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Could nuclear power help B.C. reach its climate change goals? SFU research makes the case

Click to play video: 'SFU energy study says B.C. needs to take another look at nuclear power' SFU energy study says B.C. needs to take another look at nuclear power
WATCH: A new study by researchers at Simon Fraser University says B.C. needs to re-think its rejection of nuclear power, if it's to reach its goal of zero emissions by 2050. Ted Chernecki reports. – Jan 26, 2022

New research out of Simon Fraser University is suggesting that British Columbia may need to look at nuclear power as a part of its electricity mix if it aims to meet its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Recent modelling from the university’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering found that meeting the province’s climate change goals will require a near complete electrification of energy use.

B.C.’s current energy mix, for everything from transport to industry to home use, is roughly 80 per cent fossil fuel and 20 per cent electric, according to Taco Niet, associate professor of professional practice with the program.

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Bringing it up to nearly 100 per cent would require doubling or tripling current electrical production, he said.

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“We’d need another 20 Site C Dams,” Niet said.

“We are lucky right now that we have the hydro system that we do and that we can build the Site C, which will give us a little bit of a surplus for the next few years, but then building out the rest of the system and addressing the bigger challenge that’s coming really needs to be dealt with.”

Renewables such as wind and solar alone won’t be able to do the job, Niet argued, suggesting the province may need to look to look at nuclear power in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs) as a part of the solution.

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Advocates say SMRs are safer than conventional reactors, cheaper to build and operate and can be built with a much smaller physical footprint.

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And while the up-front costs of nuclear power remain higher than renewables, Niet said they are not as far apart as they appear once the costs of storage or transmission for renewable power are included.

“I don’t think we can choose one solution and say we’re just going to do wind, we’re just going to do solar, we’re just going to do efficiency. We need to have that suite of solutions.”

Ontario, home to 18 of Canada’s 19 nuclear power plants, is currently looking at buying an American-designed SMR as a replacement reactor.

Read more: Ontario’s Darlington nuclear plant to receive first new reactor in decades

But other major jurisdictions are moving in the other direction. Germany, for example, has nearly completed a long-term move to decommission its nuclear plants.

M.V. Ramana, a professor with UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, says nuclear power is simply too expensive to be an effective solution to B.C.’s climate problems.

Nuclear power costs on average $160 per kilowatt hour compared to just $30 or so and dropping for renewables like wind and solar.

“Given that this discussion is happening in the context of climate change, I think what you would end up is a lot of money invested without a corresponding reduction in emissions, he said.

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Using small reactors, he said, would actually make the projects even more expensive because of their high cost to build and operate compared to the smaller amount of power they would generate.

Beyond the economics, he argued actually getting an SMR in place in time to meet B.C.’s climate goals is unrealistic. SMRs have been in the proposal stage 20 years in the U.S., he said, but not a single one has been built.

“People have been talking about these small modular reactors for decades,” he said. “These are all paper designs, far away from reality.”

Those issues, he said, are above and beyond the well-known concerns around nuclear power ranging from safety risks to the disposal of radioactive waste.

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“How do we accelerate (the construction of renewable power) is where the conversation should be, rather than going down dead ends like nuclear power,” he said.

Adding nuclear power to B.C.’s electricity mix would no doubt be controversial, and would likely require legislative changes. The province’s Clean Energy Act specifically states it seeks to achieve its goals without the use of nuclear power.

But the federal government is bullish on small modular reactors, and in 2020 launched an SMR action plan aimed at building and deploying demonstration reactors to showcase the technology.

In the short term, Niet says it’s a conversation the public needs to have.

“Society’s sort of perception of things and understanding how big of a problem (climate change) is has shifted this year,”  he said.

“I think that’s an opportunity for the government and researchers like me to actually start moving the conversation forward.”

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