It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the energy industry lately. Volatile fossil fuel prices and supply chain disruptions have forced governments to take a hard look at domestic energy security – something that has been taken for granted for many years with ever-increasing globalization. These difficulties come as countries are taking steps to tackle the climate crisis. This opens the debate on how to balance concerns over emissions, fuel costs and geopolitics.
Canada is not immune to these worldwide problems. Although we are lucky to have an electricity system that is more than 80 per cent low-carbon and generated from domestic resources, including uranium mined in Canada, our energy system overall is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Transportation, buildings and industry are still mostly powered and heated by oil and natural gas, a significant portion of which is imported.
Countries have been forced to publicly reconsider their positions on nuclear power, which in many cases has been based on politics rather than economic and climate policy. Governments that once suggested they were finished with nuclear power are now admitting that such statements were premature.
Japan is reconsidering its nuclear phase-out, as is Belgium. South Korea’s newly elected president wants at least 30 per cent of total energy generation to come from nuclear. There is even a renewed discussion on the potential to extend the life of nuclear plants in Germany, which has long held anti-nuclear sentiments. Other countries actively pursuing nuclear power include Ghana, the Philippines and Vietnam.
These developments follow statements by other countries that have signaled they are fully committing to nuclear as a central pillar in their emissions-reduction strategies. France, the U.K., and the United States have all stated that they will not only keep existing nuclear facilities running, but also now plan to invest heavily in innovations, including small modular reactors (SMRs).
Meanwhile in Canada, we have a government that is a champion of nuclear one day, yet leaves it as a footnote the next.
For example, the federal government’s climate plan explicitly includes the need for nuclear power, and the 2018 SMR action plan thrust Canada into the spotlight as a world leader on this promising technology. The recent announcement by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada that it is investing more than $27 million in Westinghouse to develop and deploy its eVinci microreactor suggests the government is fully behind nuclear.
The 2022 federal budget, tabled in April, also provides explicit financial and policy support for not only the development and deployment of SMRs, but also uranium exploration and nuclear supply chain opportunities in Canada.
Yet nuclear was excluded from the clean tax credit policy announcements made in the 2020 federal budget as well as the accelerated capital cost allowance (CCA) for clean energy equipment. Then there’s the release of Canada’s green bond framework in March 2022 by the minister of finance that explicitly excludes nuclear power. This wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Other green bond frameworks, such as in the U.K., exclude nuclear. But the U.K.’s framework also explicitly notes that that while it is excluded, nuclear “is, and will continue to be, a key part of the UK’s low-carbon energy mix.” This is a commitment to an industry from government.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault also recently suggested that Canada will support nuclear, but only if it can compete fairly with other low-carbon generation. However, this doesn’t seem like a fair competition when nuclear is denied access to the same clean energy financing and tax credits available to renewables, and even to carbon capture and storage.
These inconsistencies have left many in the nuclear industry wondering about the federal government’s true position and the future of the 76,000 Canadians employed by the industry. The government’s lack of clarity also doesn’t appear to align with indications that most Canadians who understand nuclear power support the industry.
Several polls indicate this support, including one from 2020 and a more recent poll that specifically targeted people who live near nuclear power plants. The more recent study also indicates that those who are very supportive of SMRs are also likely to be very supportive of solar power, suggesting that Canadians who really care about climate issues support any solution to reduce emissions. In short, the more people know about nuclear power and its benefits, the more they support its role as one of the safest, cleanest, most secure sources of power available.
The nuclear industry is aware of this support and stands ready to continue our work with the federal government to build upon this positive momentum. Government should commit to nuclear as a pillar of Canadian energy and climate policy, and should acknowledge that not only is it a cornerstone of our domestic energy security, but there is no credible path to net-zero emissions in Canada without nuclear.
Now is the time for the federal government to publicly and consistently emphasize the critical role that nuclear must play to address the climate crisis. This starts with recognizing – as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done – that nuclear is clean energy on par with renewables and other low-carbon technologies.
This recognition must be stated not only in government documents and speeches, but also in additional policy, programs and financing mechanisms. The 2022 federal budget is a very positive step forward, but much more is needed if Canada is to have any hope of meeting its climate commitments. As the federal environment and science ministers wrote recently when announcing government support for carbon capture and storage, “when it comes to climate change, there’s no magic bullet. So let’s use every tool in the toolbox.”