When Patrick Dalzell moved to Toronto in the early 2000s, he noticed what he described as a “dome of orange” hovering over the city.

“I’d sit out on a patio and look up at the sky and noticed it was always hazy,” said Dalzell.

In the summer of 2005, there were 48 smog days declared in Toronto. That was the same year Ontario closed its first coal-fired electricity plant as part of a legislated phase out. Since 2014 – the year the Ontario government shuttered the last of the province’s coal plants – Toronto has had one smog day.

Dalzell, Executive Director, Corporate Affairs and Market Development for Bruce Power, said he believes the province’s commitment to nuclear energy is a big reason for Toronto’s extended run of clean air.

“Ontario led the way in terms of this change. The rest of the world is … trying to figure out how we phased out coal. Do you know how we did it in Ontario? By investing in nuclear power,” he said.

Dalzell spoke at a recent conference at Ivey’s Toronto campus called Canada's Role in the Future of Nuclear Energy, which was hosted by the Ivey Energy Policy and Management Centre. The event featured a panel discussion with leading Canadian nuclear industry stakeholders. The panel included Dalzell along with Rumina Velshi, former CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Agency; Jason Fitzsimmons, Deputy Minister of the Ontario Ministry of Energy; and David Doerkson, Vice President of Cameco. The panel discussion was moderated by Heather Exner-Pirot, Special Advisor with the Business Council of Canada, and focused on how Canada can lead by example to support a thriving nuclear power sector, while facing complicated challenges and headwinds.

Nuclear renaissance

Today, around 90 per cent of Ontario’s electricity comes from non-emitting sources such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar. Nuclear represents more than 50 per cent of the power in the province’s grid and there are plans to expand.

Jason Fitzsimmons, Deputy Minister, Ontario Ministry of Energy, emphasized that expansion is driven by the province’s net zero goals.

“Ontario is committed to doubling the size of nuclear over the course of the next 26 years,” said Fitzsimmons. “If we are being intellectually honest, and we wonder why, all of a sudden, we see a turn towards more support of nuclear [power], I think it’s because of how unique the 2050 and the 2030 targets are coming into sharper focus.”

What is happening in Ontario is reverberating globally. There is renewed worldwide interest in nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of power. Canada and Ontario are viewed as emerging global leaders in policy, safety, and management of this complex industry.

Sophisticated fuel cycle and fuel supply

Canada is known for having a well-developed and sophisticated nuclear fuel cycle, which encompasses all the stages involved in the production of nuclear energy. The cycle runs from mining uranium to managing radioactive waste.

“It's probably the most sophisticated fuel cycle in the world that will cover all aspects of nuclear power, and we do each part of it to world standards, where the world looks towards us,” said Rumina Velshi, former CEO, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

Canada is also a leading global supplier of uranium, the fuel used to power nuclear reactors.

Cameco, based in Saskatchewan, provides fuel for one in five reactors around the world.

“Canada and Cameco are seen together as a ‘must have’ uranium supplier. In terms of our production, we are sustainable, long-term, and geopolitically safe,” said David Doerkson, Vice President, Marketing, Cameco.

Regulatory envy of world

Canada's nuclear regulatory framework is viewed as comprehensive, well-managed, and focused on safeguarding public health, safety, and the environment. This reputation has contributed to the country’s standing as a leading, responsible nuclear nation in the global community. Fitzsimmons said representatives from around the globe consistently seek advice and counsel on Canada’s approach to nuclear policy and management. 

“There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some delegation coming in to speak to the Minister, or the Ministry, about the experience in Ontario,” said Fitzsimmons.

Velshi said Canada’s regulatory framework has been modernized to account for new technology and future technological advances.

“No matter what technology is introduced, our regulatory requirements will address that. It’s more performance-based, it’s more risk-informed,” said Velshi.

But although regulation sets up the framework for nuclear power, the industry is only as good as its safety record.

“We tell our folks every day that the future is in our hands if we continue to deliver safely,” said Dalzell. “We know if something goes wrong, or there's an accident of some sort, that's not just a bad day, that is our reputation, our industry's reputation, and partly the future of the industry is at risk at that point. So that's front and centre – our safety culture is in our minds all the time.”

Headwinds facing the industry

The main headwinds facing nuclear power tend to revolve around the perceived high cost of developing and delivering nuclear facilities, concerns about the handling of nuclear waste, and workforce challenges.  

On the question of cost, Ontario highlights the success of its past refurbishment programs to create confidence around the expense side for future projects. Fitzsimmons said governance and transparency will be key for the future.

“I think we’ve got a great track record for me to talk about in the success of the refurbishment and I cannot tell you how important that is for governments in terms of having the confidence to greenlight the projects and then promote the investor confidence that will be there in terms of the financing required to bring these projects to reality,” he said.

When it comes to handling nuclear waste, Dalzell said he is confident in the industry’s track record, believing public education is key to easing public concerns.

“That's how people get won over on nuclear because the facts are the facts. We know how to handle the waste. It's priced into our price of power,” he said.

Both Velshi and Fitzsimmons told of the need to continue making progress in improving the diversity of the workforce, in particular for women, and for Indigenous communities.

“One thing that people have touched upon, in that aspect of diversification, is tapping into Indigenous talent,” said Fitzsimmons. “That is absolutely key in terms of building Indigenous economies.”

In closing, Velshi said the outlook is bright for Canada’s nuclear energy sector.

“I’m extremely optimistic the future for nuclear is very bright, and the role Canada can play globally is extremely positive,” she said.

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