Howard Green speaks with Tim Gitzel, CEO of Saskatchewan-based uranium company Cameco Corporation, about nuclear power and climate change.
Generating clean electricity is one of the most pressing issues facing humankind. More than half of the world’s greenhouse gases come from producing electrical power. So to get to net zero targets, the world needs to generate electricity without carbon emissions. One option is nuclear power.
But for years, many people have been uncomfortable with nuclear. It produces radioactive waste and a malfunction can be catastrophic. Many remember the accidents at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.
Despite the risks, nuclear energy is considered clean power. Ontario gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear and has announced its building a new plant, while the UK and China are building many.
Going nuclear, however, requires uranium for fuel. And Saskatchewan-based Cameco Corporation is one of the world’s top producers. This week, Cameco president and CEO Tim Gitzel discusses the rewards and risks of the nuclear option.
Here is the first part of his recent interview with Howard Green, host of Connexion, a 12-part bi-weekly video series launched with the Toronto Star.
Howard Green: Great to have you with us, Tim. Thanks so much for making time.
Tim Gitzel: Howard, it’s an absolute pleasure to see you again and to be able to join you today. Thank you.
So, before we get into the issues, how does somebody get into the uranium business? It’s a bit of an unusual business to go into.
Well, that’s a bit of a story for sure, Howard. I grew up in Saskatchewan. I went to school, played hockey. I wanted to play hockey. I want to play for the Leafs. But they weren’t quite as interested on their side as I was. And so I started working a summer job in the uranium mines here in Saskatchewan. Uranium had been discovered in the ’50s. But really, the new mines were coming in the late ’70s, early ’80s and I got a summer job with Cluff Mining owned by the French.
Back in ’79, I was 17 and I worked six summers for them, two of them in Paris. We had a really enlightened CEO from Paris, and he said, ‘Well, how would you like to go work in Paris for the summer instead of at the mine?’ And so I never really left. I went back to law school and then got hired pretty much straight out of law school to go back to the uranium company and work for the French company for 15 years — 10 in Canada, five in Paris, France. And then came back here about 15 years ago with Cameco.
So it’s been your professional life, essentially. Were you ever nervous around uranium? For us out here in Saskatchewan, we know uranium. You have to learn about it. You have to learn the characteristics of it, you have to be careful around it. We are the most heavily regulated industry, I think, in Canada, and most closely watched. And so we know it well. So, am I afraid? Not at all. And when I see the life saving procedures that come out of some of the uses of uranium? Not at all.
Cameco sells to more than 30 utilities around the world. Can you tell us where the public is on the issue of nuclear now? We’re 10 years past Fukushima, which scared a lot of people off and scared the Germans off, for instance. Where are we now in terms of our comfort level with nuclear?
Over the years since the late ’70s, I’ve seen this movie played out two or three times, you know, and we hate to talk about it. But there’s been three major incidents in the nuclear space over the last 30 years. You had in ’79, Three Mile Island. A movie came out about what a catastrophe it was. Really, it wasn’t a catastrophe. Nobody got hurt. And so there was that and that really scared people from nuclear power. We had Chernobyl in ’86 and then, of course, Fukushima in 2011. Just before those, there was real momentum for nuclear power. I remember in the late ’70s we were building uranium mines because there were big nuclear plants — Japan, France, the United States, Sweden were building lots of plants. Then we went into a bit of a funk and then it starts coming back. And so we go like that. And the last one, of course, was just 10 years ago in Japan. The years before that, we didn’t think there was enough uranium on the planet to feed all of the new nuclear plants that were going to be built around the world, and we went into a lull for a while. But I’m happy to say now, Howard, we’re back. We filled in the pothole, if you like. There are some countries, Germany being one of them, that decided to phase out their nuclear post-Fukushima. So they’ve gone wind and solar, which hasn’t been particularly great for them. In our business, people want electricity, period and they want clean electricity and so options are limited. We think nuclear is going to play a big role going forward.
Are we headed for more nuclear power simply because we’re out of other options for a stable base source?
Maybe not the best selling feature, but yeah, that’s part of it, for sure. People don’t want coal. Here in Saskatchewan, we said we’re phasing out of coal by 2030, which is less than 10 years away. Now, we better get moving. Ontario has already made the move. We don’t like oil, particularly for electricity generation. Gas is better, but still a lot of CO2 coming out of there. Damming up a river is not so easy these days. You flood a lot of traditional territory. And nuclear, people say, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know if I like that very much either.’ But they also don’t like brownouts and blackouts and smog. And they want the electricity to come on when they flip the light switch in the corner of the room. And so we’re getting another look now. Many countries are looking again at nuclear power. China’s building nuclear plants, Russia, India, Canada. We’ve really got some good tailwinds and lots of interest in the space. The young people are open to listening. They don’t like climate change. They don’t like climate crisis, climate catastrophe. They know something has to be done. And so they’re willing to take another look.
Source: Toronto Star