The clean energy transition sparks a nuclear reaction

Science Matters | David Suzuki

As the impacts of climate disruption become more frequent and intense, we need a range of solutions. One that’s getting a lot of attention is nuclear power.

Industry is pushing hard for it, especially “small modular reactors,” and the federal government has offered support and tax incentives. After 30 years without building any new reactors, Ontario is also jumping onto the nuclear bandwagon again. How should we react?

With skepticism.

Along with its many known problems, as an inflexible and costly baseload power source nuclear is becoming as outdated as fossil fuels. Small modular reactors will create even more waste and cost more — and worse, slow the necessary transition to renewable energy.

Many of nuclear power’s disadvantages are well known. It can contribute to weapons proliferation. Radioactive waste remains highly toxic for a long time and must be carefully and permanently stored or disposed of. And while serious accidents are rare, they can be devastating and difficult to deal with, as the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters demonstrated.

Uranium to fuel nuclear also raises problems, including high rates of lung cancer in miners and emissions from mining, transport and refining. Add that to the water vapour and heat it releases, and nuclear power produces, says to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, “on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated” as onshore wind.

But the biggest issues are that nuclear power is expensive — at least five times more than wind and solar — and takes a long time to plan and build. Small modular reactors are likely to be even more expensive, especially considering they’ll produce far less electricity than larger plants. And because the various models are still at the prototype stage, they won’t be available soon.

Because we’ve stalled getting off coal, oil and gas for electricity generation for so long, we need solutions that can be scaled up quickly and affordably.

The last nuclear plant built in Ontario, Darlington, ended up costing $14.4 billion, almost four times the initial estimate. It took from 1981 to 1993 to construct (and years before that to plan) and is now being refurbished at an estimated cost of close to $13 billion. In 1998, Ontario Hydro faced the equivalent of bankruptcy, in part because of Darlington.

Ontario’s experience isn’t unique. A Boston University study of more than 400 large-scale electricity projects around the world over the past 80 years found “on average, nuclear plants cost more than double their original budgets and took 64 per cent longer to build than projected,” the Toronto Star reports. “Wind and solar, by contrast, had average cost overruns of 7.7 per cent and 1.3 per cent, respectively.”

China has been building more nuclear power plants than any other country — 50 over the past 20 years. But in half that time, it has added 13 times more wind and solar capacity.

As renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage technologies continue to rapidly improve and come down in price, costs for nuclear are rising. As we recently noted, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment report shows that nuclear power delivers only 10 per cent of the results of wind and solar — at far higher costs. In the time it takes to plan and build nuclear (including SMRs), and for much less money, we could be putting far more wind, solar and geothermal online, and developing and increasing storage capacity, grid flexibility and energy efficiency.

The amount it will cost to build out sufficient nuclear power — some of which must come in the form of taxpayer subsidies — could be better put to more quickly improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Putting money and resources into nuclear appears to be an attempt to stall renewable electricity uptake and grid modernization. Small modular reactors are likely to cost even more than large plants for the electricity they generate. And, because more will be required, they pose increased safety issues.

David Suzuki Foundation research shows how Canada could get 100 per cent reliable, affordable, emissions-free electricity by 2035 — without resorting to expensive and potentially dangerous (and, in the case of SMRs, untested) technologies like nuclear.

New nuclear is a costly, time-consuming hurdle on the path to reliable, flexible, available, cost-effective renewable energy. It belongs to the past. The future is in renewables.

With contributions from Ian Hanington. Learn more at