For years, the noted energy economist and climate change expert Mark Jaccard asked students in his graduate seminar about which would be the best alternatives for addressing climate change: using renewables, promoting energy efficiency, expanding nuclear power, carbon capture and so on. His students usually replied that only renewables and energy efficiency were real options.
The Simon Fraser University professor would then ask them to make arguments for other options but, as he recounted in his 2020 book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, most of his environmentally minded students did a poor job of it, especially at first. Their strong beliefs about what the answer should be got in the way of looking for it.
On Tuesday, we saw a political version of this rigid reasoning when four MPs from four different parties held a press conference to warn the country against nuclear power. The Liberal government has included nuclear in the hefty investment incentives available for clean energy, and they don’t like it.
The four – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May; Liberal Jenica Atwin; Bloc Québécois MP Mario Simard; and New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice – are all advocates for action on climate change.
Nuclear energy is a zero-emission source of power, but it’s also opposed outright by some environmentalists. On Tuesday, Ms. May and others argued that the planet is facing a climate emergency. They also insisted Ottawa absolutely cannot consider nuclear power – as any part of the solution.
They were just arguing against a specific proposal for a nuclear project, but that all nuclear power must be ruled out from the get-go.
“It has no part in fighting the climate emergency,” Ms. May said. The focus of the press conference was especially on proposals for smaller “modular“ reactors, but Ms. May made it clear she was not only opposed to them. Nuclear power, she said, is a “dirty, dangerous distraction” from other alternatives to combat climate change.
Mr. Simard was appalled that some suggestions for small nuclear reactors would see them used in the production of oil and gas, although presumably that would be aimed at lowering big emissions, too.
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This press conference was about beliefs. And they are beliefs that can be a distraction from the bigger mission. The mission is lowering emissions, by decarbonizing the economy in a massive transition over the coming decades. The biggest barriers are political. Denial is one, but ideological rigidity gets in the way too.
The idea that considering using nuclear is a costly distraction from other climate-change progress is wrong. If you have to substantially transform the make-up of the economy, you want a lot of people pursuing different options.
Of course, we want to pick the best ones. But that doesn’t mean ruling out technologies that lower emissions. Prof. Jaccard argued for pursuing a mix of methods, including those opposed by some environmentalists, such as carbon capture.
Yes, it would be unwise for Ottawa to back nuclear power as the only clean-energy source, but it is not doing that. It has made nuclear projects eligible for its hefty clean-energy incentives and provided a $970-million loan to Ontario Power Generation to develop a small-scale reactor at its Darlington power station.
There are a few other nuclear projects being mooted, notably in Ontario, and lots of talk about the potential for small modular reactors to provide power for industrial projects. But there is unlikely to be a massive expansion. Most provinces don’t use nuclear power and won’t start now.
And nuclear power is not cheap. Still, the reason that Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is arguing that it will be part of a future mix is that de-carbonization will also require a ramp-up of electricity supply in the next few decades.
He argues that in some places, nuclear generation can provide needed baseload power while wind and solar generate electricity according to the weather – and battery storage, while getting cheaper, is costly. If there’s one thing that will get in the way of a clean energy transition, it’s a lack of clean energy.
That doesn’t mean backing every nuclear project is a good idea. And to be fair to that group of four MPs, they raised some important points of caution, such as the difficulty of dealing with nuclear waste. Mr. Boulerice noted there is a lot of industry “hype” about the potential for small nuclear reactors, and public dollars shouldn’t back an all-in gamble on novel designs.
Those are practical concerns to be weighed. When reducing emissions is an economics and engineering problem, it is easier to solve. When politicians put up ideological barriers, they just get in the way.