B.C. climate battle could go nuclear

Premier Christy Clark compared Burnaby prototype fusion reactor to "flux capacitor" from Back to the Future

Premier Christy Clark revealed some unexpected allies when she unveiled her “climate leadership team” to go beyond a carbon tax in reducing B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to mayors, climate experts, aboriginal leaders, representatives of the natural gas and forest industries and environmental activists surrounding Clark at an announcement last week, red-coated scientists gathered in front of a strange machine with radiating steel arms.

It’s a prototype of a nuclear reactor being built in Burnaby by General Fusion, backed by venture capital funds including those run by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the Malaysian government.

Conventional reactors use nuclear fission, in which large molecules of radioactive material are broken apart to produce heat. Fusion reactors attempt to compress hydrogen atoms to create a helium atom, releasing enormous energy in the process that powers the Sun and other stars.

Even after a tour of General Fusion, Clark wasn’t anxious to describe the project. She laughed off a question by comparing it to the “flux capacitor” used for time travel in the Michael J. Fox movie Back to the Future.

Nuclear fusion has been a holy grail of clean energy for decades. Stable, efficient fusion reactors would revolutionize energy production, upending the economics of coal, oil and natural gas-powered electricity.

General Fusion has competitors, none bigger than a 34-country collaboration called the ITER project, under construction in southern France. That machine covers an area equivalent to 60 football fields, with the same goal of re-creating the reaction at the core of the Sun.

General Fusion chief scientist Michel Laberge described his project in a recent TED Talk, comparing his design with ITER and other efforts. “We are almost there,” he said.

B.C.’s climate leadership team is to make recommendations by the end of November on how to advance the province’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. The team includes:

• Academic – Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions executive director Tom Pedersen, SFU public policy professor Nancy Olewiler, UBC business professor James Tansey

• Communities – Comox Mayor Paul Ives, Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner

• Business – Council of Forest Industries CEO James Gorman, Columbia Power director Tim Newton, BC LNG Alliance president David Keane

• Environment – Clean Energy Canada executive director Merran Smith, Pembina Institute regional director Matt Horne, Tzeporah Berman, formerly of Greenpeace International

• First Nations – Squamish First Nation Chief Ian Campbell, Ulkatcho First Nation Chief Zach Parker, Cayoose Creek Indian Band Chief Michelle Edwards

Brief bios of members are here.