Nuclear power is popularly viewed as a clean energy solution that could help combat the effects of climate change, as it doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses. In comparison with fossil fuels—which contribute to excessive carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere—nuclear looks like a promising option.
In December 2019, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs joined Saskatchewan and Ontario in signing a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on the development of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs). Higgs said that the development of SMNRs in New Brunswick could help the province fight climate change, while stimulating the economy.
SMNRs are nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. They arguably provide simpler, cheaper nuclear energy that can help in the transition to low-carbon energy sources. While SMNRs have the capacity to produce energy, they can also produce hydrogen, store energy, reduce the need for diesel, and desalinate water.
Though SMNRs could provide a low-carbon energy source, they come along with a number of issues that seem to have been overlooked or ignored by the Higgs government, as well as mainstream media.
Higgs stated that “this is a process moving from oil to gas to nuclear, and then solar and wind,” suggesting that nuclear could be used as a ‘crutch’ in the transition to renewable energy—but the timelines don’t add up.
The climate crisis has been recognized as an immediate threat that requires urgent action, including a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years. But can SMNRs get us there in time?
The Canadian Nuclear Association’s SMNR Roadmap predicts that SMNRs won’t be available for commercial use until the 2030s. With only 10 years to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, SMNRs don’t seem to be the most effective option.
It is puzzling why New Brunswick would commit to researching and developing SMNRs, when renewable energy sources including wind, solar and hydro are already being used successfully across the country. Renewable energy resources such as hydro currently provide over 60 percent of Canada’s electricity grid, whereas nuclear energy only provides 15 percent of the country’s electricity.
In 2019, the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) found that between 2009 and 2018, solar costs decreased by 88 percent and wind 69 percent, while nuclear costs increased by 23 percent. The report found that the cost of generating solar power ranges from $36 to $44 per megawatt hour (MWh), onshore wind between $29-56 per MWh, and nuclear energy between $112-189.
Although SMNRs don’t emit greenhouse gasses, they raise concerns regarding lengthy time frames and economic infeasibility—time and money that New Brunswick can’t afford to lose. Additionally, radioactive waste disposal, leaks, and lack of environmental assessments raise questions and concerns as to why New Brunswick wants to pursue nuclear development.
Nuclear energy, and its accompanying SMNRs, is not what New Brunswick needs in order to transition to low-carbon energy. Renewable energy can provide the solutions we need within the required timeline at a fraction of the cost.
Hannah Moore is a fourth year Environment & Society major at St. Thomas University, the leader of the STU divestment campaign, and a researcher on the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.