By Marla Orenstein
A version of this piece appeared in the Hill Times

December 9, 2020

Right now, there is both a problem and an opportunity that nuclear energy – particularly in the form of small modular reactors – may be ready to step in and fill.

The COVID lockdowns of 2020 highlighted just how difficult it is going to be to reach our goals for decreasing GHG emissions, the main driver behind climate change.

An analysis done by the International Energy Agency in May 2020 found that lockdowns resulted in a 25 per cent decrease in energy use for areas in total lockdown, and an 18 per cent decrease for areas in partial lockdown. The associated decrease in GHG emissions appears to have been similar – close to 25 and 18 per cent respectively.

This compares with a needed decrease of 25 per cent of GHG emissions (compared to 2018) if we are going to hold to a 2 degree warming scenario – and a decrease of 55 per cent if the goal is 1.5 degrees of warming.

What the lockdowns showed is that even with much of the world’s population staying at home, next to no air travel, decreased purchasing and the almost complete shuttering of the commercial sector in many countries – unsustainable behaviours over the long term – this wasn’t enough to reach our GHG reduction targets.

Why not? Because behaviour changed, but fuels did not.

What this points to is clear: if Canada and other countries are serious about hitting the target of reducing GHG emissions, fuel switching is going to have to occur rapidly, and nuclear power has to be considered as a serious option.

Nuclear energy has a number of advantages. It’s operation creates no greenhouse gas emissions, but unlike solar and wind, the power output is constant and doesn’t rely on weather conditions. It produces a high energy output suitable for industrial uses that require intense heat. It has a very small site footprint, avoiding knock-on problems around land use and biodiversity. And it supports electrification of processes currently powered by fossil fuels.

This is not to downplay the problems, however. Although surveys have shown that many Canadians are open to nuclear energy as a way to address climate change, the public also has strong concerns around safety, contamination, waste and security.

However, advances in materials, technologies and safety systems make a case for seriously re-considering nuclear energy, with three technologies are particularly worth noting: small modular reactors, molten salt reactors and thorium reactors.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are smaller-scale versions of traditional nuclear reactors, producing between 1 and 300 megawatts (MW), compared to the 500-4,000MW output typical of conventional nuclear power plants. SMRs are easier and less expensive to construct; for example, the U.S. Department of Energy has found a way to 3D print an SMR core, complete with sensors and controls integrated into the core itself. And SMRs are the right size for powering industrial processes like mines or SAGD facilities.

SMRs may soon be a reality in Canada. The federal government produced an SMR roadmap in 2018, which Minister O’Regan has committed to implementing. On the provincial side, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Ontario signed a joint agreement in December 2019 to promote SMRs, with Alberta joining the group in August 2020.

Molten salt reactors (MSRs) address one of the biggest factors in the safety of nuclear power plants: the potential for overheating or meltdowns. Rather than using water to cool fuel rods, MSRs suspend the fuel in a molten salt solution. Any rapid increase in temperature causes the salts to expand, moving the fuel molecules further apart and decreasing the fission reaction. This action is an inherent physical property of the salt matrix; it doesn’t require operator intervention. There are now four companies in the U.S. and Canada that have announced plans for commercial-scale MSR reactors, as well as substantial interest from China, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and others.

Thorium-fueled reactors offer an alternative to uranium as the primary fuel. Thorium is both more abundant and more easily extracted, and unlike uranium, thorium atoms can’t start a fission process on their own. It is also extremely difficult to use the fuel by-products for nuclear weapons. Perhaps most importantly, there is much less waste from spent thorium fuel and it is much less radiotoxic than uranium.

There are no easy answers. Those who point out the potential hazards are right to do so. But we have also reached the time when we must decide how to manage the trade-offs among all our imperfect energy sources.

Marla Orenstein is the Director of the Natural Resources Centre at the Canada West Foundation