The demand for electricity continues to rise as countries transition to an electrified economy. To ensure an adequate and reliable supply during peak hours, governments must decide which energy technologies should be prioritised and developed to help with this transition.

Nuclear power is certainly in the running for providing this essential service, but it’s not the best option. Refurbishing aging CANDU reactors and investing in unproven nuclear technology will waste money that could be otherwise be invested in renewable energy solutions.

That’s where the smart money is – renewables – and all the evidence points to why.  Electricity from nuclear energy is simply too expensive.

According to the World Nuclear Industry 2022 Status Report, nuclear energy’s share of global electricity generation in 2021 was 9.8 per cent – the lowest value in four decades – and substantially below the peak of 17.5 per cent in 1996.

Nuclear energy is being consistently outpaced by renewable energy (excluding hydropower) which ramped up its contribution to global electricity supply to 12.8 per cent.

Between 2009 and 2021, utility-scale solar costs plummeted by 90 per cent, while wind dropped by 72 per cent. In contrast, nuclear costs increased by 36 per cent. The cost of electricity generated by solar and onshore wind is in the range of 2.4 to 9.6 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, (¢/kWh), while the cost of electricity from nuclear is estimated as anywhere between 14 and 22 ¢/kWh. It’s not even close.

In 2021, total investment in non-hydro renewable electricity capacity reached a record US$366 billion, 15 times the reported global investment in nuclear power plants of US$24 billion. Investments in solar energy were 8.5 times, and wind six times, the investments in nuclear energy.

Globally, the cost of renewable electricity is now significantly below not only nuclear power, but also gas. According to analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), wind and solar power are now the cheapest form of new electricity in most countries of the world including Canada. BNEF anticipates  it will be more expensive to operate existing coal or fossil gas power plants within five years than to build new solar or wind farms.

Unsurprisingly, it is wind farms and large solar installations that are being built in record numbers. In 2021, wind added 92 GW of new capacity while solar-installed capacity grew by 138 GW. Compare these numbers with the net decrease of 0.4 GW in operating nuclear power capacity.

It’s not just the cost of electricity from nuclear power plants that makes them uneconomical and a poor choice for power utilities. They also take years to build and even longer to decommission. The decommissioning of the Gentilly 2 reactor in Quebec, shut down in December 2012, is expected to take 50 years.

In Canada, the promotion of small modular reactors (SMRs) started in 2017 when the federal government funded the Canadian Nuclear Association to “identify the opportunities” for them in Canada.

As requested, the CNA produced a  document that highlighted all their supposed benefits, including a vision to  bring the technology to Canada as a “source of safe, clean, affordable energy.”

Since that time, the federal government has awarded several million dollars to Terrestrial Energy and Moltex, two companies that are pursuing molten-salt reactor designs, plus additional funding to Westinghouse to support another concept.

New Brunswick’s utility company, NB Power, announced it was working with Moltex and a company called ARC to advance their technologies to be deployed in New Brunswick. However, the province is favouring two reactor designs – molten salt reactors and sodium cooled fast reactors – that have well-documented problems.

Molten salt reactors have technical challenges, sodium-cooled fast reactors have never been commercially viable, and the use of molten sodium (a very difficult material to handle) means they are prone to leaks and shutdowns.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and SaskPower in Saskatchewan have selected GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 for potential deployment. OPG plans to construct a reactor of this type at the Darlington CANDU nuclear site, with hopes that it could be operational by 2028.

This reactor was first submitted for licensing to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2005 but it wasn’t approved until 2014 after the design was changed nine times. In Ontario, the reactor now under review for licensing, will be built by Candu-Energy. This will be North America’s first grid-scale SMR when it commences operations.

Just like the larger-scale reactors operating in 32 countries, SMRs are certain to generate substantial cost overruns and multi-year-long delays. It is the nature of nuclear technology.

In the case of the new fleet of SMRs proposed in North America and Europe, all of which are new designs (or substantially revised ones), it is unlikely the estimated costs and delivery dates will be met by the industry.  

Canada’s SMR roadmap proclaims: “SMRs have numerous advantages compared to large nuclear power plants, such as lower capital costs, modularity, economies of multiples, simpler designs, and potential shorter construction schedules.”

But this is misleading. It’s the cost of electricity produced by the SMRs that counts, and this is certain to be higher.

The industry itself has acknowledged this, admitting that the cost of electricity produced by the first SMRs to generate power is probably going to be twice the cost of electricity produced by full-scale reactors. Yet, nuclear-generated electricity is four times more expensive than solar energy and wind turbines.

Because they are intermittent sources of energy, solar and wind power installations partner up with batteries that can store electricity. While battery storage systems were once small and expensive, the technology has changed and now the equipment is larger and becoming less expensive.

Simply put, combining energy storage with solar energy and wind power electricity generation increases capital costs, but the cost of electricity is still less than fossil fuel power generation with carbon capture and electricity from nuclear power.

There are also strategies that reduce the variability of solar and wind systems without using batteries for storage. Interconnecting electricity transmission systems that can handle greater levels of power provides security, when the supply of renewable energy from geographically dispersed regions is shared with areas that are experiencing a shortfall.

In 2019, at least six countries were generating all of their electricity from renewable power; while 32 more produced at least 90 % of their electricity from renewable sources of energy. During the first six months of 2019, Scotland generated so much electricity from wind, it could have powered the nation twice over.

The supposedly impossibly large areas of land required for solar energy and wind power has been used as an excuse to not fund renewables. But raising solar  panels and growing crops underneath shows promise. Offshore wind farms have no such limitation.

In short, nuclear power should not be part of Canada’s energy future. Investing in nuclear power while ignoring renewable energy is a waste of federal and provincial monies.

Refurbishing Ontario’s fleet of aging CANDU reactors (including a new full-scale nuclear reactor at the Bruce site) and investing millions more in SMR technology that is unlikely to ever be cost-effective; it’s a mug’s game.  It is time to start exploiting Canada’s very substantial resources of renewable energy, particularly both onshore and offshore wind power. This is the path that Canada needs to follow. 

Martin Bush is a member of SCAN!’s Education Committee.

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