President, Society of United Professionals
Greening Ontario’s energy portfolio is essential, but renewables aren’t enough. Experts in Ontario’s energy sector offer a vision of a green energy future with a robust nuclear foundation.
There are a lot of voices offering a lot of opinions on Canada’s ongoing green energy transition. In Ontario, though, you would be hard-pressed to find a better-informed perspective than that put forward by the electricity workers themselves — those who have kept the energy sector thriving for decades.
The Society of United Professionals (SUP), founded more than 70 years ago by a collective of working engineers, today represents more than 8,000 professionals across the province of Ontario, predominantly in the electricity sector. “About 35 to 40 per cent of the workers we represent work in the nuclear sector,” says Michelle Johnston, President of the SUP. “The nuclear portfolio is extremely important, especially when we talk about climate change. We need to minimize fossil fuel use and eventually phase it out completely. Of course, hydro and renewables will have to play as big of a role as possible, but we have little room to grow on hydroelectric. So, when you look at the generation of baseload power — that always-on power — only nuclear can provide that backbone while still meeting climate targets. Nuclear is the only path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.”
No green Ontario without nuclear
As Ontario struggles to formulate a solid plan to meet emissions targets while satisfying growing energy demand, Johnston is convinced that the province’s longstanding expertise in nuclear generation provides an opportunity as fossil fuel generation is phased out. “We know we need to phase out fossil fuels in order to achieve climate goals. Those folks that are working in that sector, we can provide them with a just transition into the nuclear sector,” says Johnston. “The skills those workers have are transferable. Nobody needs to be left behind from a labour perspective. Nuclear means good, unionized jobs. These are jobs that pay well, provide benefits, provide a pension, and give people the ability to have a comfortable life and contribute back to the economy.”
Growing the nuclear sector in Ontario responsibly will require leaning on new technologies like small modular reactors. Still, Johnston holds that it must also include revisiting plans to decommission existing facilities like the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, which currently provides 3,100 megawatts of clean power. “We’re simply making it clear to the government that we really only have three options to meet our growing electricity needs: refurbish Pickering, build a new nuclear station, or become more reliant on gas power and the emissions that come with that,” Johnston says. “It was a long time ago when they first did the number crunching to see whether they should refurbish Pickering. With gas prices rising significantly since then, there is likely now an economic case for refurbishing Pickering to go along with the moral and environmental case for stopping catastrophic climate change.”
Modern nuclear facilities inspire pride
Even as new energy technologies provide fresh hope for a green future, our existing nuclear facilities have grown ever greener and more modern. “We tour MPs and MPPs through the Bruce Power plant and then we take them up the street to Ontario Power Generation’s waste storage facilities, and you can see the look on their faces change,” she recounts. “They’re so used to thinking of nuclear in terms of these huge yellow barrels with green goo coming out of them. But then the waste storage facility is actually the cleanest place they’ve ever walked into. And all of the workers there, you can see the pride on their faces whenever a tour goes through.”
And those workers aren’t just engineers and nuclear operators. A nuclear power plant is a massive and complex operation which demands a robust and diverse combination of skills from scientists to lawyers to software developers to security personnel. These are all good, unionized green jobs that already provide billions of dollars in economic benefits to Ontario communities. “There are a lot of people who are hesitant about nuclear in their area,” says Johnston, who herself lives minutes from the Pickering plant. “But once you start to educate people on the value it can bring, from a jobs perspective, from an economic perspective, and from the perspective of simply making the world a better place, those concerns tend to quickly go away.”
We all have skin in the game when it comes to climate change and energy security — two of the biggest issues facing Canada and the world today. When Ontario’s nuclear workers speak up on what they hope the future will look like, it behooves us to listen closely.