waste management came up several times throughout the panel discussions, as it remains one of the public’s main concerns when it comes to nuclear energy risks. Yet current waste management process are sound, said James Scongack, executive vice-president and chief development officer at Bruce Power.

“I can show you where every cubic metre of waste that has been produced is sent,” he said. “You will not find an industry in the world that is more prudent and responsible with our waste byproduct. But it is an issue that we hear often, and as an industry we have to do a much better job of articulating and explaining the issue.”

In educating the public around radioactive waste, the industry has three key messages, said Laurie Swami, president and chief executive officer at the Nuclear Waste Management Organization: all of the waste is accounted for, it’s fully funded for as long needed, and we know how to dispose of it.

“I think when people get to know the truth about nuclear waste, they understand it and accept that this is just the byproduct when we generate electricity,” said Ms. Swami.

Still, the industry will need to convince about half of the population that nuclear energy is a good idea, noted Martin Hrobsky, senior vice-president at Ipsos. A recent survey showed that public opinion around nuclear energy has remained around 50 to 60 per cent in favour, with Ontario having the most support and Quebec the least.

If nuclear energy will be key to getting the country to net-zero emissions by 2050, the panel discussed that Canada will need more experts in the field. Knowing the place of nuclear in Canada’s energy mix will help determine the necessary talent for the future work force.

“If you know where you’re headed, you can plan,” said Gary Rose, CEO of Candu Energy Inc., and executive vice-president, Nuclear, Canada at AtkinsRéalis.

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