Nuclear energy a no-go in B.C., Premier Eby says

By Alec Lazenby June 26, 2023

Premier David Eby does not believe B.C. needs nuclear power to meet its emission reduction goals and energy needs. (Government of B.C./Flickr)

The NDP government has no plans to add nuclear to B.C.’s energy mix, despite the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) projecting the province will need to give nuclear power a chance if Canada is to reach its net-zero goal by 2050.

In one of the scenarios explored by the CER — which has Canada achieving its current net-zero goal — nuclear power launches in B.C. in 2031 and reaches 13 per cent of the province’s energy mix by 2040, third to wind (19 per cent) and hydro (56 per cent).

But the province’s Clean Energy Act, passed in 2010, prohibits nuclear power generation and Premier David Eby says his government has no plans to change that.

“This is not an ideological position,” said the premier. “I know the federal government is looking at small modular reactors (SMRs), it might be appropriate for other provinces to look at that kind of initiative because they don’t have what we have here in B.C., but we have a massive clean energy resource here.”

Eby pointed to B.C.’s  significant solar, wind and geothermal potential, as well as the bountiful supply of hydro power that has been the province’s main energy source for much of its history.

“Our strategy right now with BC Hydro is how do we get that electricity out to help our neighbours in Alberta, in Washington state, for industry here in B.C. to decarbonize, and that’s been our real focus,” he said.

CER’s assumptions ‘not based in fact,’ expert says

The report by the CER comes as the federal government is making a push towards nuclear power, with federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announcing last October that more nuclear power is needed if Canada is to keep up with the demand for clean, affordable power.

In December 2020, the federal government released its SMR Action Plan, with the hope nuclear energy would play a key role in helping Canada reach its goal of 90 per cent non-emitting electricity by 2030.

The idea is that SMRs will help overcome the cost and maintenance barriers that have historically hampered nuclear power.

Last October, Ontario Power Generation secured a $970-million loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank to build the first SMR in Canada, a 300-megawatt structure located next to the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station.

The CER’s modelling shows B.C. will be able to fulfil two-thirds of its 2050 clean energy needs through renewable sources such as wind and solar, but suggests nuclear power will be needed to bridge the gap when those sources aren’t available or are stretched beyond capacity.

“We see demand for electricity increasing significantly in B.C. to the extent of about 84 per cent [by 2050],” the CER’s chief economist Jean-Denis Charlebois said. “This is where nuclear comes in because when you add intermittent renewables to that extent, you also need a source of baseload power.”

The report predicts the cost of SMRs could fall from $9,180 per installed kilowatt in 2022 to $7,080 per kilowatt in 2050. That’s 13 times more expensive than what solar energy production is expected to cost at that time, and four times more expensive than wind.

Charlebois maintains the only way B.C. will reach net zero without nuclear power is through increasing electricity imports from Alberta and decreasing exports to Washington state.

M.V. Ramana, a professor with UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and nuclear expert, called CER’s assumptions “ridiculous” and “fanciful.”

Ramana said all the available evidence points to the cost of nuclear power generation going up, not down, as more accidents happen and repairs get more expensive, while wind and solar are much cheaper and easier to install.

“The only SMR under construction anywhere in the western world, not including Russia and China, is in Argentina, and that small modular reactor has been under construction since 2014,” he said. “The last cost estimate for that was about $17,000 per kilowatt in US dollars — around $20,000 per kilowatt in Canadian dollars.”

Ramana also rejects the CER’s conclusion that Canada can’t meet its energy needs without nuclear energy. He believes Natural Resources Canada makes that assumption because it has political incentives to make nuclear energy seem like a viable option.

“The whole purpose of this exercise is to try and inform the public and decision makers about how to proceed towards a net-zero world,” Ramana said. “If that’s the case, then it should be based on realistic assumptions.”

The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation told BC Today “nuclear energy is not part of our energy portfolio in B.C. and government has no plans to amend the legislation at this time.”

“We have a plan to meet our CleanBC climate targets using other energy sources, including clean electricity, low carbon hydrogen, wind, solar, renewable natural gas and liquid biofuels,” added the ministry.