Nuclear energy is a vital part of solving the climate crisis

By John Gorman
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, October 24, 2019

I never thought I would become a passionate champion for nuclear energy. But after 20 years of advocating for renewable energy, I’ve overcome the misconceptions I had in the past and I am convinced by the evidence we can’t fight climate change without nuclear.

When I was the chief executive of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, I thought the “holy grail” was to make renewable energy cost-competitive so it could fulfill our energy needs. Today, wind and solar are among the cheapest forms of energy in many places around the world. The generous subsidies that fuelled early growth are no longer at play, yet the growth of wind and solar continues.

Despite the strong growth, the percentage of emissions-free electricity in the world has not increased in 20 years. It’s stuck at 36 per cent, according to a recent IEA report. This is because global demand keeps increasing, renewables often need to be backed up by new fossil fuel sources and existing nuclear plants are being shut down prematurely. We must face a sobering reality: Renewable energy alone is simply not enough to address the climate crisis.

This is a difficult thing for me to admit. In 2014, I delivered a TEDx talk in which I was an unabashed champion for solar energy. I installed solar panels on the roof of my home and smart battery storage in my basement. I bought an electric vehicle. And I continue to be a supporter of wind and solar because we need every clean energy solution available. But I now realize I dedicated 20 years – very precious years from a climate-change perspective – promoting a partial solution.

An overly optimistic view of renewables has affected major decisions about other energy sources, particularly nuclear. Our global focus on renewables has caused existing nuclear plants to be retired early and has stalled investment in new projects. It’s given people a false sense of security that we don’t need nuclear any more when nothing could be further from the truth.

What’s worse, because wind and solar are variable (they produce electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines), they must be paired with other energy sources to support demand, and these are almost always fossil fuels. In the absence of enough nuclear energy, renewables are effectively prolonging the life of coal and gas plants that can produce power around the clock.

Unfortunately, many Canadians wrongly believe our future energy demands can be met with renewables alone. A recent Abacus Data poll found that more than 40 per cent of Canadians believe a 100-per-cent renewable energy future is possible. This is simply not true. The deadline to save the planet is approaching and we are no closer to a real solution.

A critical issue is that nuclear is vastly misunderstood by policy makers and the general public. These well-intentioned people – and I used to be one of them – continue to believe fallacies, misconceptions and even fear-mongering about nuclear, including claims that it’s expensive, dangerous, and produces large quantities of radioactive waste.

The truth is that when you consider the entire power generation life cycle, nuclear energy is one of the least expensive energy sources. That’s because uranium is cheap and abundant, and nuclear reactors – though costly to build – last for several decades. Furthermore, it’s safe: Used nuclear fuel is small in quantity, properly stored, strictly regulated, and poses no threat to human health or the environment.

There’s a staggering lack of knowledge and understanding of nuclear. I was active in the energy business, and I’ve lived my whole life in a province – Ontario – where nuclear makes up a significant portion of the electricity supply, and I still didn’t know the facts about nuclear energy until very recently.

People fail to realize that nuclear is the only proven technology that has decarbonized the economies of entire countries, including France and Sweden. We can pair renewables with nuclear energy and start to meet our energy targets. But it will take a change in mentality and new investment in nuclear energy.

So this is why I’m now on a mission to help people discover and rediscover nuclear as the clean technology solution to decarbonize our electricity systems and solve the climate crisis. We need to extend the life of existing plants rather than close them prematurely. We need to invest in new modern technologies including small modular reactors, which can be deployed in off-grid settings such as remote communities and mining sites. And we need to use nuclear alongside renewables to power the grid. We must act before it’s too late. And we can’t afford to be distracted from real, practical solutions by a completely impossible dream of 100 per cent renewable energy. We don’t want to look back on this time and realize we made the wrong decisions. The time for nuclear is now.

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