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Experts see a ‘unique opportunity’ on climate goals with Canada’s nuclear expansion

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With Doug Ford’s Ontario government modestly expanding its nuclear power capacity and the federal government showing signs it is open to more similar moves, climate experts are seeing a new opportunity for Canada to achieve its objective of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Earlier this month, Ontario announced it was adding a third nuclear generating station to the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station near Kincardine, with the goals of lowering electricity costs and producing lower-emitting energy. Bruce Power is operated by Ontario Power Generation, a Crown corporation of the provincial government. 

“Nuclear is only being used in some parts of Canada, namely Ontario,” says Ryan Katz-Rosene, an associate professor of climate policy at the University of Ottawa. “The recent Ontario announcement positions that province as the real centre of Canadian nuclear development.”

On July 7, just two days after the Bruce Power announcement, the Ontario government declared that it was adding three Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) to the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington. SMRs are defined as nuclear reactors producing 300 megawatts (MW) or less of energy. 

Katz-Rosene says that over the last 50 years, nuclear energy has helped the world avoid more than 60 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, while pointing out the world emitted roughly 40 GT of CO2 in 2022 alone.

In 2017, the National Energy Board reported that hydro generated the majority of Canada’s electricity at 57 percent, followed by nuclear at 15 percent, while the remainder was made up of coal, natural gas, and others.

Both the Bruce Power and Clarington projects will require federal approval, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated he is open to expanding nuclear energy options in Canada in the name of reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

“There’s a very unique opportunity to help meet the energy needs of remote and isolated, First Nations and Indigenous communities, and also remote and isolated communities in Canada through the future deployment of micro reactors,” says Jesse McCormick, the senior vice-president of research, innovation and legal affairs with the First Nations Major Project Coalition. 

McCormick says SMRs also present a large opportunity for many First Nations and Indigenous communities to become investors, operators, or owners in the nuclear energy sector, even though not all provincial governments are on-side with the federal government on nuclear energy. 

“You have a lot of energy and enthusiasm presented at the federal level…for SMRs as a source of energy generation that’s low-emitting and aligned with our objectives on climate change,” says McCormick. “You’re also seeing mixed support among provinces and territories. For instance, B.C. remains a space where it isn’t currently being entertained or endorsed by the provincial government.” 

B.C.’s current NDP government has stated it does not plan on amending the province’s Clean Energy Act, passed in 2010, that banned nuclear power generation. On the other hand, both Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs have recently taken steps to promote the establishment of the provinces’ first SMRs.

The National Energy Board had previously ruled out any concrete plans for Small Modular Reactors in its 2018 Market Energy Assessment. 

However, by 2020, then-Minister for Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan published a message supporting the SMR Action Plan, a project supported by the federal government, provincial governments, and a large number of non-government actors including Hitachi and the University of Toronto.  

According to data from the International Energy Agency, the use of renewable energy increased significantly from 2015 to 2022, but nuclear’s share of the energy pie has remained stagnant. In-fact, nuclear energy has remained a distant fourth behind gas in terms of its share of the world’s energy supply since at-least 1971. 

Katz-Rosene does not think nuclear will massively expand in Canada, and that current policy frameworks leave only modest room for nuclear growth. 

Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford leaves after announcing his commitment to keeping the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in operation until 2024 on June 21, 2018. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

Many criticisms towards nuclear energy stem from concerns over how to handle the toxic waste produced by the reactors, but McCormick says Canada has a strong regulatory framework for managing spent fuel. While acknowledging that concerns surrounding nuclear projects exist within many First Nations communities, McCormick says there will be more confidence in those projects if they are First Nations-led. 

“I think that is the path forward, where First Nations have been engaged effectively, have the necessary capacity to evaluate and confirm for themselves the safety, environmental, potential cultural impacts of new deployments, and are capacitated to enter into partnerships or become equity participants in these types of developments,” says McCormick. 

With the highly anticipated release of Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” on July 21st and the ongoing concerns about potential nuclear reactor damage in Europe due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nuclear energy has emerged as a prominent topic. 

At the federal level, the NDP remain skeptical of nuclear energy, as does Green leader Elizabeth May and Liberal MP Jenica Atwin, who served as a Green before crossing the floor in 2021, despite her party’s support for the SMR Action Plan. 

Tim Sayle, the associate professor of history and director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto, says that during the early stages of the Cold War, there was great hope in the potential of nuclear power in energy production and propulsion. 

That changed, according to Sayle, in the 1970s and 1980s when discourse about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy became intertwined. The 1980s would see heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. 

“I think it was the fears of nuclear weapon use that generated the worries in the first place, but these soon came to be connected with general concern about nuclear power, and nuclear waste,” says Sayle. 

Sayle points out that fuel from nuclear reactors designed to produce power are capable of being used for nuclear weapons, and that Canada supplied India with a nuclear reactor for peaceful energy production that ended up being used to fuel India’s first nuclear detonation. Both Canada and the United States imposed nuclear trade restrictions on India as a result.

The cost of building nuclear reactors has also been a major deterrent to the growth of nuclear energy. In the United States, several planned reactor projects in the 1980s were cancelled after the costs ballooned threefold. In 2018, an article from Stanford University’s Earth Matters magazine stated that the clean-up from the Manhattan Project, the U.S. nuclear weapons program during WWII, costs taxpayers $6 billion per year, with a projected total cost of $300 billion.

Excluding the cost-effectiveness of handling spent nuclear energy, Katz-Rosene says the main criticisms of nuclear energy that he encounters include the environmental impacts of uranium mining, possible accidents such as meltdowns, large use of water for coolant, and security risks.  

While Katz-Rosene says the concerns of environmentalists should be listened to, he believes nuclear energy is held to a higher risk standard than other sources of energy. 

“All forms of energy, including renewables, pose various forms of social and environmental risks, and we’re never going to have a risk-free or problem-free energy system,” says Katz-Rosene. “I also think there’s a lot of amplification of nuclear risk when we see big headline disasters like Fukushima and current disaster risk at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine.” 

With repealing national child care not ‘credible,’ Conservatives set their sights on fixing it

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With a single vote in the House of Commons last month, the Conservative Party seemed to end two decades of opposition to a national child care program.

The legislation, which passed unanimously, permanently enshrined funding for the Liberal government’s $10-a-day daycare program. And by showing support for the Liberal plan, which aims to bring child care costs down to less than $10 per day for every child in a licensed daycare facility, the Conservatives appear to have closed a longstanding ideological divide.

While the progressive parties have favoured government-run daycare, Conservatives have historically shunned those programs in favour of an allowance designed for families to help cover the cost for child care.

It’s not hard to find Liberals celebrating the recent vote as a conclusive ideological and policy victory. But Conservatives argue that a future Pierre Poilievre-led government could still find some room to maneuver on the program, either by overhauling it and allowing for more flexibility for parents or replacing it with their own policy.

Ken Boessenkool, founding partner of Meredith Boessenkool Policy Advisors, says promising to completely unwind the national daycare program is no longer a credible option for the Conservatives in 2023.

“Every provincial government has implemented the agreement in some way or another, including Doug Ford and Danielle Smith,” says Boessenkool, who has played leading strategic roles on right-of-centre political campaigns across Canada. 

In 2021, the governments of every province and territory, including Alberta and Ontario, signed separate deals with Ottawa to implement the Early Learning and Child Care program. When the provinces signed the agreement in 2021, the federal government had earmarked $30 billion over five years to set up the program. 

“That is a basic win-win that Doug Ford and Danielle Smith have understood you can’t pass up,” says Tyler Meredith, the other founding partner of Meredith Boessenkool, who served as director of economic strategy and planning for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland before joining the private sector last year. 

“Thanks to the support of conservative premiers…it has made it easier for the federal (Conservative) party to come on side too,” said Meredith.

Conservative MP Michelle Ferreri has downplayed the significance of the party’s vote in favour of the child care funding, mentioning that the provinces had already signed onto it. 

Despite signing onto the child care program in 2021, Alberta’s UCP government made it clear at the time that the agreement was not perfect for the province due to unlicensed daycare providers such as nannies or family-members and friends being left out. Then-Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unfavourably compared the province’s agreement with the child care deal that Quebec signed with Ottawa, which had no conditions attached.

Rebecca Schulz, who was the Alberta minister of children’s services when the deal with Ottawa was signed, has said the agreement was imperfect due to the lack of flexibility for parents, which she hopes can be remedied in the future with a different government.

Ferreri echoed Schulz’s critiques following the vote and said a future Conservative government would alter the program to allow for more flexibility of choice for parents, and ensure other children facilities like home daycare are included.

Greater participation by women in the Canadian workforce has been touted as a benefit of the Early Learning and Child Care program. The percentage of women in the Canadian labour force had modestly increased from 65 percent in 2007 to 68 percent in 2021. 

Randall Bartlett, the senior director of Canadian economics with Desjardins, says that, in addition to the child care program, a rapid growth in the number of work-from-home jobs has enabled more women to enter the workforce.

Bartlett says a Desjardins report found that more young women, and younger families in general, were being influenced by affordability when making the decision to have children. He says the child care program could have an impact on those decisions. 

“We think it’s going to be something that’s going to continue to boost female engagement in the labor force going forward and possibly change the dynamics between household decisions as well,” says Bartlett. 

Boessenkool says the door is still open for future debate on the national daycare program if the federal government does not provide adequate funding. He says the amount of money promised by the Liberals for the program will be ultimately insufficient, leading to questions about the program itself. 

“Both the ‘more money’ and the ‘goal’ will be the subject of future debates,” says Boessenkool. “As will the failure of the Liberal plan to reach its objective, which mathematically, it cannot without more money.” 

Boessenkool co-authored a 2021 report with the C.D. Howe Institute advocating for a permanent child care transfer from Ottawa to the provinces that focuses on leveraging provincial governments’ efforts to grow the supply of child care spaces, such as a increasing the operational grants for licensed child care facilities.

With average yearly salaries of under $40,000 for child care workers, filling the staffing needs of child care is already a challenge, and child care advocates have warned that the lack of spaces will make the situation more difficult

Polling has indicated that maintaining continued opposition to child care funding would damage the Conservatives’ electoral appeal in the wake of the heightened cost-of-living in Canada in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some estimates place the cost of raising one child in Canada to be about $15,550 annually, and $253,94 in total when the child turns 18. From 2021 to 2022, the monthly cost to rent an apartment in Canada has risen by roughly 12 percent