Diane Cameron

Diane Cameron is tracing back through her career to explain her pivot from a career destined for distinguished service in the Canadian government to take on her new role as head of the Nuclear Technology Development and Economics Division at the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). 

Her journey has been powered by her intellect but as she speaks, it’s clear her career choices have been driven by her heart. Her internal compass points her toward solutions to climate change at a time when the planet is under duress from the strains of its effects.

One important contributor to climate change mitigation is low-carbon energy. Lots of it. One way to generate it, nuclear power.

Cameron joined NEA earlier this year following seven years as director of the Nuclear Division for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). Before taking that role, she says, she had seen increasing evidence of the powerful role nuclear could play in climate change mitigation. 

In May 2014, six months before the Canadian government announced the final piece in its restructuring of Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL), Cameron moved posts from Canada’s foreign affairs department into the nuclear division directorship, an open role left unfilled for years prior. Her time in the role serves as a map of the country’s nuclear programme itself, during that time. 

The department had been working in quiet mode as the federal government undertook the review and restructuring of AECL, the crown corporation that gave the world CANDU technology and operated several national nuclear facilities, including the national research lab at Chalk River where the Nuclear Research Universal (NRU) reactor operated for more than 70 years before a well-earned retirement in 2018. 

As Cameron arrived, the restructuring, which included sale of the crown corporation’s nuclear reactor division to SNC-Lavalin and the formation of government-owned, company-operated, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, was just wrapping up. As Cameron describes it, her role was to chart a new direction into unknown territory.

“It was sort of carte blanche, almost. I had to rebuild the team essentially from scratch, which was a challenge but also an opportunity, obviously,” says Cameron. “Every little growth step was pitching a vision to senior management of what we could accomplish; pitching an idea of a role we could play and incrementally building a team.”

Fast forward to February 2021 when Cameron left NRCan to join the NEA. The NRCan team had grown to 24. But the U
V heft was not just in the head count. The team accomplished milestones on the national and international front, which have set the table for Canada’s nuclear sector’s future, should federal and provincial governments choose to pursue it.

In Canada, constitutionally nuclear energy falls within the jurisdiction of the federal government. The government’s role spans across research and development, as well as regulation of nuclear materials and activities. The government’s nuclear priorities, and related legislation, are in health, safety, security and the environment. 

However, the decision as to which technologies to invest in for electricity generation rests with the country’s 13 provinces and territories.

To date, only two provinces use nuclear power though one of them, Ontario, is the country’s largest province. In in both Ontario and New Brunswick, nuclear is a major contributor to the grid. So, while nuclear accounts for only 15 per cent of Canada’s generation capacity, for more than 40 per cent of Canadians, the primary source of electricity is nuclear power. The nuclear industry hopes to expand on that. Cameron and her team believed there were some important reasons to help them.

“The nuclear sector supports many different types of priorities: economic and innovation as well as environment, climate change and public health,” says Cameron. “The nuclear sector can support a range of different national priorities, so it was a question of starting to tell the story and framing Canada’s nuclear story (first) within the government’s other priorities.”

Illustrative of their progress, has been several speeches from the sector’s top elected official, NRCan Minister Seamus O’Regan who has delivered some of the most bullish speeches about nuclear in recent memory. He’s gone so far as to say, Canada cannot meet its net-zero carbon emissions without nuclear energy.

By the mid-2015s, with AECL’s nuclear division privatised and its national research programme and liabilities under private-sector management, NRCan’s nuclear division, could have coasted into babysitting mode. 

Cameron, however, is not that type of bureaucrat. Leading up to and early in her tenure with NRCan, Cameron says, the evidence and modelling increasingly demonstrated the essential role nuclear could play in addressing climate change. She recognised the importance of contributing that evidence in broader policy conversations. In her role as director, she says, it was her job to move that forward because public service boils down to two over-riding points, fearless advice and loyal implementation.

“The fearless advice is around bringing in a non-partisan, non-partial evidence-based analysis and then (based on that), advice. Part of my role as a public servant was to make sure I surfaced and shone a light on a part of the conversation, that, not only in Canada but around the world was pretty quiet,” she says. “Many, many of these conversations were silent on nuclear. It is not as if they brought the nuclear option or evidence to the conversation and took a values-based decision against it. It was just silent. I saw that my role as a public servant, very clearly, was to ensure nuclear was positioned in those conversations.” 

Cameron’s background lent itself well to the task. When she joined NRCan, she had clocked seven years in Foreign Affairs serving as deputy director for trade and environment, from which she brought knowledge and contacts. She also brought a unique pairing of technical and social expertise.

Cameron earned her undergraduate degree in systems engineering with a minor in society, technology and values, the latter reflecting a deep personal interest in social justice, likely inherited from her father and mentor, a professor in social work.

After several years working for a consultancy in Princeton New Jersey, where she honed skills in business management and efficiency optimisation, she went back to school and earned a master’s in technology policy from MIT, a programme targeted to people like Cameron who want to marry technical skills with policy development. 

MIT also gave her an introduction to nuclear energy and the role it could play as a tool to combat climate change. While at MIT, she worked under Ernest J. Moniz, who would later serve as US Secretary of Energy from 2013-2017. 

While Cameron came to the NRCan role already understanding the value of nuclear, it was while she was there that she learned about Canada’s important contribution to the technology development. “In every objective measurable way,” she says, “Canada’s nuclear industry is a nuclear rock star.” 

In early days in role, as she investigated the terrain, Cameron says, “I learned about the talent in Canada, the Canadian story. I was meeting with Canadians working in this sector and their accomplishments, yet the public policy discussions were not giving this a voice.”

She says she observed that many people in the provinces where nuclear is generated did not appreciate the benefits it delivers. “I think we owe it to have a much more public policy debate with Canadians about some of the really tough choices ahead of us.” 

Perhaps driven by that conviction, during her tenure, Cameron was tireless in a campaign of personal appearances to spread information about the role of nuclear and the data that supported that. 

Darroch Harrop, an early recruit who joined Cameron’s team in 2015, jokes that he and his colleagues tried to count how many webinars, seminars, podcasts and conferences she participated in but gave up the futile exercise.

He says, as impressive as Cameron’s commitment to these appearances, it is her ability to build coalitions and “get people to sit around the table” that helped drive the visibility and measurable progress during her time at NRCan.

“She is an alliance builder,” he says. “She finds the win-wins. The number of perspectives she brings together is huge.”

Dan Brady, deputy director for the nuclear division says Cameron’s ability to work inside government, across multiple ministries to create visibility for nuclear has been important in moving the conversation beyond energy industry stakeholders and has helped break log jams to get nuclear onto broader policy agendas. He talks about initiatives Cameron created specifically to prompt conversations, including one that drove required briefings for every deputy minister across government, consequently requiring the staffers to also get up to speed on the file. 

Tracking the progress

An early visible indicator of the work going on in Cameron’s department arose in the government’s response to a 2017 U
V Standing Committee for Natural Resources report Nuclear at a Crossroads. The report reflected the status of nuclear in Canada, with the AECL restructuring behind it, the end of operation of the NRU reactor just in front of it and the end of operation at Canada’s oldest commercial nuclear site, Pickering Nuclear (3100MW), coming up fast with no new-build CANDU planned to replace it. Three other Canadian nuclear stations, Darlington and Bruce Power in Ontario
and New Brunswick Power’s Point Lepreau station had either undergone or were committed to moving forward with refurbishments. The refurbishments represent a massive investment in nuclear infrastructure. But as the industry considered development beyond the refurbishments, a question hung in the air, “What’s next?”

From the Standing Committee report, five themes emerged including the importance of the federal government as a partner, the value of nuclear energy in addressing climate change, the need for cross-sector partnerships and the spectrum of policy areas where nuclear can be positively impactful.

From these themes, came a series of recommendations. They included strengthening the government’s work with industry, Indigenous governments and communities, as well as other levels of government and the sector. They reinforced the government’s role in supporting research and development, working with international partners, support for Canadian technology development and commercialisation, strengthening public education and training, and, importantly, support for new technologies and the development of small modular reactors. 

The report gave Cameron’s team a mandate and from its response, a blueprint emerged that would serve to guide their work through the remainder of her tenure.

Canada’s SMR Roadmap

A year after the Standing Committee report, the 2018, multi-stakeholder authored Canadian SMR Roadmap was released followed in December 2020 by release of Canada’s Action Plan. The two encapsulate almost every theme from the Standing Committee’s report. 

The roadmap engaged more than 180 individuals representing 55 organisations across 10 sectors and subsectors, including multiple levels of government, civil society, academia and industry. The Action Plan includes chapters from 117 organisations. Both used a pan-Canadian approach to bring together disparate voices of many interests to create a common vision for development of a Canadian approach to small modular reactor development. An outcome that can be traced back to the SMR Roadmap and related work by government and industry working together, includes the 2021 agreement by four provinces – Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan – to collaborate on SMR deployment as part of a strategy to meet Canada’s net-zero targets. In a marrying of technical and social intersection, the Roadmap brought in voices from Canadians who had never been engaged in conversations about nuclear energy and helped start meaningful engagement on low-carbon infrastructure and the relevance to their lives.

Cameron herself describes the roadmap as “impactful in Canada and globally” and truly reflective of a “coalition of the willing.” The work also provided an opportunity to validate the economic assumptions about the value of SMR development in Canada. One assessment by a third-party organisation indicated the global impact in the ballpark of CA$300 billion by 2040.

Cameron’s role in the roadmap was pivotal, says Fred Dermarkar, president of AECL and former president of CANDU Owners Group.

“Diane was the key driver behind the SMR roadmap,” he says. “She created a vision that inspired politicians, government, industry, academia and the international community. For example, when France announced
the launching of its SMR project at the IAEA GC in September 2019, the CEO of EDF referenced Canada’s
SMR Roadmap.”

Canada on the world stage

In fact, some point to Cameron’s work to bring Canada more prominently into the international community as one of her most significant accomplishments.

Explaining the international emphasis, Cameron says, “An important input on Canadian policy work is to be able to turn to international peer-reviewed studies, modelling, forecasting and analysis,” and conversely, she says, “Canadian expertise contributes to international knowledge.” As well she adds, being part of the international community “also showcases Canada’s expertise and provides it a source of influence.” 

Further, this work contributed to her personal desire to “normalize” nuclear in the climate change conversation. 

In 2018, Canada, the United States and Japan teamed together to form the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future initiative that introduced nuclear into the annual Clean Energy Ministerial talks. Following a “modest side event” at the Copenhagen CEM talks, in 2019, nuclear was fully integrated when CEM was held in Vancouver. By then, nine countries had signed on to NICE Future.

As CEM 2019 host, Cameron says, “We wanted to ensure nuclear literacy and we wanted nuclear to be part of the main conversation.” Several strategies were employed to fully integrate nuclear into the forum, and the measure of success, says Cameron, was the fact that for anyone attending CEM for the first time, “it would have looked unremarkable to have nuclear at those tables,” which was exactly the point.

A different form of public service

There is a spiritual connection with the number seven. It is said seven years represents a cycle in our lives and a sense of completeness.

In her seventh year in role, Cameron left NRCan for the NEA, taking the work she’d done on a national level to apply it in a global role. As she stood, straddled between the two roles, she said it was a “moment of reflection” as she set on the path where she believes she can make the most impact in the fight against climate change. 

She hopes the various levels of government, back in Canada, will act on the early promise in SMR development and together with industry can solidify nuclear’s contribution to meeting Canada’s net-zero targets and socio-economic goals both domestically and globally. 

Internationally, Cameron sees COP26 as the next test. Whether nuclear can achieve “unremarkable” status as a natural player at the table remains to be seen. But chances are good, if you are in Glasgow, you will see the NEA’s new head of nuclear making a very evidence-based case as to why it should be considered in the energy mix. 

Jacquie Hoornweg is Managing partner at Querencia Partners