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Powering Canada's Future

Q&A with Dr. Chris Keefer on the Life-Saving Benefits of Nuclear

chris keefer hs

Dr. Chris Keefer, M.D.

President, Canadians for Nuclear Energy & Emergency Physician

Dr. Chris Keefer shares with Mediaplanet why Canada needs to adopt nuclear — from cleaner air and a cooler climate to life-saving medical isotopes. 

Starting your career as an emergency physician, what sparked your interest in advocating for nuclear energy?

Ontario’s electricity grid used to be 25 per cent coal-powered, and we operated the largest coal plant in North America, contributing to 54 smog days a year in my hometown of Toronto. I grew up with an asthmatic friend who barely left his house all summer because our air quality was so poor. Over the course of my early medical career, we eliminated coal burning in Ontario, something very few jurisdictions around the world have been able to do, but it was only years later that I learned how we got rid of coal. Ontario accomplished this feat by using nuclear energy, which provided 90 per cent of the power required to permanently eliminate coal. 

We take the air we all breathe for granted. Burning coal has numerous health impacts, from asthma and emphysema to heart attacks, strokes, and even cancer. The Ontario Medical Association estimates that a thousand lives per year could be saved, and tens of thousands of hospital admissions could be avoided by phasing out coal. During my clinical practice, I directly witnessed the benefits of clean air and came to understand that nuclear energy literally saved thousands of lives right here in Ontario since it produces no air pollution. 

However, my initial discovery of nuclear energy as something that could be a positive thing came around the time of the birth of my child. I was thinking a lot about climate change and wanted to do something about it. Being a science geek, I started researching the solutions for climate change. I learned that the fundamental solution is to develop an ultra-clean electricity grid and electrify as much of our economy as possible. I learned that right in my backyard in Ontario, we had done just that with our electricity grid which uses nuclear for 65 per cent of its power generation. 

Why nuclear energy? 

Nuclear ticks all of the boxes we should care about in our modern world. It’s an environmentalist’s dream because there’s no air pollution, and you can produce an astounding amount of energy with the least possible mining and the smallest land footprint. The three power plants that provide 65 per cent of Ontario’s electricity are each about the size of a large shopping mall. Nuclear uses a fraction of the concrete, steel, and rare earth minerals compared to other low-carbon sources like wind and solar, which means the lowest disturbance to our natural world.

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station essentially generates the electricity requirements for most of Toronto on the footprint the size of a Costco shopping centre. This is because Uranium is a million times more energy dense than coal, for instance. The amount of uranium that one of the world’s largest nuclear plants — the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario — uses every day could fit inside one oil barrel.

Nuclear power also provides Canada with an incredible economic advantage. Canada has innovated its own nuclear technology and design — the CANDU reactor — with a 96 per cent made in Canada supply chain. This gives us complete energy security and an incredible economic multiplier effect. Every dollar we invest in CANDU generates $1.40 of economic activity. Nuclear is great for the environment and economy, and that’s a rare mix.

There’s also the question of a just transition for fossil fuel workers. Jobs in wind and solar tend to be low-skill, low paying, and transient. There are, after all, no parking lots outside of a wind or solar farm. Nuclear offers fossil fuel workers equally well-paying, high-skilled jobs producing the lowest carbon form of electricity on the planet. These jobs are inter-generational, family-supporting, and mostly unionized. Nuclear truly is the just transition.

Finally, it’s important to consider alternative clean energy sources when asking, “why nuclear?” With wind and solar, the reality is that these power sources don’t produce energy reliably, and they become critically reliant on backup, which must be capable of supplying 100 per cent of energy needs when wind and sun don’t co-operate, which is not a rare occurrence. This means that you simply cannot retire reliable power stations like gas and coal plants, which is borne out by the experience of Germany and California, where despite large-scale investments in wind and solar, fossil fuel plants cannot be retired.

Nuclear energy offers us clean air, a cooler climate, and life-saving medical isotopes. With a supply chain that’s 96 per cent made in Canada and high-quality jobs, we can achieve our environmental goals, a healthy economy, and a truly just transition for Canadian workers.

What about the waste?

People are concerned about the waste, but we produce a vanishingly small amount of it. All of the high-level nuclear waste that we’ve ever produced in Canada would fit in one hockey rink stacked one telephone pole high.

Nuclear waste is very dangerous fresh out of the reactor, and unshielded, it would cause certain death within seconds of exposure. Yet, paradoxically in modern society, we make dangerous things incredibly safe. Consider aviation, for instance. We don’t give a second thought to flying 30,000 feet at close to the speed of sound, above a vast ocean, in a thin-skinned airplane with nowhere to safely land for thousands of kilometres. It’s a lot easier to shield nuclear waste in water-filled pools and then concrete and steel dry casks than to maintain an aircraft with tens of thousands of mission-critical moving parts that must remain in perfect working order. This is borne out by the fact that no one has ever been killed by stored civilian nuclear waste. Despite 4.5 billion passenger flights every year, only several hundred people die annually in aviation accidents.

Nuclear waste rapidly decays. In 10 years 99.9% of the radiation has disappeared. Within 200 years you would get a dose lower than a CT scan by standing next to nuclear waste for one hour. In 600 years you could safely hold nuclear waste in your hand.

The long term solution is either to store the waste deep underground where we can use the rock layers to contain it on geological timescales or reuse it in a type of reactor that can use up the rest of the fuel and produce waste that only needs to be stored for 300 years.

Aside from generating power, how are Canadian nuclear reactors being utilized in health care? 

Canadian engineers have developed and refined the CANDU reactor. It’s a unique reactor in terms of its ability to produce an enormous amount of medical isotopes, which are radioactive elements that we use for cancer therapy and the sterilization of medical devices.  

In Canada, we’ve produced most of the world’s Cobalt-60, which is used to sterilize 40 per cent of the world’s single-use medical devices — from the IV cannula going into someone’s arm to the breathing tubes used in the ICU. Medical isotopes enable modern health care, and modern health care depends on sterile equipment. 

Certain isotopes are also used in Canada as vital cancer therapies. My father is currently being treated with a medical isotope (Lutetium-177) produced at Bruce Power for metastatic prostate cancer. And you can’t just do this in any old power reactor — some research reactors around the world make medical isotopes, but they can’t make the quantities that we can with our CANDUs. So a Canadian nuclear plant is not only pumping out clean electricity and fighting the climate crisis but is also making our air clean and extending my father’s life through this isotope treatment. 

How is Canadians for Nuclear Energy changing the conversation surrounding nuclear?

Canadians for Nuclear Energy is a non-profit, completely independent from the nuclear industry, so we’re able to communicate in a much bolder manner than industry folks. We’ve been very politically active since our founding in 2020. We produced the detailed policy report, “Save Pickering,” which was so influential in the Ontario government’s decision to extend the life of the Pickering nuclear station. This decision will keep five million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere and safeguard our air quality from the smog produced by natural gas plants. 

We’ve started several House of Commons petitions which required formal written government responses. Our activism around Canada’s Green Bond Framework, which excludes nuclear from green financing alongside sin stocks like tobacco, firearms, and gambling, led to the federal government including nuclear within the mandate of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and additional funding to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to speed up the regulatory frameworks for Small Modular Reactors. So our efforts have been incredibly impactful, and we are just getting started! American anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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