The House

Chris Hall: There's no path to net-zero without nuclear power, says O'Regan

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O'Regan says Canadians have to be open to more nuclear power generation if this country is to meet the carbon emissions reduction targets it agreed to five years ago in Paris.

'The fact of the matter is that it produces zero emissions,' says natural resources minister

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan responds to a question in the House of Commons Feb. 10, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O'Regan says Canadians have to be open to the idea of more nuclear power generation if this country is to meet the carbon emissions reduction targets it agreed to five years ago in Paris.

O'Regan spoke to CBC's The House in advance of next week's speech from the throne, which the prime minister and others say will include measures to ensure the post-COVID-19 recovery leads to a greener economy.

While the exact details are still being worked out, O'Regan suggested the speech could include commitments to improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses and promises to invest in clean technology, such as hydrogen fuel cells and small modular reactors (SMRs).

"And we really do believe that one of the best things we could do when we talk about building back better is is looking at how we can make those investments that are going to work in not just the short term, but the medium and the long term for the competitiveness of this country," he told The House.

An artist's conception of a NuScale Power Module SMR being transported. (NuScale Power)

"Clean energy is one of those ways, there's no question. And clean energy does mean jobs and it does mean competitiveness and it does mean growth. So I don't think there's any slacking up on those things."

"Those things" are also intended to satisfy the wishes of progressive voters and the opposition New Democrats, who are demanding the Liberals begin delivering on past commitments to help keep the globe's temperature from rising more than two degrees.

A recent poll by Abacus Data suggested that as many Canadians believe climate change is a crisis today as did before the pandemic. That's particularly true among Liberal, New Democrat, Green and Bloc Québécois supporters.

No form of energy production is risk-free. Hydroelectric dams threaten fish and other wildlife habitat. Shifting to hydrogen as an energy source for industry would require pipelines to move the fuel across the country. Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan discusses potential options on the table for green jobs and clean energy programs in advance of Wednesday's speech from the throne. 12:03

SMRs and Canada's energy future

O'Regan said the government remains on track to present its national hydrogen strategy this fall. He also said that small, modular nuclear reactors will be an important component of Canada's energy future.

"We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear," O'Regan said. "The fact of the matter is that it produces zero emissions."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the design of a small modular reactor last week. France is also gearing up by using its experience in designing reactors for nuclear submarines to create an SMR for commercial use.

Canada is also looking more seriously at the technology, even though critics argue it is unproven and uneconomic.

"There are models that we're looking at that would reduce the amount of nuclear waste. There are other models that would recycle nuclear waste," O'Regan said.

"This could get very exciting. A lot has happened in the nuclear space, and I think Canadians are more open to it, understanding that this is a zero-emission energy source."

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, who won a majority victory on Monday, also has spoken about the potential of SMRs in Canada's electrical grids.

"We are seizing an opportunity for New Brunswick to develop technology that will put our province, and our entire country, back on the map as a global emissions reduction leader," he said during the campaign.

The 'hidden fuel'

Producing more clean energy is one side of the equation. O'Regan suggested the speech from the throne also could pitch measures to make homes and businesses more energy-efficient.

"[Energy efficiency measures] alone — if we get it right and do it thoroughly — would bring us, I think, 40 per cent of the way towards our Paris Accord targets," he said. "That's phenomenal and a very practical measure that would involve just about everybody in the country, and create thousands of jobs."

The International Energy Agency called retrofitting the "hidden fuel" back in 2013 — but efforts to improve energy efficiency have been slowing down lately.

In a report released last month, the agency argued that increasing investments in energy efficiency will be an important factor in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

The Liberals promised in the last election to provide interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to homeowners to upgrade old furnaces, replace windows and otherwise make their homes more energy-efficient. That idea featured in some of the mandate letters Trudeau issued to his cabinet members.

It wouldn't be a stretch to expect that commitment to appear again in Wednesday's throne speech.

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