Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Nuclear power and the fate of humanity

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, June 22, 2019

One in three Canadians thinks nuclear power emits as much carbon dioxide as burning oil. Almost three in 10 think it emits more.

There are several reasons to marvel at these facts, which were uncovered by Abacus Data earlier this year. First, they’re spectacularly wrong. After construction, nuclear power is effectively zero-emission electricity, while oil is one of the leading causes of climate change. Second, the fight against climate change is about replacing fossil fuels such as oil with the short list of zero-emission energy sources. And yet it seems most Canadians don’t know what’s on the list.

But what’s most disheartening is that these are Canadians, of all people. Three countries have massively decarbonized with the help of nuclear power. France and Sweden are the first two. The third – and apparently this will be news to most Canadians – is Canada.

“France replaced almost all of its fossil-fuelled electricity with nuclear power nationwide in just 15 years; Sweden, in about 20 years,” an op-ed in The New York Times recently noted. Both these revolutions were prompted by the energy crises of the 1970s, long before anyone worried about climate change, but they made France and Sweden climate-change leaders, however accidentally. Today in France, 6 per cent of electricity is generated by fossil fuels. In Sweden, it’s 1 per cent. If every country were to combine numbers such as that with sweeping electrification – farewell, internal combustion engine – humanity would be well on its way to beating climate change.

But other countries are nowhere near where France and Sweden are. In the United States, 67 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels. Even in Germany, where massive subsidies have been lavished on solar and wind generation, 55 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels, and carbon emissions have remained flat.

And Canada? About one-fifth of our electricity comes from fossil fuels. That’s not in the same league as France and Sweden, but we can still boast that our electricity is far cleaner than most. Wind and solar power get all the attention, but the credit does not go to them. It’s hydro-electric power we have to thank. And nuclear power.

Aside from one reactor in New Brunswick, all of Canada’s nuclear power is generated in Ontario. About 61 per cent of the province’s electricity comes from the splitting of atoms, not far behind the 77 per cent of France’s total electricity generated by nuclear power. But those bare numbers don’t tell the full story.

In 2003, Ontario’s government made the historic decision to fight both climate change and local air pollution by phasing out coal-fired generators. It was a huge challenge. Coal generated one-quarter of the province’s electricity. But by 2014, coal was gone.

So what replaced it? Generously subsidized and much-discussed solar and wind power covered about 7 of coal’s 25 percentage points. The remaining 18 percentage points were replaced by unloved, seldom-mentioned nuclear power.

Today, Ontario’s electricity is among the cleanest in the world.

Given that the three most successful decarbonizations in history heavily relied on nuclear power, one might think nuclear would be central to any discussion of how to fight climate change by decarbonizing. But one would be very wrong.

In Ottawa a few months ago, Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said that in all his travels and discussions with top officials “the word ‘nuclear’ almost never comes up.” Canada is no different. Justin Trudeau and his ministers talk endlessly about climate change, but “nuclear” seldom slips past their lips.

A few weeks ago, the IEA released a report revealing just how critical nuclear power is to the fight against climate change.

If the electricity generated by nuclear power between 1971 and 2018 had instead come from the burning of fossil fuels, humanity would have emitted an additional 63 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. To put that in perspective, all the burning of fossil fuels in the world in 2018 emitted 33.5 gigatonnes.

“Without nuclear power,” the report says, “emissions from electricity generation would have been 25 per cent higher in Japan, 45 per cent higher in Korea, and over 50 per cent higher in Canada.”

But humanity is not building on this success. Few nuclear plants are being built, existing stock is aging, and some countries, notably Germany, are actually phasing out nuclear plants early.

The IEA analyzed what will happen if current trends persist. Short summary: The planet will cook.

“Without action to provide more support for nuclear power,” Mr. Birol wrote, “global efforts to transition to a cleaner energy system will become drastically harder and more costly.”

Mr. Birol is an economist who favours bureaucratic understatement. When he uses a word like “drastically,” pay attention.