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Powering Canada's Future

A Q&A with Tracy Primeau: Challenges and Opportunities in Nuclear

Tracy Primeau

Member of the Board of Directors at Ontario Power Generation and Women in Nuclear Canada, Founder and Principal of Agile Bear Consulting

Mediaplanet chatted with Tracy Primeau, a Member of the Board of Directors at Ontario Power Generation as well as Women in Nuclear Canada and Founder and Principal of Agile Bear Consulting, about how the nuclear industry is changing, current opportunities and challenges, and the importance of partnering with Indigenous communities.

Since your entry into the nuclear industry in 1990, what significant shifts have you witnessed within the field, and what aspects of the industry’s future are you excited about?

There’s been a big change in diversity. There were women in the field back then, but none in the control room or in leadership positions. There was nobody to look up to. That’s definitely not the case anymore.

Today, we have women leading the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and a female COO at Ontario Power Generation. Do I think we’re there yet? No. I’d like to see that leadership 50/50. But we’ve come a long way.

Another shift: in my 33 years in nuclear, I’ve never seen so many people who are supportive of the industry. It’s no longer just industry people who are singing nuclear’s praises. It’s also those who are affected by and want to do something about climate change.

The other exciting thing is we’re no longer only focused on large nuclear. We’re talking about building small modular reactors (SMRs) and about how we can use our existing reactors and SMRs to make life-saving isotopes — a market that’s growing like crazy in Canada.

We’re also talking to SMR developers who can use our used fuel and reduce waste by around 95 per cent. Many innovative ideas are circulating.

Why is it so crucial for organizations to prioritize board diversity and to ensure representation of diverse groups at the highest levels?

We need to see people who look like us so that we feel valued when we enter the industry. And if we aren’t getting diversity right at the highest levels, then how are we possibly going to get it right in the rest of the company? We need representation at all levels. And really, it starts with the top. The leaders set the tone for the entire organization.

Diversity increases innovation, problem-solving, and morale. It helps organizations attract top talent and creates high levels of staff engagement and satisfaction. It’s also just the right thing to do for society as a whole.

What transformative potential do SMRs hold for clean energy, and how might they revolutionize the industry in Canada and beyond?

SMRs will make nuclear power more accessible to all kinds of different communities, enabling us to power remote communities that are currently powered by diesel.

Unlike diesel generators, SMRs generate excess steam, which can be used to heat buildings, schools, and hospitals, or to grow fresh plants and vegetables in a greenhouse. This improves sustainability on multiple levels.

We’ll need to do a lot more mining if we’re going to electrify the grid, and we’re going to need more uranium in order to power up all these SMRs and large nuclear. Many other processes are going to be positively affected by SMRs’ use.

Canadian SMR companies are also looking for partnerships with Indigenous communities, which is a great opportunity for economic reconciliation and for Indigenous communities to get in on the ground floor with these new builds and be equity partners.

Why is it so important for organizations to integrate Indigenous knowledge into their research, studies, and plans?

I think there’s a need for Western science and Indigenous knowledge to come together in order to make the best decisions for the environment.

For example, many traditional trappers and hunters can predict weather patterns just based on how the animals are behaving. That traditional knowledge combined with Western science can help us tackle national and global challenges.

On top of that, there are a lot of courses that bring these two ways of knowing together that are taught by Indigenous knowledge keepers, who should be given the same recognition as, for example, a professor of geology. Recognizing knowledge keepers as experts in their field gives more credibility to companies, corporations, and governments that are working with both traditionally trained and non-traditionally trained folks.

There’s also this sense of simplicity that we’d benefit from embracing. The International Indigenous Speakers Bureau’s CEO and Co-Founder once told me a story about a First Nations Trapper who was talking to a hydroelectric company that was having trouble figuring out how to divert water in one part of a river. The First Natioans Trapper said, “Let me have a look.” It took less than a day for the leak to be stopped, after engineers from around the world worked for ten days to find a solution, that the Trapper knew the answer to right away. The company asked the Trapper what he did, and he said, “I just picked up a couple of beavers, threw them in that river, and they built a dam.” I love that story because it shows how we overthink, over-engineer, and overdo things. 

How are partnerships with Indigenous communities contributing to the responsible growth of the nuclear energy sector?

The benefit goes both ways. Indigenous communities benefit when we partner with them, and they also come in asking important questions and pointing out things that perhaps we hadn’t thought about.  

When we build things, Indigenous communities want clear answers about the impact on the fish, how many degrees the water temperature will change at the outfall, or what we’re going to do to make sure the surrounding wildlife isn’t affected. They understand how the water flows, so they’ll be able to tell that it’ll affect things many kilometres upstream or downstream. We have to take more into consideration than just our actual footprint.

Indigenous participation is forcing the nuclear sector to be more prepared for thinking broader. For example, in New Brunswick, ARC Clean Technology wants to build an SMR on the Lepreau site, and while there’s not really a First Nation beside the site, they’re getting feedback from all of the surrounding First Nations.

There’s no path to net zero without nuclear. But that path, no matter where it is, is going through a traditional territory. And we’re going to need to have Indigenous people involved in all areas of our sector.

The Indigenous population is growing at four or five times the rate of any other population in Canada, so that’s our future workforce. We want to have good relationships with Indigenous communities and to make sure they are taking advantage of the opportunities in nuclear.  We need all communities and all the knowledge available to fight climate change and make decisions that include the seven generations ahead of us and behind us.

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