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A worker monitors displays inside the control room for the Darlington Nuclear Unit 2 reactor at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ont., photographed during a tour in 2016.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The last time Canada built nuclear reactors was back in the mid-1980s, when Ontario started work on an expansion of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station northeast of Toronto. That facility today produces one-fifth of the province’s power.

Two months ago, Ontario Power Generation announced it will expand nuclear power again. This time, however, the scale will be less sprawling. In the eighties, the technology was hulking CANDU reactors. The Crown corporation’s new plan involves what’s called a small modular reactor, SMR, an as-yet unproven technology.

Because they’ll be smaller, and simpler to build, the pitch is SMRs will be more affordable, and will dodge the often gargantuan busted budgets that plague nuclear energy projects. Also, instead of Canadian tech, OPG chose GE-Hitachi, an American-Japanese company – though OPG said three-quarters of the components and materials will be from Ontario.

The project could shape the decisions of others. Saskatchewan is eyeing its first nuclear foray with SMRs by the mid-2030s. The federal Liberals have promoted the technology, boasting of Canada’s nuclear history and calling SMRs “the next great opportunity.”

As Canada and the world presses toward a net-zero emissions future, one that requires lots more power generation as transportation and other sectors are electrified, nuclear power seems like an ideal part of the equation, even with its costs and long-term waste storage questions.

Nuclear is part of the future – but there’s an important asterisk: Nuclear isn’t the future.

In the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 plan, wind and solar power are the cornerstones; the IEA says they could provide 70 per cent of global electrical generation in 2050. Nuclear and hydro are an “essential foundation” in the decades of transition. In 2050, the IEA sees nuclear at about 10 per cent of power, the same as today. But because more power is needed, that means growth in nuclear generation. If not, the IEA warns of an overreliance on wind and solar that could make net zero “more costly and less likely.”

The Canada Energy Regulator last December outlined what domestic net-zero electricity could look like in 2050. It showed Saskatchewan doing without nuclear generation, with wind and solar producing most of its power, along with some carbon-capture natural gas. In Ontario, where nuclear is 60 per cent of power today, the share will fall toward 40 per cent in 2050. The CER said nuclear plays “an important role in supporting” net-zero power. But it said that, because of costs, it doesn’t see new nuclear generation until 2040. OPG aims for 2028.

In France, where nuclear supplies 70 per cent of the power, the country said this month that it will build at least six new large reactors by 2050. It also said it will build 50 offshore wind farms, double its onshore wind capacity and catapult solar tenfold. Germany’s focus is renewables. After the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, Germany began to shutter its nuclear power. The last closures come this year. But as the IEA warned about a future with less nuclear, Germany’s move has contributed to a power squeeze and price surge.

Ontario has three nuclear facilities. Pickering closes in 2025. Darlington and Bruce, both being refurbished, will operate into the 2060s. A new SMR at Darlington could add 300 megawatts, but that’s a fraction of Pickering. Natural gas will fill the gap – and greenhouse-gas emissions from power will rise in the years ahead, though remain far lower than Ontario’s coal-powered years.

The bet on SMRs is uncertain. The promise of contained costs is alluring but there is skepticism. Mycle Schneider, a consultant in Paris, last year said there was modest progress in SMR technology but no major advances. And a new study in Nature Energy was inconclusive. It found nuclear may rival wind and solar for cost in the absence of technology to handle intermittent renewable power. But that technology is on the rise. The study also found nuclear would struggle on cost against high-quality wind power.

It’s clear the clean-energy future points to wind and solar as primary power sources. Canada’s Prairies have strong solar potential. Nova Scotia could have a bounty of offshore wind power. But nuclear, even with the many questions it raises, can and should play a role. OPG’s move into SMRs carries risk – starting with cost – but the greater risk is totally backing away from nuclear. It’s part of the net-zero equation.

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