What does being safe mean to you?
Maybe it’s because my wife and I are deep into The Last of Us, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about living in a safe town, a safe country—and in a timeline where I’m not being chased by scary mushroom people (sorry, Joel).
I don’t fear for my safety on my walk to work each morning, nor do I worry about unsafe drinking water, food or job conditions.
But I still worry. As I’m guessing you do, too.
This winter, we asked more than 1,600 Canadians from all walks of life what concerns they had about energy-related issues—things like electricity prices, job losses, and reliable power supplies.
And what we found was that 88% of Canadians are concerned about the effects of climate change if it goes unchecked—an issue of concern second only to the high costs of energy (which you can read about in my colleague Jordan’s blog).
I get it. Concern about raging wildfires, droughts in key farming regions, extreme weather—it’s hard to avoid the news on any of these climate-related topics.
And these changes aren’t happening in far-off places: According to a 2019 study from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada, our country is warming at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the world. That means more news of record wildfire seasons in our western provinces. Flooding in central Canada. Heat warnings in the Northwest Territories.
What I don’t worry about
Full disclosure: I write this post sitting at my desk that’s a quick 20-minute drive from one of the world’s largest nuclear plants.
For more than 50 years, in fact, nuclear power has been a significant part of Canada’s energy mix.
Here in Ontario and in New Brunswick, 19 nuclear reactors at four different sites have steadily provided carbon-free electricity to power homes, businesses and hospitals.
And Canadians recognize that safety record.
In that same recent polling I mentioned above, nearly three quarters of Canadians (73%) stated they believe that “Canadian nuclear plants have been built and operated safely for 60 years.” And they’re right: Safety is a core value for the nuclear sector in Canada (and worldwide) and it is reflected in every part of the industry.
But… what about The Simpsons?
If you work in the nuclear industry, you’re no stranger to jokes from friends about Homer’s… let’s just say work ethic. But I can tell you with full confidence: I don’t know any Homers.
If you ever attend a meeting at a nuclear generating station, you will hear this phrase at the beginning of a meeting: “Let’s start with a safety moment.”
What follows is typically a presentation of a safety topic relevant to that day or, more broadly, to safety in general. It is a consistent and ever-present reminder of the importance of keeping safety as the top priority for everyone working in the sector.
This isn’t some performative exercise. It is the result of an ingrained culture of safety excellence.
One of the key reasons why Canada’s nuclear power plants have been able to operate safely for decades is our rigorous regulatory framework. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) carefully regulates all aspects of Canada’s nuclear sector, from the design and construction of nuclear facilities to the management of spent nuclear fuel.
Homegrown tech with built-in safety systems
Something I didn’t know before I started working in the nuclear industry was how inherently safe the Canadian-made technology in our reactors truly is.
Confession: I am not a nuclear scientist by any stretch of the imagination, so I asked my colleague Dr. Eric Johnston, Chief Innovation Officer at the Nuclear Innovation Institute, to explain why Canada’s 19 operating nuclear reactors are so safe.
“The Canadian nuclear sector uses CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) nuclear reactor technology. CANDU is proudly Canadian-made technology with distinct safety advantages:
CANDU reactors use natural uranium as a fuel and heavy water as a moderator and coolant. This makes the system safe by design: Heavy water (a form of water in which the hydrogen atoms have one extra neutron) absorbs fewer neutrons than regular water, which makes it easier to control the rate of nuclear reactions within the reactor.
Our CANDU reactors have multiple additional safety systems: emergency shutdown, redundant cooling systems, and containment structures—protecting the public and the surrounding environment.”
So no, living a short drive from a nuclear power plant doesn’t worry me—and I’ll be the first to say that we need more, not less, nuclear energy if we have any chance of fighting the very real and very concerning effects of climate change on the horizon.
Because nuclear power helps us reduce the amount of carbon emissions getting trapped in our atmosphere and causing our planet to warm—but we’ll save that for another blog post.
With a globally recognized regulatory body that’s active and engaged with the industry, a workforce committed to safe operations, and Canadian-made technology that’s inherently safe, nuclear power in Canada makes me hopeful we can build a safer future for our families.
Chad Richards is the Director of the Bruce Power Centre for New Nuclear and Net Zero Partnerships.