Nuclear energy is not the solution to achieving Canada’s emission reduction targets. Offshore wind power is safer, less costly, and carries none of the risks of nuclear technology.
Canada’s offshore wind could deliver more energy than nuclear power. The aging CANDU nuclear reactors are being refurbished at substantial cost in an effort to keep them up and running for a few more years. But this is only a stopgap measure.
The six reactors at Pickering will be shut down before 2024; the reactors at Bruce, Darlington and Lepreau will continue to generate power for perhaps a decade or so; but the era of power generation from the CANDU reactors in Canada is drawing to a close.
Canada has committed to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) by 40 to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The federal government has made it clear that it considers nuclear power essential for meeting these goals. In 2020, minister Seamus O’Regan, at that time the minister of natural resources in the federal government, stated in a keynote address to the Canadian Nuclear Association, “Our government understands the importance of nuclear energy in meeting our climate change goals…We are placing nuclear energy front and centre.”
But the nuclear technology the federal government is pinning its hopes on is not the CANDU design. The concept now being strongly promoted by the government is small modular reactors (SMRs). An action plan has been launched; the obligatory roadmap has been drafted and published.
At the present time, this action plan is more wishful thinking than a realistic scenario. No prototype SMR has been constructed; the final design has not even been selected from the ten technical proposals currently under consideration. The government’s claim that SMRs will help Canada meet its 2030 emission reduction targets is simply not credible.
The economic and commercial justification for investing substantial resources in the research, development, and deployment of SMRs has been challenged and discredited by scientists, environmental groups, and community organisations across Canada and the USA.
The most obvious impediment to their viability is that SMRs will never be a cost-effective option. The cost of electricity from small reactors of new untested design is certain to be greater than the cost of power from the CANDU reactors currently operating—which is already substantially higher than electricity from hydropower, solar, and wind. There are no economies of scale with small reactors; no market in the mining industry; little interest by isolated First Nation communities; and the idea that there is a potentially large overseas market for Canadian SMRs is simply delusional. The lack of a realistic plan for radioactive waste disposal, and the serious security concerns about the use of enriched uranium only reinforces the conclusion that SMRs are a colossal white elephant.
Unsurprisingly, SMRs are being strongly promoted by the Canadian Nuclear Association, a trade organisation that has an existential interest in ensuring the continuation of nuclear energy in Canada. Constant lobbying by the CNA in favour of SMRs has been fruitful: the federal government is on board, and the premiers of Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have signed a memorandum of understanding to support the development of the technology.
Canada cannot meet its GHG emission reduction targets without substantial power generation from clean sources of energy, so whatever technology is chosen to replace the current fleet of CANDU reactors will require either more nuclear, or power generated by renewable energy: hydropower, wind, solar, ocean energy, or geothermal. In 2018, eastern Canada, generated 22% of its electrical energy from nuclear reactors. Can this amount of electricity be generated entirely from renewable energy resources?
On May 11, 2021, the Biden administration approved the US’s first large-scale offshore wind farm. The Vineyard Wind windfarm will be constructed 24 km south of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts and will generate 800 Megawatts (MW) at peak power when operational in 2024. The construction of the windfarm is just the first step in an ambitious US program which has set a target of installing 30 Gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind capacity by 2030, most of which will be located in the Atlantic off the coast of the northeastern states.
New York governor Kathy Hochul has moved fast. She aims to leverage private capital adding more than $2 billion to the state’s economy. “New York has the strongest offshore wind energy market along the eastern seaboard,” she declares, “enabling us to be the offshore wind supply chain hub for other projects up and down the coast.”
European governments recognised the huge potential of offshore wind power more than a decade ago. Europe now has 116 offshore windfarms with a total installed capacity of 25 GW. In 2020, a further 2.9 GW of offshore capacity was added: generated by 356 new turbines across nine windfarms. The European Union has set a target of 60 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2030. This figure doesn’t include the brexited UK which has its own target of 40 GW of wind power operational by 2030.
To put these numbers in perspective in relation to the nuclear power now generated in Canada, it takes roughly twice as much windfarm installed capacity to generate the same power as a nuclear power plant. To substitute for the 13.5 GW of power generated by the nuclear plants in Ontario and New Brunswick would therefore require about 27 GW of offshore wind installed capacity. A Canadian target of 30 GW of offshore wind power capacity easily meets this threshold; and with enough spare capacity to enable shutting down the coal-fired power plants in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The offshore wind regime of Atlantic Canada is stronger than that of northern Europe and the UK. Moreover, compared to the US northeast coast, Canada has access to a much larger offshore area where windspeeds exceed 10 m/s at 100 metres elevation. The available power of this inexhaustible resource is huge: the US Department of Energy has estimated the technically feasible wind power potential along the US Atlantic coast at 1100 GW, which is more than 10 times the total electrical power now generated by all the provinces in eastern Canada. Given the higher mean windspeeds and the greater resource area of the Atlantic provinces, Canada’s offshore wind power potential is likely to be substantially greater than the US.
The cost of electricity from offshore wind has fallen dramatically in recent years as developers have installed larger and more efficient turbines. The documented first-year (2022) price for delivery of offshore wind generation and renewable energy certificates under the Vineyard Wind power purchase agreement (PPA) is between $65 and $74 USD/MWh, which converts to between 8.3 and 9.6 cents CAD/kWh. The last UK auction awarded 5.5 GW of new offshore wind projects at strike prices between 6.8 cents and 7.2 cents CAD/kWh.
A significant problem remains, however. Wind power, like solar energy, is intermittent. Coupling photovoltaic and wind power installations to energy storage systems is essential and should be regarded as part and parcel of the deployment of utility-scale solar and wind.
Megawatt-scale lithium-ion batteries are rapidly increasing in size as costs fall. The first, in 2017, was Tesla’s spectacular 100 MW battery in Australia near Adelaide. Four years later, in December 2021, Florida Power and Light powered up a 409 MW/900 MWh battery at the Manatee Energy Storage Center in Florida. However, batteries are short duration, storing electricity for only a few hours. For longer duration storage, pumped storage hydropower (PSH) is by far the best option.
In the US, 43 pumped storage hydro plants are currently in operation. Canada has only one: the Sir Adam Beck hydropower plant on the Niagara river in Ontario. However, three new PSH installations are in the planning stage: at Brazeau and Canyon Creek in Alberta, and a large 1000 MW installation to be constructed on the Bruce Peninsular in Ontario. Globally, the rapidly expanding development pipeline for new PHS projects is testament to the realisation by utilities that pumped storage systems can generate significant revenue from the excess energy that solar and wind frequently produce.
The substantial power generated by the offshore windfarms will require new transmission lines linking Atlantic Canada with Ontario. This is not new technology: the infrastructure required to transmit large quantities of power over long distances is mainstream power engineering. High-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission lines operated by Hydro-Quebec already carry power south to several US northeastern states. An ultra-high-voltage DC line in China carries 12 GW of power over 3,000 km.
The development of offshore wind power will bring huge economic benefits and employment opportunities to the Atlantic provinces, while making a major contribution to achieving Canada’s emission reduction targets.
The goal of 30 GW of offshore wind by 2030 is reckoned by the US DOE to “create tens of thousands of jobs …and sustain more than $12 USD billion a year in offshore wind project capital investments,” which would spur, “additional investments in supply chain development, port revitalization, vessel construction, wind power plant operation, and onshore assembly facilities.”
Expending so much time, effort and funding on small modular reactors is a wasteful, dangerous, and foolhardy diversion when a viable, cost-effective, and inexhaustible resource of enormous economic potential remains unexploited off the coast of Atlantic Canada.
Martin Bush works on international programmes focused on renewable energy and climate change management. Dr. Bush has written extensively about the climate crisis. In his 2020 book: Climate Change and Renewable Energy: How to End the Climate Crisis, he explains how solar energy, wind power, and the other renewable sources of energy are the key to ending the climate crisis. The book is published by Palgrave McMillan. More recently, Bush has published a memoire describing his work on climate change management in Africa and and the Caribbean and the many accidents and misadventures that have befallen him over the last 30 years. These include being wounded by a bombing in Khartoum, Sudan; surviving a home invasion in Conakry, Guinea; and escaping uninjured during the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed over a quarter of million people. The book is called Isabelle’s Bat. Isabelle was a beautiful young woman that Bush met in Antananarivo, Madagascar, twenty years ago and who made a lasting impression. Isabelle was fond of eating the animals that Bush was trying to protect, so this difference of opinion concerning the acceptability of Isabelle’s food preferences led to many amusing incidents that are described in the book. Isabelle’s Bat is published in Canada by Tellwell Talent. It is available on Amazon and several other book-selling websites.