In collaboration with Eric Séguin*
In 1950, Canada faced a difficult choice between the desire to be a leader in the development of nuclear energy technology and the fear that such technology would bring the end of the world a little closer.
Despite concerns related to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Canada elected to be in the vanguard.
As a result, world-class Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors were developed in this country and exported around the world. The Chalk River nuclear facility in Ontario where the CANDU model got its start also became a global contributor to many international nuclear technology projects. Today, Canada’s nuclear sector includes 19 reactors powering approximately 15 percent of the country. Ontario, with 95 percent of the country’s reactors, generated 60 percent of its own electricity from nuclear power plants in 2020.
Yet today, this positive narrative has largely been flipped on its head. Due, in part, to anti-nuclear messaging from activists and certain politicians, the development of this technology has stalled, and with it, so has Canada’s capacity to compete as a global leader in the development of clean nuclear energy.
This is unfortunate when we consider some of the challenges we face today that were poorly understood in the post-war era. Nuclear energy represents one of the cleanest, most sustainable sources of power in a context in which reducing emissions has become a universal goal. But whereas nuclear energy once seemed to be the next logical step in Canada’s energy policy despite warnings about its destructive potential, today nuclear power ironically gets a bad rap even though it may offer a way of avoiding destructive climate-related effects.
In 2050, Canada’s future leaders must see nuclear as more friend than foe. Ignoring its potential as a fast track to adapting away from greenhouse gas emitting technologies and resources would be a missed opportunity. Turning a blind eye would also be increasingly unpopular as more and more people are becoming convinced of the dangers of climate change.
Admittedly, there are drawbacks to nuclear power, such as waste disposal. While manageable today, this will present more of a challenge as nuclear infrastructure grows to supply more than just 15 percent of our electricity. Still, with Ontario already relying on nuclear for the majority of its power generation, Canada has only produced enough total spent fuel waste to fill the equivalent of a half-dozen hockey rinks to the height of the boards.
For the second-largest country on earth by land area, this is an infinitesimally small amount of space, which lends further support to the idea that Canada is relatively well-positioned to lead the world in the development of this green energy source.
Many experts also believe that the technology is still in its infancy, and may present risks when exported to countries that are not bound by international treaties limiting their capacity to produce nuclear weapons (think of China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and North Korea in the 20th century). Yet these concerns seem marginal at best when we consider that Canada has a unique profile on the world stage: a reasonably high GDP per capita, a large pre-existing system for nuclear waste disposal, and a peace-oriented foreign policy guided by nuclear non-proliferation treaties.
Shrinking Reactor Size (and Start-Up Costs)
Not only should there be flexibility for the government to invest in nuclear projects from now until 2050, but regulations should be relaxed to allow for the development of ever-smaller reactors. These could become the new frontier of capital investment in a more consumer-friendly energy market of the future.
And indeed, Canada has already started to invest in the development of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). This is an exciting way for this clean energy technology to avoid the enormous state-subsidized start-up costs associated with larger reactors. With most experts pointing to the problem of cost as the largest barrier to a nuclear future, shrinking reactors could be a significant part of the solution.
Recent developments in Western Canada may point the way forward. With Saskatchewan set to phase out coal by 2030, the government has committed to funding its next stage of investment in alternative energy development projects. Currently focused on solar, the opportunity for nuclear in Saskatchewan is there.
If SMR technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, Saskatchewan — with only a little over 10 percent of Ontario’s real GDP, but with a low incidence of natural disasters of concern for nuclear reactors — could become a Canadian leader in this technology. If so, it may be Saskatchewan that guides Canada on the path that it ultimately must take to produce ubiquitous clean energy by 2050 and cement its place as an exporter not only of goods, but of good ideas.
In addition, nuclear energy can also potentially save lives in the immediate future. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed Canada’s lack of capacity and capability when it comes to producing pharmaceuticals domestically. Therapeutic radionuclides produced here could offer a path forward and allow Canada to escape some of its current dependence on other countries for life-saving treatments.
There is so much to hope for in a nuclear future for Canada, and so much to lose if we give in to old fears and new distractions.
When looking ahead to 2050, Canadians should not be afraid of what the country would look like with more nuclear power generating capacity, but what it would look like without it.
Krystle Wittevrongel and Eric Seguin are both public policy analysts at the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this opinion piece are their own.