Jatin Nathwani is a professor of sustainable energy and the founding executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo.
“Truth is the daughter of time,” Francis Bacon noted four centuries ago. Now, it seems the time has come for a commitment to advancing one compelling solution – nuclear energy – to resolve the near-existential threat posed by climate change to our collective well-being.
Recent decisions by the federal and Ontario governments to build a new reactor at Ontario Power Generation’s Darlington facility and refurbish its Pickering nuclear plant are important positive steps in the right direction.
The primary culprit within the energy system is well-known: emissions from fossil fuels. The problem has been in the making for more than five generations and we do not have the luxury of time to mitigate the risk of destabilizing the climate system any further. Early signals of the misery that climate change can deliver on a very large scale are clear. Frequency and severity of floods, fires, famines, heat waves, hurricanes and extreme weather events that test the boundaries of human habitation have increased dramatically this past decade.
Eliminating fossil fuel emissions requires a fundamental reboot of the global energy system. In 1990, the share of global primary energy stood at 85 per cent fossil fuels, with all other sources (hydro, nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar, bioenergy) at 15 per cent of the total. In 2022, after three decades of diplomacy and target-setting to reduce carbon emissions, the share of fossil fuels is still at 85 per cent. The challenge then is to tackle the most compelling threat staring us in the face to get to an energy system not dependent on fossil fuels.
Nuclear energy is one answer. It is a safe and proven source of energy that currently displaces more than two billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions globally, equivalent to taking 500 million cars (or half of the world’s passenger vehicles) off the road.
Nuclear is a zero-carbon source of energy during production and on a life cycle basis. It is at the lowest end of the spectrum of energy supply options such as hydro, wind, solar and biomass, and 80 to 100 times lower than coal per unit of useful energy. The density of nuclear power as an energy source means its environmental land use requirement is substantially lower than any of the other noncarbon sources of energy, and it makes a positive contribution to nine of the 17 United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Scaling up nuclear power displaces coal and natural gas emissions directly, resulting in drastic reductions for meaningful impact on climate targets.
However, people wonder if nuclear power is really safe. If you are concerned about its safety, one question you may ask is: “What kills Canadians?” If you compile a list from reliable sources such as Statistics Canada, you will find nuclear power is not on that list. Fears about nuclear power captivate a small group of people whose concerns are often based on scenarios of catastrophic events, but most don’t rank it as something that frightens them and they rely on evidence and facts.
The safety record of Canada’s nuclear power plants over 60 years is publicly available and clear. Have there been failures of equipment and systems at operating plants in those 60 years? Yes. Have there been releases of radioactivity from these facilities from faulty operations? Yes. Have the workers at these plants been subject to unsafe or unhealthy working conditions? No. Have any of these failures resulted in any significant harm to a member of the public or the environment with measurable effects? No.
What about nuclear waste and its cost to future generations? Upon closer examination, Canada’s management of nuclear waste offers a unique lens on the question of intergenerational responsibility. Given the nature of the hazard, the waste materials are managed at licensed facilities with a dedicated federal agency responsible for long-term care and administered through an Act of Parliament.
All the future costs have been collected over the past decades from the customers who benefitted from the electricity. The cost to safely manage the waste is a fraction of a penny on the 6.1 cents a kilowatt-hour charged for nuclear energy in Ontario. Akin to a pension plan, today’s contributions address tomorrow’s liabilities. This is an exemplary feature of Canada’s nuclear waste management practices that will ensure costs are not punted to future generations.
Nuclear energy can help decarbonize the global energy system safely and within cost constraints. The urgency for credible solutions points to nuclear as one answer, complemented by additional sources. If over the years, the fossil fuel sector’s environmental stewardship had come anywhere close to that of the nuclear sector, we wouldn’t be facing today’s upheaval from climate risks on a planetary scale.