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Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Courtice, Ont., on May 23, 2023.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

Jatin Nathwani is a professor at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Management Science and Engineering. Ann Fitzgerald is a professor of international security and the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

Relentless geopolitical tensions arising from conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine and the South China Sea have threatened global trade flows and economic stability. National security concerns and energy security – tied together at the hip – continue to dominate the policy agenda with no signs of abatement. As a consequence, the climate crisis is drifting into the background, as the extraction of fossil fuels continues to be the default answer to the question of price stability. But arguably, this time of crisis may be the best time to challenge the orthodoxy of our dependence on fossil fuels.

The role of nuclear waste as an energy source, which can be repurposed and integrated into the energy supply mix, must be revisited. Based on the world’s existing inventory of uranium, thorium, and used fuel, this resource can become a non-carbon source of affordable energy for every global citizen over the coming centuries.

Canada’s existing inventory of used nuclear fuel (also known as ”high-level waste”) remains an unacknowledged energy resource. Canada’s nuclear waste exceeds the energy equivalence of Alberta’s oil sands by a large margin, and the current available amount (approximately 60,000 tons, stored safely at licensed nuclear sites) can deliver a near-limitless supply of carbon-free energy. The twin threats of climate change and national security risks, compounded by geopolitical tensions, can be mitigated through the large-scale deployment of used nuclear fuel. What would otherwise be relegated to the category of “waste” can instead be recycled to create new economic value, sustaining a clean-energy future for decades to come while making coal, oil, and gas redundant.

Three interrelated reasons explain why this option has not already been developed to its full potential: the primary extraction of uranium and market-price signals have made it a relatively cheap resource, and therefore unappealing from a return-on-investment perspective; the technologies and solutions developed and established for the full recycling of nuclear waste were abandoned for political reasons; and, social perceptions of the long-term hazard of nuclear waste became the dominant narrative for opposition to nuclear power.

The safety of used fuel storage at existing nuclear facilities has been proven over the past six decades. In addition, Canada and other countries have developed technologies for the safe isolation of used fuel in permanent geological repositories. Notwithstanding the established technical capacity for the safety of this energy source, broad social acceptance still remains an open question.

The framing of nuclear waste as an “unsolved” and “unsolvable” problem rests on a questionable premise. Opponents of nuclear energy have demanded this source of fuel only be used if it carries “zero risk” for future generations. The goals of ”intergenerational” equity and a desire to minimize burdens on our grandchildren have had a powerful appeal. Meeting the growing demand for clean energy without leaving an unaccountable legacy of debt to future generations has been a compelling proposition.

Thus, all national programs have emphasized that the geologic disposal of nuclear waste should make it irretrievable – buried in literal “tombs” where it can’t be disturbed for thousands of years. But this “zero-risk” framework for nuclear waste is in fact an elegant philosophical trap, with huge potential for enormous disservice to future generations. If we take irreversible steps to make used nuclear fuel unusable, it will deny massive economic benefits to future generations. At its worst, the dominant social narrative pointing to nuclear waste as an unsolvable conundrum translates into an unfettered licence to inflict much larger harm on the planet’s ecosystem through the continued use of fossil fuels.

The time has come to bring the nuclear waste debate in from the cold and make recycled nuclear waste a centrepiece of Canada’s energy and national security strategies. The deep decarbonization of the Canadian economy, with nuclear, hydro, solar, wind and geothermal energies supplying the necessary heat and electricity to our industries and homes, is possible.

Reaching a zero-carbon-energy future between 2050 and 2060 will require us to combine incremental steps and make bold decisions. We will need several building blocks to interlock, including policies, investment decisions and the successful executions of projects. Policy choices and market forces combined can foster the creation of critical intellectual property and patents that would contribute to, and influence, wider global efforts in this underutilized area, allowing Canada to prosper from these IP receipts in the future.

The dominance of fossil fuels as low-cost sources of energy emerged over the course of 150 years, enabled by subsidies and tax treatments. We can do the same in detoxifying nuclear waste. A clean-energy future is within our grasp.

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