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The Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Station near Toronto, on April 17, 2019.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

From one global climate conference to the next, nuclear power has been politely shunned as the world’s environmental elite remain divided about including it in the mix of energy solutions needed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

That is, until now.

The current COP28 conference under way in Dubai marks a sea change. The atom’s rehabilitation as a necessary ingredient in the quest for a net-zero world got a major boost on Saturday when 22 countries, including Canada, called for a tripling of global nuclear power capacity by 2050.

“We have seen this incredible shift from ideology around technology to pragmatism,” Canadian Nuclear Association president John Gorman said in an interview from Dubai.

The pro-nuclear charge at COP28 was led by French President Emmanuel Macron, who told delegates that “no credible strategy, neither nationally nor globally, allows for exiting coal and fossil fuels based only on renewable energy.” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry echoed his words.

Granted, it remains to be seen whether COP28′s final declaration will contain similar nuclear-positive language. Almost six times as many governments signed a statement pledging to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, proving that nuclear is still a tough sell among many countries that do not already have reactors in operation or under construction on their soil.

What’s more, the two countries most bullish on nuclear power – China and Russia – were not among the signatories of the pro-nuclear declaration, for reasons that had to do with geopolitics more than anything else. In that sense, the declaration can also be seen as a wake-up call about need to invest in civil nuclear technology to counter Chinese and Russian dominance.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Moscow’s control of the global market for enriched uranium has raised flags among national security officials in the United States and Europe, prompting calls for the development of alternatives to Russian fuel. With among the world’s largest uranium reserves, Canada has a chance to become the go-to supplier for Western reactors.

Canada is at the front of the pack in the development of small modular reactors, with Ontario Power Generation planning to install North America’s first SMRs at the Darlington nuclear facility based on a design by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. OPG also signed an agreement last month with SaskPower to bring SMRs – factory-assembled reactors of about 300 megawatts – to Saskatchewan.

Ottawa’s moves to make nuclear power projects eligible for clean-energy investment tax credits could also be boon for new large-scale reactors at both Darlington and Bruce Power. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s fall economic statement announced that Ottawa’s Green Bond Framework would be updated to include nuclear energy, paving the way for proceeds from the sustainable-finance bonds to be invested in the new reactors.

Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator has estimated that 17,800 MW of new nuclear supply will be needed by 2050 to meet the twin objectives of increased electricity demand and decarbonization of the grid. Ontario’s current nuclear capacity is around 13,000 MW, but the IESO projects that only 8,700 MW of existing supply will still be available in 2050.

Hence, the urgency to kick-start plans for new reactors. OPG signed a letter of intent last month with Électricité de France to “assess the feasibility of deploying EDF’s large nuclear reactor technology in Canada.” Industry watchers saw the move as the first step toward the potential construction here of a French EPR reactor and a break with OPG’s tradition of deploying only domestic Candu reactors. No new Candus have been chosen in almost three decades.

Europe’s first EPR generating station began commercial operation this year in Finland, more than 14 years behind schedule and billions over budget. A second EPR facility is set to open in northern France in 2024. Britain’s Hinkley Point C 3,200-MW EPR plant is not set to come online until 2027 and is expected to cost £22-billion ($37.6-billion), or about 50 per cent more than initially projected.

Still, EDF chief executive officer Luc Rémont recently insisted that the company is finally mastering the learning curve related to EPR builds and plans to introduce “standardization on a large scale” on future EPR projects. He said EDF aims to build at least one reactor a year in the 2030s. Mr. Macron has announced plans for six in France alone.

OPG has also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Westinghouse Electric Co., which was jointly acquired this year by Saskatchewan-based uranium producer Cameco Corp. and Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management, “to explore commercial opportunities” for Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor and other nuclear technologies.

Montreal-based AtkinsRéalis, formerly known as SNC-Lavalin, last month unveiled an updated Candu design known as Monark that it hopes to pitch to OPG, Bruce and other buyers. But OPG’s overtures to EDF and Westinghouse suggest that AtkinsRéalis is likely to be an underdog in bidding on Canadian nuclear projects.

While stressing the neutrality of the Canadian Nuclear Association, Mr. Gorman summed up the challenge: “Monark has home advantage in terms of Canada’s existing nuclear supply chain, but they will have to prove that their new modernized design has all the advantages of these other technologies.”

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