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Darlington Nuclear Generating Station northeast of Toronto could become home the first new nuclear power plant to start producing electricity in Canada in three decades, using new small modular reactor technology that has never been built in North America.

It’s been three decades since a new nuclear power plant started producing electricity in Canada. Last week, Ottawa put almost $1-billion on the table to kick-start work on the next one.

This time, the technology is American and Japanese, and the power output will be a third of the hulking CANDU reactors of the past. The new technology, a small modular reactor (SMR) that’s never been built in North America, remains unlicensed in Canada, but its backers, Ottawa and Queen’s Park, believe it will be operating in six years at the Darlington nuclear facility northeast of Toronto.

The price tag is not public. Ottawa’s Canada Infrastructure Bank’s $970-million contribution, announced last Tuesday, is supposed to pay for everything up to construction, including the project design. Ottawa’s hope is a success at Darlington could lead to similar projects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick – all still reliant on fossil fuels for power. The federal Liberals, invoking Canada’s nuclear history, call SMRs “the next great opportunity.”

In this era of climate heating, past controversies around nuclear have somewhat faded, though issues of cost remain prominent. Nuclear is now billed by promoters as, most of all, clean. The SMR is half of the CIB’s $2-billion in clean power investments to date. That’s a big bet on nuclear. There is a growing consensus that nuclear power will be important in the decades ahead – but it’s far from the most important. Because so much more power will be needed, for sectors like transportation, more nuclear will be needed. Commercializing SMRs sooner than later – even with major risks, starting with cost – is part of a longer-term picture.

Where Canada is falling short in the long term, according to a recent review by The Globe and Mail, is in its planning. Numerous forecasts argue Canada and the world will need to double power generation by 2050 – led by solar and wind. Yet, The Globe found regulators and power companies are cautious. Some in the industry express skepticism about a demand surge, and suggest they have inadequate capital to meet such forecasts.

This is a lack of ambition. To be sure, the power business is by nature cautious. But this is new territory and a new problem – climate heating – like nothing before. The scale demands leadership from Ottawa, in an area that is a provincial domain. Investing in SMRs is one move. A planned federal clean-electricity standard is another. But the federal government can do more. While the provinces remain overseers of electricity, Ottawa can play a big role.

One key area is interprovincial transmission. A new study in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal outlines Ottawa’s constitutional basis for jurisdiction over such power lines and argues that the absence of this transmission infrastructure is a “deterrent to private investment in renewable energy projects.”

Things are happening fast in renewables. The International Energy Agency’s world energy outlook last week said growth in solar, wind, electric vehicles and batteries is on a “much faster” trajectory than existing government policies call for. The market is moving; there’s money to be made.

Look at Alberta, Canada’s capital of solar and wind power. Private capital pouring into solar will increase capacity next year to a level that is a decade ahead – a decade ahead! – of the province’s clean growth forecast. Now picture an Ottawa-backed transmission line to Saskatchewan to displace coal power.

The IEA’s report shows the decade ahead is all about solar and wind for power generation – despite talk of natural gas. Based on current government policies around the world, the IEA sees, from last year to 2030, solar quadrupling, wind rising about 150 per cent, nuclear up 21 per cent, and gas up 5 per cent. By 2030, the majority of the world’s power will be renewable or nuclear.

Transmission is essential and, as the IEA said, “Long-term planning is vital.” The CIB tried once to get more lines built, but between Ontario and the United States, not interprovincial. The $1.7-billion project, 40 per cent backed by the CIB, was abandoned last summer.

Such stumbles make clear that cleaning up power generation is difficult. But broadly consider the past seven years: The IEA says worldwide gains in technology and policy have already cut potential climate heating by 1 degree Celsius.

That’s huge – but there’s tons left to accomplish. Clean power is central. Canada starts with an advantage: a mostly clean grid. We need to build on it, from renewables to nuclear.

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