How nuclear power could help Doug Ford build ‘national unity’

It might not have been the point — but an agreement signed by premiers on Sunday could be the closest thing to a climate policy that Ford and Justin Trudeau can agree on
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 03, 2019
Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe, New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs, and Ontario premier Doug Ford in Toronto on December 1. (Chris Young/CP)

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Another year, another conference of the premiers, and another solemn invocation of the eternal principle of Canadian federalism: the federal government has money; the provinces want it. Sure, the provinces have access to the same income and sales taxes that Ottawa has whenever they want, but they’d prefer to cut corporate income taxes and then go begging to the feds. This is the genius of our Constitution, exactly as Sir John A. intended.

The only novel element of this year’s kabuki was Doug Ford’s emphasis on “national unity” as a theme. Ontario’s premier has a funny definition of national unity, since it almost entirely excludes the stated priorities of the current national government — almost, but not entirely.

On Sunday, in a bit of a pre-game show before the main event on Monday, Ford and two other premiers — Blaine Higgs, of New Brunswick, and Scott Moe, of Saskatchewan — signed a memorandum of understanding committing the three provinces to collaborate on developing and deploying a new generation of nuclear power: small modular reactors, or SMRs.

SMRs are the latest hope for the nuclear industry, which has been struggling globally with high costs and bad press from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While the nuclear industry historically built ever-larger reactors to capture economies of scale, the sales pitch for SMRs is that they could be mass-produced in a factory setting and then installed quickly where and when they’re needed.

The catch, as far as Ontario is concerned, is that, between the refurbishment of the Darlington and Bruce nuclear stations, this province has about as much nuclear power as it’s going to need for the foreseeable future. So what’s in it for Queen’s Park to get two other provinces on board with nuclear power?

For starters, there’s the future of the nuclear industry to think about. While the province’s nuclear refurbishment is a big, long project — $25 billion will be spent until 2033, and the new reactors are expected to produce power until 2064 — everything comes to an end eventually, and, after the main construction work ends in the 2030s, the industry will need to find something else to do or put thousands of nuclear workers out of a job.

Meanwhile, the other provinces are facing a deadline: the federal government is forcing them to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, and their options to replace that power are limited. In theory, Ontario could manufacture SMRs for other provinces to replace their coal power, generating major reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and providing jobs.

With other provinces facing deadline pressure, Ontario can plausibly promise them something they need: speedy approvals. In the 2000s, the Liberal government considered building whole new nuclear reactors in Ontario. It eventually abandoned that idea, deciding instead to refurbish them, but, before that, Ontario Power Generation (which operates Pickering and Darlington) completed an environmental assessment for a new nuclear reactor at the site of the Darlington generating station. That EA was approved and survived a years-long journey through Canadian courts. Crucially, it’s not limited to a specific nuclear technology, so, in theory, SMRs should qualify — meaning that Ontario could be an early testbed for the technology, and, hopefully, be able to start selling real-world power plants to other provinces before the 2030 deadline.

“In theory.” “Hopefully.” The problem for the provinces, and for the nuclear industry, is that SMRs have generated far more publicity than actual usable electricity.  But, if we’re getting excited about theoretical nuclear power anyway (and three premiers are excited indeed), one long-held dream of the Canadian nuclear industry has been to sell nuclear reactors to Alberta’s oilsands industry, potentially cutting GHG emissions there. Bruce Power tried it a decade ago and got nowhere. But times change, and Alberta is looking to change the dirty image of its oil industry.

Of course, politics is never far from sight. The current crop of provincial premiers in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan also have an interest in proving that they can achieve substantial GHG reductions without a carbon tax. There’s a plausible argument that, outside of Ontario, the enthusiasm for nuclear power may not outlive the current Liberal government in Ottawa. But if anyone thinks that could lead the current federal government to be skeptical of SMRs, all the early signs are no.

The federal government has been a substantial booster of small nuclear, working with the provinces and industry to publish a “road map” for the future of SMRs in Canada. It also made an important regulatory decision this year, exempting nuclear reactors under 200 megawatts from the provisions of the Impact Assessment Act — meaning that SMRs won’t face an environmental-review process that other resource industries have complained will be too onerous.

It might have been an accident, but a triumvirate of conservative premiers might just have found a climate policy that Justin Trudeau can sign on to.

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