Tag Archives: The Globe and Mail

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Small modular reactors help us take a giant leap in the fight against climate change

By John Gorman
Originally published in The Globe and Mail, December 12, 2019

To many Canadians, it may not seem like a big deal that the three provinces that have nuclear sectors – Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan – signed an agreement to develop small modular reactors (SMRs). But this milestone represents a giant leap forward for Canadian industry and the fight against climate change.

I’m new to the nuclear industry, but I’ve been working in the energy sector for 20 years. I’ve seen new technologies revolutionize how we produce and manage electricity. The development and deployment of SMRs has the potential to be even more transformative than the introduction of wind and solar power.

Why am I and others in the energy sector so excited about SMRs? The answer is in their name. First, they are small. Large reactors are powerful: They generate clean and inexpensive electricity for decades. But they take years to build, they are suitable only for large demand and they can’t be moved. SMRs, on the other hand, are like solar power in that they can be scaled to suit local needs.

SMRs are also modular, meaning they can be mass-produced and shipped to remote locations. A small city could use an SMR until it reaches capacity, then add another as the city grows. A mine could use an SMR to help with its peak production, then ship it to a new location when operations slow down.

The modular approach will also help to reduce costs. A new advanced reactor could cost more than $1-billion, but mass production removes duplication of the costs of licensing and customization. Bulk purchasing of parts and replication of skills would reduce costs further. In short, the upfront investment will be big, while the payoff in terms of inexpensive energy will last decades.

SMRs are to large reactors what desktops were to mainframe computers in the 1980s. They made computing practical, flexible and accessible for everyone.

There are three main ways that SMRs can transform Canada’s energy sector. First, as more provinces and territories phase out coal, SMRs can fill in the gap, producing similar amounts of power without carbon emissions and other pollution. SMRs produce a steady supply of electricity making it an ideal partner to wind and solar by eliminating the need for fossil fuel backups when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Second, SMRs can be deployed in the many remote communities in Canada that still use fossil fuels to generate electricity because it’s simply not economical to build hundreds of kilometres of power lines to connect to the grid.

Finally, SMRs can help with the operation of heavy industry, such as oil sands and mines. These facilities are a big part of Canada’s economy, but they are often remote and off-grid, and they need a lot of heat and power to operate.

There are some environmentalists who still resist the expansion of nuclear power. When I was chief executive of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, I was one of them. That’s until I realized that the critical transition to a low-carbon economy will be almost impossible without the reliable, safe and clean energy that nuclear technology provides. We need nuclear power to reduce emissions, as an increasing number of environmentalists, industry leaders and the International Energy Agency agree.

SMRs have several safety advantages built into them. Some designs use molten salt or liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. Some are built so that the reactor shuts down if it is not being actively managed, while others are designed so that the reaction slows if it gets too hot. And the designs incorporate several advances in managing waste as well. Some are designed to require refuelling only every few years or even decades, and some “recycle” spent fuel, producing only a fraction of the waste of a conventional reactor.

We’re about to witness a fascinating race to determine the best SMR design, and some of the leading candidates are Canadian. Three companies have now passed the first review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. They are now entering the second phase, a more detailed examination of their safety. Seven more designs are now in the first phase, and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories plans to have a demonstration unit built by 2026.

Canada has a great history as a leader in nuclear technology, dating back decades. We have some of the largest resources of uranium in the world. We also have the right people with the right skills to build safe and reliable nuclear reactors. And now that three provinces consider them a key technology for meeting emission targets, we have a clear demand for SMRs.

The agreement between the three provinces is the beginning of a transformation of our energy sector. But it’s more than that. We’ve just witnessed an election campaign that exposed regional divisions around energy and climate change. I don’t think SMRs are the entire answer to this debate, but they have the potential to be a uniting force between federal and provincial interests. Working together, we can use SMRs to meet our growing energy needs, reduce emissions and introduce carbon-free electricity to many new places in Canada and around the world.

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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.