By Simon Irish
There was some familiarity in the cycle of hope and disappointment we have grown used to at the UN climate meetings known as COP, but one thing was very different at COP26 in Glasgow – nuclear energy finally took its seat at the table.
Nuclear energy’s presence at COP26 came as a double whammy. Impossible to miss were the blue-shirted volunteers of Nuclear 4 Climate who spent their time engaging everybody they could in the otherwise very stuffy UN-controlled Blue Zone. These light-hearted young professionals from all around the world made sure everyone who was open to information went away knowing about the benefits of nuclear energy, such as that one gummy bear-sized uranium pellet would power your home for a whole year.
The other nuclear character that became familiar was Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This sharp-suited and personable career diplomat is the one who leveraged the IAEA’s position in the UN system and literally sat in nuclear’s seat at the table. He secured a high profile for himself and IAEA’s work, overcoming political headwinds as necessary.
Grossi and the IAEA have been working hard to support the many countries bringing in nuclear for the first time. Dozens of developing countries are looking for a great start in nuclear: to get the full benefits of nuclear heat, light and power but in an affordable, flexible package with a step change improvement in safety and economics. Their citizens and young scientists are hungry for the development and the long-term jobs. As a Generation IV small modular reactor, Terrestrial’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) power plant offers all this.
With decades of safe, resilient, and carbon-free power generation, nuclear energy has a proven track record in countries around the world. Our IMSR Generation IV power plant builds on this with a design that is more versatile, faster to build, and cost competitive. The IMSR delivers a step-change economic improvement over conventional nuclear (water-cooled-water-moderated reactors) with the primary factor being the IMSR’s 50 percent higher thermal efficiency, and by direct implication cost efficiency, making the IMSR’s carbon-free power commercially competitive against fossil fuels.
In COP26’s final text every country in the world promised to reduce the coal they may still be burning. Yes, we are disappointed that the text is “phase down” and not “phase out,” but make no mistake – the writing is on the wall for coal and replacing it globally is a trillion-dollar business opportunity. Nuclear is the only baseload energy source that can replace coal 1-for-1 in power generation, heat, and industry, and I’m left with no doubt that nuclear will expand hugely to fill this gap. This trillion-dollar market is there for the taking.
Here in Canada, we already enjoy a mature and comprehensive nuclear energy programme, which enabled the phaseout of coal in Ontario. We have today’s large CANDUs and will soon deploy small reactors such as the Generation IV IMSR to decarbonize Canada’s economy and as export opportunities. Canada is in a strong position and doesn’t need much help from IAEA and the international community. Its role is rather as a leader, a helper and a technology provider to other countries wanting to achieve their clean energy and development goals.
The changes for nuclear were significant although perhaps symbolic at COP26. However, that meeting has set the course tone of conversation around the world’s climate efforts for the next year, and probably beyond. The conversation has changed, and nuclear power has become central to climate change mitigation for the first time in this process. It is vitally important for Canada not to miss out on the opportunities arising on the international nuclear scene and the positive momentum that the sector is enjoying for the first time in decades.
Paving the way for commercialization of advanced clean energy technology such as the IMSR at home is a sure way to position Canada to support and deliver projects abroad in future. Canada has an opportunity to lead and become the world’s first exporter of Generation IV nuclear power plants with the IMSR, but we should not underestimate the global competition. Our nation must commit to pressing home its home-grown nuclear advantage.