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The Isar Nuclear Power Plant reflects on the water surface of the river Isar as steam arises from the cooling tower in Essenbach near Landshut, southern Germany, on Oct. 12.CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

This week Cameco Corp. CCO-T and Brookfield Renewable Partners LP announced they’d teamed up to acquire Westinghouse Electric Co., the storied nuclear reactor vendor and services business, for US$4.5-billion plus assumed debt. It’s the latest indication of growing optimism that reactors could play a large role in a looming energy transition. It seems a far cry from 2011, when the Canadian government offloaded its reactor division, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), to SNC-Lavalin SNC-T for a negligible sum.

The Westinghouse deal’s backers are counting on an enlarged role for nuclear power. Mark Carney, formerly head of the central banks of both Canada and Britain and now Brookfield’s head of transition investing, declared in a statement that any path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions will drive “significant growth in nuclear power.” Such sentiments echo those of U.S. Environment Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan, who recently said nuclear technology will be essential for meeting decarbonization goals.

If so, it would be a welcome reversal for an industry that has suffered gradual decline for decades.

According to Mycle Schneider Consulting’s report on the global nuclear industry released last week, there are 411 reactors operating in 33 countries, down four from a year earlier. Their share of gross electricity generation dropped below 10 per cent for the first time in 40 years. (At its peak, in 1996, nuclear accounted for 17.5 per cent.) According to BP’s most recent statistical review of energy, wind and solar surpassed nuclear’s share of global power generation last year.

Why did the nuclear industry stagnate?

One factor is that reactors have earned a reputation for running late and over budget. Westinghouse is a case in point.

Japan’s Toshiba Corp. gained control of the company in 2006. In 2011 Westinghouse broke ground on America’s first major new nuclear power projects in more than a generation: At the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia, and the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Station in South Carolina. Both featured Westinghouse’s Advance Passive 1000 reactor, which the company bet would be easier to build, operate and maintain than previous designs – so much so that the company guaranteed completion dates.

Westinghouse’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2017 demonstrated otherwise. Its inability to deliver led to massive cost overruns, hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and potential penalties relating to the two projects. The reactor projects remain incomplete even today: Fuel loading at Vogtle Unit 3 was authorized only in August.

Such delays are by no means uncommon: Mycle Schneider Consulting reports that of the 16 reactors scheduled to be connected to the grid last year, only six actually were.

Very few of the hundreds of reactors globally have suffered serious accidents, but the consequences are spectacular each time one occurs. The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami, demonstrated how a single catastrophe can set the industry back tremendously.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, meanwhile, has highlighted the dangers of operating nuclear reactors amid wartime conditions. Russian forces occupied the Zaporizhzhia plant which has also suffered repeated attacks including shelling – creating safety hazards unprecedented in the industry’s history.

While nuclear plants produce puny volumes of waste relative to many other industries, its hazardous characteristics make it particularly challenging to manage. Several countries (including Canada) have proposed building underground disposal sites known as deep geological repositories (DGRs), where radioactive spent fuel would be permanently buried. Like reactors themselves, DGRs are complex, expensive projects with significant risks.

Which countries are seriously considering nuclear expansion now, and why?

Energy crises in several countries are rekindling interest in nuclear power.

Peter Altmaier was Germany’s minister for economic affairs and energy until 2021, and was a member of Parliament in 2010 when the country decided to extend lifespans of 17 nuclear power plants into the 2030s.

That all changed after the Fukushima disaster, when more than 80 per cent of Germans turned against nuclear power, he told The Globe and Mail. As a result, the government faced “enormous pressure” from the public, churches and trade unions to abandon the power source. The country pledged to shut down all of its nuclear power stations by 2022.

But Russia’s war on Ukraine and subsequent European sanctions against Moscow’s fossil fuels have given the EU giant pause. The German government has drafted a law to override the 2011 decision and keep two nuclear plants on standby until April, and Mr. Altmaier said three others – which are already switched off – could be put into service again relatively easily.

“We have to reassess not only the situation in Germany, but also the situation in France, in Austria, in Switzerland, in the Netherlands – everywhere,” Mr. Altmaier said in an interview this week in Calgary.

Japan is also reconsidering its options.

Once a titan of nuclear power production, the country has permanently retired 21 reactors (or roughly one-third of its total nuclear capacity) since the Fukushima disaster. The remaining 10 generate fewer terawatt-hours than do Canada’s. And Japan has only one nuclear project under construction.

But there are signs Japan’s nuclear winter might thaw. This summer Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged his government to consider building new reactors. Though the country’s plans to achieve carbon neutrality by midcentury emphasizes renewables, nuclear power is now considered an option. And public opinion has gradually warmed to the idea.

Finland embraces nuclear – one of the many steps toward diversification the tiny Nordic nation has taken to fortify its energy supplies, ever cautious of the Russian neighbour with which it shares a 1,340-kilometre-long border.

The first new nuclear plant in four decades opened there this year, though it faced lengthy delays owing to technical mishaps and a legal battle. The maximum output equals about 14 per cent of total Finnish electricity consumption, vastly reducing its dependence on imported power.

No discussion of nuclear fortunes is complete without mentioning China. Of the roughly 100 reactor start-ups over the last two decades, half of them occurred there. Where others have debated and reassessed, China built aggressively – and continues to do so, with 21 units under construction.

What’s happening in Canada?

Ontario, the heartland of Canada’s nuclear industry, remains firmly committed to maintaining its nuclear fleet. Combined, Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power budgeted roughly $25-billion for refurbishing reactors at their Darlington and Bruce plants, respectively. Both projects have been under way for several years.

The government of Premier Doug Ford has been generally hostile toward renewables and supportive of nuclear power. This month it ordered OPG to re-examine its earlier decision to retire the Pickering nuclear station, which could lead to that facility’s refurbishment.

Alberta’s energy sector has high hopes for how small modular reactors (SMRs) might help decarbonize the oil sands in the province’s north. The Pathways Alliance, a group of producers covering about 95 per cent of oil sands production, has committed to bringing emissions to net-zero by 2050.

While its initial focus is on capturing carbon dioxide during production, Pathways president Kendall Dilling says the group is also interested in SMRs, one of a handful of technologies that can move the needle on emissions. The group is eyeing a timeline from the mid-2030s and beyond.

“There are only a handful of countries with nuclear chops in the world, and Canada is one of them,” he told The Globe Wednesday.

Alberta’s new Premier Danielle Smith has also spoken of the potential for SMRs in the oil sector, and the province last year signed a memorandum of understanding with New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Ontario supporting the development of the technology. Most significantly, OPG has committed to actually build one, at its existing Darlington plant, by 2028.

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