Tim Gitzel, President and CEO of Cameco Corporation, on the benefits and risks of nuclear energy
The production of clean electricity is one of the most pressing problems facing humanity. More than half of the world’s greenhouse gases come from the production of electricity. Thus, to achieve the net zero goals, the world must produce electricity without carbon emissions. One option is nuclear power.
But for years many people have been uncomfortable with nuclear power. It produces radioactive waste and malfunction can be catastrophic. Many remember the accidents at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.
Despite the risks, nuclear energy is considered clean energy. Ontario gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear and has announced the construction of a new plant, while the UK and China are building many.
The switch to nuclear, however, requires uranium as fuel. And Cameco Corporation, based in Saskatchewan, is one of the world’s leading producers. This week, Cameco President and CEO Tim Gitzel discusses the benefits and risks of the nuclear option.
This 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: Nice to have you with us, Tim. Thank you very much for taking the 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 anyone get into the uranium business? It’s a bit of an unusual endeavor.
Well, that’s a bit of a story for sure, Howard. I grew up in Saskatchewan. I went to school, I played hockey. I wanted to play hockey. I want to play for the Leafs. But they weren’t as interested on their side as I was. And so I started working a summer job in the uranium mines here in Saskatchewan. Uranium was discovered in the 1950s. But really, the new mines were coming in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and I got a summer job with French-owned Cluff Mining.
In 1979, I was 17 and I worked six summers for them, two of which were in Paris. We had a very enlightened Parisian CEO, and he said to us, “Well, would you like to go to work in Paris this summer rather than at the mine?” And so I never really left. I went back to law school, then I was hired almost immediately after law school to go back to the uranium company and work for the French company for 15 years – 10 in Canada, five in Paris, in France. And then I came back here about 15 years ago with Cameco.
So that was your professional life, essentially. Have you ever been nervous about uranium? For us here in Saskatchewan, we know uranium. You have to learn it. You have to learn the characteristics of it, you have to pay attention to it. We are the most regulated industry, I think, in Canada, and the most closely watched. And so we know it well. So am I scared? Not at all. And when I see the rescue procedures that flow from 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 nuclear issue right now? We are 10 years after Fukushima, which scared a lot of people and scared the Germans, for example. Where are we now in terms of comfort with nuclear power?
Over the years since the late ’70s, I’ve seen this movie played a couple of times, you know, and we hate to talk about it. But there have been three major incidents in nuclear space in the past 30 years. You had in 79, Three Mile Island. A film has been released on the disaster. Really, it was not a disaster. No one was hurt. And so there was that and it really scared people of nuclear power. We had Chernobyl in 1986 and then, of course, Fukushima in 2011. Just before that, there had been real momentum for nuclear power. I remember in the late 1970s we were building uranium mines because there were big nuclear power plants – Japan, France, USA, Sweden were building a lot of power plants. Then we got into a bit of funk and then it starts to come back. And so we go like that. And the last, of course, was just 10 years ago in Japan. In previous years, we thought there wasn’t enough uranium on the planet to power all the new nuclear power 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’ve filled in the pothole, if you will. There are countries, Germany being one of them, which have decided to phase out their post-Fukushima nuclear power. So they switched to wind and solar, which was not particularly good for them. In our business, people want electricity, period and they want clean electricity, so the options are limited. We believe that nuclear power will play a big role in the future.
Are we moving towards more nuclear power simply because we no longer have other options for a stable baseline source?
Maybe not the best-selling feature, but yes, it is, of course. People don’t want coal. Here in Saskatchewan we have said that we will phase out coal by 2030, which is less than 10 years away. Now we better get moving. Ontario has already taken the plunge. We don’t like oil, especially for power generation. The gas is better, but there is still a lot of CO2 coming out of it. Dike a river is not that easy these days. You are inundating a lot of traditional territory. And nuclear, people say, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know if I like it that much either.’ But they also don’t like brownouts, blackouts, and smog. And they want the electricity to turn on when they turn on the switch in the corner of the room. And so we get another look now. Many countries are turning to nuclear power again. China is building nuclear power plants, Russia, India, Canada. We have really good tailwinds and a lot of interest in space. Young people are open to listening. They don’t like climate change. They don’t like the climate crisis, the climate catastrophe. They know something has to be done. And so they’re ready to take another look.
This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.
You can watch the full video of the interview here.
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