Thought Leadership

U.S. and Canada Join Together in Support of Nuclear Innovation

Category: Industry News
N. Ryan Smith • June 15, 2018

Last month’s Clean Energy Ministerial – an annual global forum on clean energy technology – brought energy ministers from around the world together to discuss policy and programs.

At this conference, the U.S. announced that it is participating alongside Canada and seven other countries to support the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy (NICE) Future initiative.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the initiative is meant to shine a light on nuclear power as a clean, reliable energy source. With SMRs emerging as the next wave of cleantech power to carry us into a lower carbon future, the timing is right to develop some common objectives across borders.

The participating countries “plan to implement a portfolio of activities that will call attention to specific areas of opportunity for innovative nuclear technologies, assess emerging applications such as coordinated nuclear-renewables system, and support international exchange of policy, innovation and investment,” the agency said in a press release. This is some refreshing collaborative messaging in a world of cross-border rhetoric these days!

This certainly sounds good on paper. In the past few years, however, the U.S. and Canada have diverged widely when it comes to the development of nuclear power. Canada is spending 25+ billion dollars over 15 years refurbishing its fleet of CANDU reactors to provide low-cost, clean energy to the people of Ontario until 2064.

The U.S., on the other hand, can’t find a business case to sustain reactors that are already paid off and running – running well, in many cases. Completely divergent.

Construction of new reactors in the U.S. has faced an uphill battle, with the Vogtle plant in Georgia being a prime example. The time of the nuclear mega-plant is probably over – but innovation leads to SMRs, which are really exciting and provide a cost-effective and adaptable alternative to harnessing the power of the atom for the good of people.

Look at the contrasts. Recently, William Von Hoene, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Exelon, told attendees at an energy conference that he did not expect the company to build any more nuclear plants in the U.S., because the cost is too high. At the same time, the nuclear industry in Canada is buzzing. Nuclear is a mainstay of Ontario’s power generation system, already providing 60% of the province’s energy, and work continues on refurbishments at Darlington and Bruce Power.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the country’s nuclear science and technology organization, is actively working on a demonstration SMR project to showcase the commercial viability of this next-generation technology. It just announced that four SMR developers have been selected to continue down the path of building demonstration SMRs at its Chalk River site.

Why the stark difference? Public attitudes and government policies are playing a significant role.

Advances in energy conservation are successfully restraining demand for energy in the U.S. As a result, the predominant energy issue there is less about increasing baseload and more about evening out demand – ensuring that there is enough supply during peak times.

This has diminished some of the urgency that might come from a need to develop new sources of energy to keep up with a growing appetite.

At the same time, many Americans are skeptical about climate change, leading them to actively embrace existing power sources such as coal. The Trump administration has vocally supported the continued use of fossil fuels.

Canadians, on the other hand, have more widely accepted the need for new, sustainable energy sources. The country’s population in general supports eliminating coal as an energy source altogether and is introducing carbon taxes of various forms. The government has also noted that the cost of phasing out the older power plants will be offset by reduced healthcare costs.

Of course, the nuclear industry faces challenges within Canada as well as the U.S. In Ontario, after 15 years of rule, the Liberals have been booted from office. They were strong advocates of nuclear power, and it remains to be seen where the new Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford lands on carbon emission policy. We already know he doesn’t support a carbon tax because, en masse, the public does not either.

But Canada’s overall understanding of the benefits of nuclear power goes a long way toward overcoming them. Can the U.S. be convinced to get serious about recognizing them as well?