Is nuclear energy green or not? Federal government sending conflicting messages, critics say
The Liberal government is being accused of sending conflicting messages about the nuclear industry and how it can help adapt to a green environment.
The week the Liberal government put $27.2 million into a promising new small modular nuclear reactor — but at the same time its green bond program, meant to boost environmentally-friendly programs, specifically excludes investments in nuclear power.
The conflict shows mixed support at best for the industry, say critics.
Chris Keefer, president of Canadians for Nuclear Energy, said excluding nuclear from green bonds did not make sense, because Ontario had shown it could help decarbonize a grid.
“We need to invest in the biggest bang for decarbonization, but we don’t have much time. We have limited resources and so we need to invest in what works,” he said. “These decisions need to be made based on that science and I think the Liberals think of themselves as a party of science.”
On Thursday, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced a $27.2 million investment in Westinghouse Electric in Burlington, Ont. The funding will help Westinghouse with its small modular reactor named the eVinci micro-reactor, a $57 million project.
The proposed reactor would be small enough to be transported on a large truck and could offer up to five megawatts of power, enough to run remote work sites or hundreds of homes.
Champagne said the reactor held enormous potential especially for small northern communities looking to become carbon-neutral.
“What is very interesting on this one, is that it has the potential to obviously decarbonize some of our communities, which rely heavily on diesel as a source of fuel,” he said.
The announcement, is the government’s third investment in a SMR company, but in contrast the government’s new planned green bond program specifically prohibits investments in nuclear energy.
The green bond program was announced in last spring’s budget and detailed rules were released earlier this month. The green bonds would be part of Canada’s broader debt program, but the money would be specifically diverted to environmentally-friendly programs, such as climate change adaptation measures, other forms of renewable energy, and energy efficiency.
Keefer pointed out that Ontario’s closure of coal plants was a major factor in reaching its climate goals and while renewable played a part, nuclear was significant in replacing the needed electricity.
“We achieved the greatest greenhouse gas reduction in North American history with the coal phase out which was 90 per cent powered by nuclear energy,” he said.
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Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, said Canada’s green bonds were following international standards.
“Canada’s green bond framework is fully aligned with international green bond standards and market expectations,” she said.
The green bond program also ruled out investments in fossil fuels, arms manufacturing, alcohol, gambling and tobacco.
Champagne said just because nuclear could not be funded with the green bond program did not mean the government could not help promising new projects.
“We want to support every renewable energy that could help us to decarbonize and for us to be a leader in the economy of the 21st century,” he said. “We have other sources of financing, to make sure that we would be able to help these innovations that we’ve seen now, for example, in small modular reactors.”
Several countries like the U.K. that have issued green bonds have excluded nuclear, but there is no universal agreement on what makes a bond green. Ontario firm Bruce Power issued $500 million in green bonds last fall that were quickly snapped up by investors.
Keefer said the popularity of Bruce Power’s offering made it clear there were plenty of environmentally conscious investors prepared to invest in nuclear.
“There was investor interest of $3.5 billion in that fund, so it was seven times the interest in terms of what they were actually offering,” he said.
We need to invest in what works
Keefer said with the enormity of the challenge on climate change, the government shouldn’t be skipping over nuclear power.
Keefer said there had been significant support from the industry coming from some members of the Liberal government, but other cabinet ministers including Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault had seemed less supportive.
Conservative MP Kyle Seeback, the party’s environment critic, said excluding nuclear as well as liquified natural gas, was not thinking about the big picture.
“This ideology-based exclusion of two of Canada’s most abundant sources of low- to no- carbon fuels flies in the face of science and is an insult to 76,000 Canadian workers who work in nuclear, and the thousands more working in LNG,” he said.
Seeback said there was no reason why nuclear and LNG shouldn’t be part of the mix.
“These important energy sources meet all environmental, social, and governance investment criteria yet the minister excluded them. Conservatives believe these energy sources must play a role in the future of Canada’s emissions reduction plan and the global path to a lower-carbon future.”