John Richards is an emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University, and fellow-in-residence at C.D. Howe Institute. Christopher Mabry has a master’s of public policy at SFU, and is currently a policy analyst at Natural Resources Canada. They co-authored a recent C.D. Howe monograph, assessing the case for small nuclear reactors.
A great part of Canada’s goal of eliminating emissions from electricity generation by 2050 relies on renewable energy, and the relevant technology is simply not there yet. Wind and solar generate valuable zero-greenhouse-gas power – but only provided there exist low-cost means to “store” surplus electricity not needed by the utility at time of generation but needed later. Without adequate storage, power utilities heavily dependent on wind/solar risk instability.
The problem has not arisen in Canada, but has elsewhere. Advocates of nuclear, including many Canadian power utilities, make the obvious argument in finding a solution: Nuclear power emits no GHGs and is accessible, whether or not the sun is shining and/or the wind is blowing.
In particular, the small modular reactor is typically one-fifth the size of traditional ones. While there is yet only one working prototype in the world, such reactors have the potential to be far cheaper than conventional ones and can be more flexibly deployed. SMRs located near their customers eliminate the need for long-distance transmission lines. Both SMRs and new-generation conventional reactors are safer than legacy reactors; they require no human intervention in case of a meltdown.
The International Energy Agency estimates that the cost of generating a megawatt of electricity from new nuclear capacity is lower than the generation-plus-storage cost of wind/solar technologies. Faced with the urgent need to de-fossilize power systems, many countries (e.g., China, Russia, France) are now investing heavily in small nuclear reactors (SMRs).
Yet for some reason Canada largely does not see nuclear as a solution. The Canada Energy Register (CER), a little-known federal agency, has projected how Canada can meet “net zero” GHG emissions by 2050. The projection assumes that over half of the increased power that is needed will come from wind or solar, some from new hydro, some from natural gas combined with carbon capture and storage – but none from nuclear, other than refurbishing some legacy reactors.
That is absurd. If Canada primarily relies on wind and solar, we are gambling that future technology in batteries, for example, will enable utilities to “store” electricity at a reasonable cost. And that is far from a certainty.
While in some cases, utility companies with hydro capacity can operate turbines at below-optimum levels during the day and increase flow through turbines at peak evening hours, this form of quasi-storage is not free. The utility must invest in sufficient hydro capacity. The same goes for chemical transformation (e.g., from electricity to hydrogen). It is costly, and there is little evidence that companies are meaningfully investing in it.
In the context of climate change, countries are making large energy investments amid great uncertainty. In 2050, it will perhaps be proven correct to have prioritized wind and solar, perhaps not. In 2050, SMRs may be the obvious “dispatchable” power source to displace fossil fuels, perhaps not. We need to hedge our bets.
Relative to most countries, Canada has a comparative advantage in nuclear. We have a 70-year history of safe nuclear power generation combined with responsible regulation. We have the world’s second largest reserves of uranium, and most of the SMR supply chain can come from companies in Canada.
Owing to several factors – meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukushima, storage of spent fuel, and potential expansion of nuclear weapons – Canadian public opinion has, since the 1980s, been skeptical of nuclear power. However, we add that, to date, the deaths per megawatt-hour of nuclear power are far, far lower than deaths associated with carbon-based power.
Realizing a “net zero” power sector by 2050 requires massive reconfiguration, which Canada has only begun to undertake. In October, Ottawa made a modest down payment in diversifying its green energy financial support: Canada Investment Bank is investing $970-million in Canada’s first SMR; the Fall Economic Statement introduced a refundable tax credit of up to 30 per cent for investments in clean technologies, including SMRs.
These are welcome initiatives; however, nuclear energy is still excluded from some major federal clean energy funding programs such as the Green Bond Framework. Much more investment in SMRs will be needed if we are to avoid putting nearly all our eggs in the wind and solar basket.