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Reliable and efficient energy source deserves government support

Photo courtesy of Paul Everett (cc)

Early in October, Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli declared that despite the decision to shut down the nuclear power station in Pickering, Ont., new nuclear infrastructure would not be a part of the long-term energy plan for the province. This announcement uncovers one of the major issues faced by the Canadian nuclear industry: the domestic market simply isn’t growing.

Because of decisions like these, companies in the Canadian nuclear industry are forced to look overseas to find markets for new development, and while American and Russian engineers have been designing smaller, cheaper, and more efficient proliferation-proof reactors, Canadian designers have not been offered an incentive to substantially innovate outside the realm of the classic heavy-water nuclear reactor.

This refusal to invest in the development of new nuclear technology has eliminated Canada as a front runner in nuclear energy innovation. India, a country whose nuclear program was jump started by Canada in 1956 with the donation of a research reactor, now benefits from nuclear technology that is not even being considered here.

The Canadian industry doesn’t receive any of the substantial funding that would allow it to develop more innovative nuclear technologies, and therefore remains an afterthought on the international market. Without investment in our industry, Canadian designs are on the verge of becoming outdated, and soon our nuclear sector will not be able to survive.

So, why the reticence?

At first glance nuclear energy is expensive and certain past events, like the 2011 meltdown alert at the Fukishima reactor in Japan in, have left it stigmatized in the eyes of the public. But most experts agree: in the long term, nuclear energy is in fact one of the best options we have.

It not only yields an amazing amount of energy for a miniscule amount of fuel, but it is also incredibly clean; it produces no smoke, is carbon–free and provides much more abundant energy than solar and wind power. Furthermore, with the constant strengthening of international regulation, the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons built from materials derived from the nuclear energy sector is practically null. Finally, the common concern regarding what to do with spent fuel is not as well founded today as it was a decade ago. Government investment in the nuclear sector could allow us to use new technology, which would allow us to not only store nuclear waste more efficiently but also use spent fuel in order to generate more energy.

Growing concerns about climate change have us scrambling to find new energy sources and many people point to solar and wind power to offer the solution. However, as the technology stands right now, renewable energy cannot offer the desired results. Ontario has maxed out on hydro infrastructure and experts have proven time and time again that solar and wind power simply cannot offer the stability or the quantity of energy needed to supply what they call baseload power: the minimum amount of energy that needs to be available at all times for any city or province to function.

The advantages to using renewable energy generally outweigh the inconveniences, but what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow strongly enough to offer baseload power? These things happen; in fact, such occurrences left the United Kingdom and Germany on the brink of energy crises earlier this year. If we do not have the necessary nuclear energy infrastructure to offer baseload power, we will be forced to turn to much more expensive, damaging sources of energy like coal or natural gas.

Ontario needs to keep an open mind about nuclear energy. We need to change the public’s perception of this source of energy. Nuclear reactors don’t automatically equal bombs and meltdowns. If we were simply made more aware of the regulatory process and the incredible safety record of this energy source, we might just see it in a slightly more positive light. When it comes to nuclear, those who know the most about it are the least concerned.