Author Archives: Erin Polka

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 fueled 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.

2020 Canadian Nuclear Achievement Awards – Call for Nominations

We are announcing the Call for Nominations for the 2020 Canadian Nuclear Achievement Awards, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Nuclear Society (CNS) and the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA).  These awards represent an opportunity to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions, technical and non-technical, to various aspects of nuclear science and technology in Canada.

The deadline to submit nominations for the 2020 Canadian Nuclear Achievement Awards is January 12, 2020The Awards will be officially presented during the CNS Annual Conference held May 31 – June 3, 2020 in Saint John, NB.

Nominations may be submitted for any of the following Awards:

  • W. B. Lewis Medal
  • Ian McRae Award
  • Harold A. Smith Outstanding Contribution Award
  • Innovative Achievement Award
  • John S. Hewitt Team Achievement Award
  • Education and Communication Award
  • George C. Laurence Award for Nuclear Safety
  • Fellow of the Canadian Nuclear Society
  • R. E. Jervis Award

For detailed information on the nomination package, Awards criteria, and how to submit the nomination, see the linked brochure or visit: https://cns-snc.ca/cns/awards/. The nomination package shall include a completed and signed nomination checklist.

Moltex Energy pursuing SMR build in New Brunswick

The next generation of nuclear reactors is on its way in Canada.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are a type of reactor that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. They can be built in factories and delivered to power sites and remote locations for installation at a low cost.

In Ontario, both Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power are working with companies to develop SMRs.

And in New Brunswick, two companies signed agreements with NB Power and the Government of New Brunswick as part of an effort to build a manufacturing hub and potentially a second or even third reactor at Point Lepreau.

One of these companies is Moltex Energy.

At the recent Canadian Nuclear Society conference in Ottawa, Moltex Energy Canada Chief Executive Rory O’Sullivan spoke about the company’s efforts to have a stable salt reactor available before 2030.

“We signed the agreements with NB Power and the New Brunswick government last year,” he said.

There are now 10 full-time engineers at the Moltex office in New Brunswick, with five more expected to start in the fall.

“The main objective from the New Brunswick side is understanding our technology so they can eventually build a demonstration plant,” he said. “The long-term vision is to have New Brunswick as a cluster, to build a plant there and get the local supply chain engaged in the best position to sell components as we sell reactors around the world.”

Moltex’s reactor is an SSR, short for Stable Salt Reactor. It uses molten salt fuel in conventional fuel pins. The technology can reuse spent fuel from CANDU reactors at Point Lepreau. It can store heat as thermal energy in large tanks of molten salt that can be converted to steam to create electricity and be able to operate on demand.

In severe accidents the fuel can tolerate temperatures up to 1,600 degrees before it starts to boil.
“The concept of a meltdown doesn’t really apply,” O’Sullivan said.

Companies like Moltex are among those working in Canada to build the next generation of nuclear reactors that offer more flexibility to work with renewables in clean-energy systems of the future.

“All grids around the world need more flexibility as renewables grow and as grids change and you get more electric vehicle charging spikes,” he said. “We are not just developing a reactor that runs baseload all the time. We are developing a hybrid nuclear storage solution.”

“Nuclear is going to be part of a decarbonized future grid. Our way of getting there is trying to build a nuclear solution that operates as cheaply as possible.”

Carbon dating: A window to the world

As global warming causes the Earth’s permafrost to melt, scientists are uncovering some astonishing finds from deep beneath the ice.

Producing an accurate age of these treasures is a key step for archaeologists, made possible through carbon dating, a process of dating organic material as far back as 60,000 years using nuclear technology.

One well-known discovery was “Ötzi the Iceman,” who became a bona fide scientific celebrity after being found in 1991 by two German hikers 3,210 metres above sea level in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border. The mummified corpse was partly entombed in the ice and thought at first to be a fallen mountaineer or Italian soldier from one of the world wars.

It wasn’t until scientists used carbon dating to determine Ötzi’s age that they discovered he had perished 5,300 years earlier during the late Neolithic period. In 2018, researchers published a detailed analysis of the tools discovered alongside Otzi’s body. These tools would have only given clues as to Ötzi’s age without the help of carbon dating.

The ability to carbon date organic objects was first discovered in 1946 by Willard Libby, a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago. He determined that carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon naturally found in the atmosphere, was absorbed by green plants and the animals that ate them.

Libby correctly theorized that if the amount of carbon-14 in an object could be detected, its age could be known by calculating the half-life (about 5,730 years) or rate of decay of the isotope, a process that begins when a living organism dies. Once this occurs, carbon-14 is no longer absorbed and the existing isotope count begins to steadily diminish. In other words, the older the specimen, the less carbon-14 will be present.

Until Libby’s discovery, the age of objects could only be determined in relation to the surrounding site by examining the geographic layers where an artifact was found.

New applications have developed for the technique as well. Carbon dating has been used to successfully confirm alleged art forgeries such as the painting by French cubist Fernand Léger and Robert Trotter’s forgery of Sarah Honn’s artwork.

Both were identified as fake after analyzing the radioactive forms of carbon-14 in the canvas and paint to establish whether there was a realistic correlation between their ages. Forgers are well known for using old canvas to appear authentic but have no choice but to use much newer paint.

Scientists also use carbon dating to study monarch butterfly migration routes from Canada to Mexico and back. The method solved a longstanding mystery about why some monarchs are found on the East Coast as well as the traditional interior.

Researchers studied 90 butterfly samples from 17 sites from Maine to Virginia along with 180 samples of milkweed, which monarch larvae feed on. This revealed where the monarchs were born and their age when they consumed the milkweed.

How to advocate for nuclear energy this Thanksgiving

By John Gorman, President and CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association

Many of us have learned the hard way that it’s best to stay away from controversial topics at the holiday dinner table.

Avoiding a heated discussion at a family get-together this Canadian Thanksgiving may be difficult, though, with a federal election underway. And thanks to the recent nationwide climate marches inspired by the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, discussions of political partisanship and the environment are likely on the menu.

Fortunately, nuclear energy is increasingly being seen by both sides of the political spectrum as a needed clean energy source.

If the topic of climate change does come up, here’s how you can talk about nuclear’s role in saving the planet without causing a food fight to break out.

The starting point is important. The general public shows a great deal of confusion about nuclear energy compared to other energy sources. Polling by Abacus Data for the CNA released earlier this year revealed that only 38 per cent of respondents are aware that nuclear produces less carbon than oil.

However, the polling also found that climate change concerns can open minds to nuclear.

“When informed that nuclear power emissions are similar to solar, wind and hydro, and asked how they felt about the idea of using nuclear in situations where it could replace higher emitting fuels, a large majority (84%) say they are open (35%) to or supportive (49%) of this,” the poll found.

Assuming your family and friends are representative of the Canadian population you will have opened at least a few minds to the potential of nuclear energy. The trick is to stay out of the weeds while delivering the message that nuclear power generation is carbon-free and helps fight climate change.

Simple facts about nuclear can be effective as well. For example, the fact that nuclear energy produces 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity is something a general audience that does not work in energy sector probably doesn’t know.

If you bring up nuclear in a social setting in 2019, you can also expect the HBO series Chernobyl will come up.

The CNA has written a fact sheet to clear up misconceptions about the miniseries. The key point is that because of different reactor types, it is almost impossible that an accident like the one at Chernobyl could happen at a nuclear plant found in Canada or the U.S. today.

Most importantly, if you’re going to talk nuclear at the table, remember to listen to what others at the table have to say. Communication is a two-way street and others may have different opinions, especially when it comes to nuclear. Listen to their thoughts and concerns before sharing your point of view.

Bon appétit!

IEA report stresses need for maintaining nuclear

The world will have an almost impossible task of meeting climate targets if nuclear energy is not increased.

IEA Director Fatih Birol.

That’s the conclusion of a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that was released at the 10th Clean Energy Ministerial in Vancouver in May.

In its report, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System,” the IEA said if governments don’t change their current policies, advanced economies will be on track to lose two-thirds of their current nuclear fleet, risking a huge increase in CO2 emissions.

“Without action to provide more support for nuclear power, global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly,” IEA Director Fatih Birol said.

“Wind and solar energy need to play a much greater role in order for countries to meet sustainability goals, but it is extremely difficult to envisage them doing so without help from nuclear power.”

The report made eight policy recommendations to governments, including authorizing lifetime extensions if safe for current plants, supporting new build and supporting innovative designs, such as small modular reactors.

The IEA estimates that it would cost approximately $1.6 trillion between 2018 and 2040 in additional investment to replace existing nuclear with renewable energy, supporting technologies and infrastructure. That works out to $80 billion higher per year on average for advanced economies.

The study also notes the past contribution of nuclear energy to the climate.

“Globally, nuclear power output avoided 63 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) from 1971 to 2018,” the IEA noted. “Without nuclear power, emissions from electricity generation would have been almost 20% higher, and total energy-related emissions 6% higher, over that period. Without nuclear power, emissions from electricity generation would have been 25% higher in Japan, 45% higher in Korea and over 50% higher in Canada over the period 1971-2018.”

The IEA understands the best path to decarbonization, but currently, many people in the clean energy space believe in a single solution.

We need all available tools and technologies to reduce emissions. And they must complement each other and work together in an integrated clean energy system. That system should include nuclear.