SAINT JOHN, N.B. – Governments and communities need to avoid nuclear expansion and invest in renewable energy, Canadian scientist Gordon Edwards told two public gatherings here in March.
To address climate change, “we can make faster progress with renewables” such as solar and wind energy, said the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. The theme of his presentations was “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs): not small, not green, not clean, not affordable.”
Based in Montreal, Professor Edwards is an award-winning nuclear consultant. He was invited by non-profit groups committed to fuller public information about the planned building and operation of SMNRs.
He spoke midday at the University of New Brunswick Saint John and in the evening at the New Brunswick Museum. His planned March 13 presentation in Fredericton was converted to an online webinar because of public health concerns.
SMNRs are being promoted by governments of New Brunswick, Ontario and Saskatchewan, together with the federal government and industry. Proponents promise jobs and carbon-free electricity generation.
However, Professor Edwards said radioactive “nuclear waste is the root of all the problems of nuclear power.” He pointed to high costs and major risks to human health and the environment for many generations.
It will take at least 10 years to build and operate SMNRs which now exist only in theory, he said. Climate action is needed now, not 10 years from now, he emphasized.
Existing nuclear reactors produce a very small percentage of the world’s electricity, he noted. Yet advocates “are desperate” to save the nuclear industry by proposing a new generation of reactors, he added. In Canada, nuclear power plants operate in New Brunswick and Ontario.
Two nuclear technology companies have established offices in Saint John to develop SMNR prototypes: Moltex Energy from the United Kingdom and ARC Nuclear, with headquarters in Maryland, U.S.
Professor Edwards said because Wall Street and the banks refuse to invest in nuclear energy, the industry is turning to the federal government to spend taxpayers’ money. “It’s not their money. It’s your money,” he emphasized.
After building prototypes, the nuclear industry seeks to mass produce and sell SMNRs to other parts of the world, he said. Locations could include Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe.
High costs and risks
In Canada, the nuclear industry has proposed SMNRs for use by mining companies in northern Ontario and oil companies in the Alberta oil sands. However, Professor Edwards said extractive industries are uninterested.
He noted the federal government has eliminated any form of environmental assessments in order to accelerate the building of SMNRs. First Nations peoples in northern Ontario are strongly opposed to such reactors on their land, he added.
Globally, Canada has long been a major exporter of uranium used as fuel for nuclear energy as well as nuclear weapons. However, he said the price of uranium has declined sharply. Currently, Nova Scotia, Quebec and British Columbia have moratoria on uranium mining.
Safe storage of radioactive nuclear waste has posed major problems since the dawn of the nuclear age 80 years ago, said Professor Edwards. Enormous amounts of water are required and containment materials are exposed to radiation for many years. In future, costly deactivation work “means your grandchildren will be paying the bills,” he added.
He warned about the potential for nuclear accidents leading to cancers, death and environmental destruction for many years. Professor Edwards also pointed to the nuclear weapons connection.
“When we sell small reactors around the world, we are creating a legacy of radioactive plutonium.” Unstable regimes years from now could make “dirty bombs” from this dangerous material. “We’re planting the seeds of our own destruction,” he said.
Proponents of SMNRs claim they can access and use plutonium from existing reactors such as the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station in southern New Brunswick. However, Professor Edwards said major problems would arise from attempting to transport the material. Potential threats could also be posed by terrorist groups and criminal organizations seeking the destructive material.
In response to questions, Professor Edwards said, “I believe that it is possible that we could go 100 per cent renewable” – or at least 70 to 90 per cent with renewable energy. “I believe that renewable energy is the way to go.”
The Catholic Church condemns both possession and use of nuclear weapons. During his visit to Japan in November 2019, Pope Francis also highlighted the Japanese bishops’ call for an end to nuclear power. In 2011, Japan was hit by an earthquake which triggered a tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown in Fukushima.
According to Reuters news agency, after visiting Japan the pope told reporters, “The use of nuclear energy is at the limit (of safety) because we still have not managed to achieve total security . . . In my personal opinion, I would not use nuclear energy until there is total security. There is not enough security to guarantee that there will not be a disaster.”
Sponsoring Professor Edwards’ recent visit were the Council of Canadians Saint John and Fredericton; Urban and Community Studies Institute at the University of New Brunswick Saint John; Sisters of Charity; RAVEN at UNB Fredericton; Sustainable Energy Group Carleton County and the NB Media Co-op.
Watch Gordon Edwards’ webinar on March 13 here.
Roma De Robertis is a member of the Sisters of Charity based in Saint John.