The idea of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) was in the news this week with the federal government being urged to provide even more research money to develop this “new” nuclear power technology. The premise is that SMRs are a needed, cost effective, safe and realistic solution to climate change. However, SMRs are not the answer or even part of the answer to climate change given the problematic environmental, social and economic attributes of the proposed technology. Instead, in our view, investment is urgently needed in Canada’s vast and enviable renewable energy resources which are already scalable and provide safer, less costly, and more socially acceptable means of energy generation.
The UN has warned we have just 10 years to get climate change and our emissions under control – the promise of SMR technology provides too little, too late with too many risks. Socially acceptable, cost effective and scalable renewable options are available now.
SMRs are not yet commercially available. Indeed, Canada’s SMR Roadmap, produced by the Canadian Nuclear Association, only sets out a path for having a commercial demonstration unit in the 2030s. To contend that SMR technology can aid in combatting climate change is potentially damaging to climate action, as it misses the 10-year window we have to reverse emissions and decarbonize. It also distracts from the urgent work needed to respond to the climate emergency.
We already have many tools in our renewable energy toolbox. Canada’s electricity grid is 65% renewable, mainly from our vast hydro resources. These resources, used in combination with 30% to 35% wind and solar, makes a renewable grid achievable. Several jurisdictions have already achieved or surpassed this threshold, such as Prince Edward Island, where 43% of its power comes from wind alone. We also have access to other renewable energy resources such as biomass, geothermal, and tidal to assist in our transition to a low-carbon economy.
Studies also continue to demonstrate viable pathways to a renewable grid, which are both technically and economically feasible. One report from Nova Scotia provides a pathway to reach a 90% renewable grid by 2030 and a study from New Brunswick plots a cost effective solution to achieve a 95% renewable grid. While work is needed to achieve the remaining 5% over time, the immediate need – and the focus of governmental efforts – should be on prioritizing the first 90% to 95% shift to renewables.
Despite what appears as widespread interest in SMRs, very few countries have been willing to invest in their construction. Apart from technology’s risks, the problem is one of poor economics: nuclear energy is already known to be expensive and the cost-competitiveness of SMRs is contingent upon their mass fabrication. Hundreds if not thousands of SMRs would need to be deployed in order to be economically viable.
Past experience also dictates this new reactor technology may never become commercially available. For instance, after two decades and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the two prototype MAPLE reactors were abandoned in 2008 because they could not be safely operated. The Gentilly 1 prototype reactor in Quebec which received similar investment, also failed and after 180 days of operation was mothballed.
Despite public assurances of SMRs’ ‘passive’ and ‘inherent’ safety, SMR operators and suppliers would be protected from liability in the event of an accident under the current rules; the current nuclear liability rules are a concession by governments to the nuclear industry because of the inherent hazard that private nuclear investors do not want to underwrite.
Furthermore, after 50 years of nuclear energy production, we still do not have an approved plan for Canada’s high, intermediate and low-level radioactive waste stockpiles. Because of the diverse range of fuels which can be used by SMRs, new radioactive waste streams will be created, thus increasing the complexity of the used nuclear fuel waste problem, with new types of nuclear waste hazards being introduced.
The touted benefit of SMRs for use in remote and rural regions would also mean increased transport of radioactive substances on roads and railways across the country. This poses unique proliferation risks since the waste from enriched fuels can produce quantities of plutonium that could be attractive for diversion to malicious purposes.
The greater the number of sites and communities with SMRs, the greater the proliferation risks because of challenges in monitoring, keeping track and measuring plutonium in spent fuel, which must be kept secure.
Furthermore, Canada’s nuclear safety regulator advocated with the federal government to remove SMRs from public, more rigorous forms of decision-making under Canada’s new Impact Assessment Act (IAA). Despite requirements for wind and solar farms to undergo environmental assessments, either provincially or federally, SMRs would not trigger an environmental assessment under the current federal IAA Project List regulation. The coming into force of the Impact Assessment Act in June 2019 wholly exempts SMRs from environmental, or impact assessment review.
Investment in nuclear power at the 11th hour is a distraction from real climate action when scalable, cost-effective renewable solutions could and need to be employed. Already climate-burdened future generations should not have new risks imposed on them, due to SMR’s radioactive waste and accompanying proliferation risk. We need to invest in known renewable energy solutions, and not the promise of a hypothetical and risky technology.
Read all of the NB Media Co-op stories about the proposed nuclear reactors for New Brunswick, here.
This article was also published as a blog on the website of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
Theresa McClenaghan is the Executive Director and Counsel at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA). Kerrie Blaise is a staff lawyer at CELA for Northern Ontario. Chris Rouse is Director of the New Brunswick-based organization, New Clear Free Solutions.