Canada’s biggest city is fortunate to have two founts of clean, green, plentiful energy just down the road. One, of course, is Niagara Falls. Water diverted from the towering cataract to hydroelectric turbines has been keeping lights lit in Toronto for more than a century. The other, less-heralded source is the two massive nuclear power plants that stand just east of the city at Pickering and Darlington. Though much of the city’s juice comes from there, most people barely give them a thought.
For decades now, nuclear has been the energy source that dares not speak its name. Many environmentalists still deplore it, even at a time when the world desperately needs more power that doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels. Despite its strong safety record over many years in dozens of countries, Canada included, the shadows of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima still linger.
Lately, though, nuclear has been getting a second look. The COP26 climate-change conference in Glasgow this month brought home both the urgency and the difficulty of converting from dirty energy to clean. Eyes are naturally turning to nuclear, which produces energy around the clock while emitting next to no greenhouse gases.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, just elected to a new term, is promising to fire up nuclear plants shuttered after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Only a third of the country’s 33 functional reactors have been restarted. Mr. Kishida says that if Japan wants to fulfill its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050 and avoid the high cost of imported coal and gas, it must lean on nuclear power.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this month that “for the first time in decades,” France will start building more nuclear reactors. It already relies on nuclear for around 70 per cent of its electricity needs. Mr. Macron once promised to scale that back to 50 per cent. Rising energy prices and the challenge of meeting France’s emissions targets have changed the equation.
China is planning to build 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years, reducing its heavy reliance on polluting, greenhouse-gas-spewing coal plants. The United States is promising to help Romania, Indonesia, Poland, Kenya, Ukraine and Brazil reach their nuclear-power goals. The British government is backing a plan by Rolls-Royce to develop a new kind of nuclear plant, cheaper than the old generation, called small modular reactors. Canada and several other countries are working on SMRs, too.
It’s all quite encouraging. Nuclear plants are vastly expensive to build and costly to maintain, but they produce reliable, stable energy for millions. Ontario gets 57 per cent of its electricity from them. If they come with risks and downsides, like the storage of nuclear waste, then so does every power source. Just look at what happened in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013. Wind and solar are clean and safe, too, but even with falling costs and advances in battery storage, they alone can’t get us to our emissions goals. If we are serious about the climate-change problem, nuclear has to be part of the solution.
But so far, the nuclear revival has been modest. Germany is phasing out nuclear altogether by next year, Belgium by 2025. California is planning to shutter its last plant, at Diablo Canyon, even as it pledges to be carbon neutral by 2045. Nuclear’s share of world electricity generation has actually fallen over the years, to about 10 per cent today from 17 per cent 25 years ago.
The International Energy Agency says that investment in nuclear is only half what it needs to be if the world is going to meet its emissions targets. It calls for “forthright recognition of nuclear energy’s valuable attributes and its importance in decarbonizing the world’s energy systems.”
That has been sadly lacking. Though nuclear may now speak its name, it is hardly shouting it from the rooftops.
Ottawa’s climate-change plans barely mention nuclear. The new Environment Minister, Steven Guilbeault, is a long-time environmental activist who has spoken against nuclear power in the past. In Glasgow, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that getting off fossil fuels “means investing more in wind, investing more in solar – and yes, exploring nuclear.”
Exploring? Canada, a uranium producer with homemade Candu reactors, is a pioneer in nuclear-power generation.
Rather than forthright, our support for nuclear seems lukewarm – and that’s a shame. Nuclear should be playing a much bigger role in the world’s clean-energy future. Canada should be its champion.
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