In 2017, I worked as a model in Alberta. I was taught to pose in front of cameras, walk runways, and workout to fit international measurements. What the fashion industry taught me is that you can completely transform a subject with light, angles, makeup, and the right camera. The image put forth can then be an entirely different subject than the real muse. It is a transformation—into a false image with flawless skin, the perfect body, and a blinding white smile.
The reality, however, is that behind the layers of makeup and edits in Photoshop, models are regular people with regular problems. The picture is a façade, created and marketed to encourage people to consume not only branded products but the image itself and what the image represents. They too can solve their problems—with this moisturizer, those skinny jeans, that toothpaste.
Nuclear energy is one such “flawless” image. With the right journalistic angle and government investors, the nuclear energy model comes across as a potential fossil fuel alternative, a viable solution toward our green future. However, behind the nuclear industry’s image of the perfect energy alternative lies the truth of an economically infeasible solution to energy production that compounds nuclear waste.
The nuclear industry in New Brunswick is no exception. The existing NB Power nuclear reactor at Point Lepreau was built and later refurbished despite significant opposition by people in the province with environmental concerns. Now the government is supporting additional nuclear development.
ARC Nuclear Canada and Moltex Energy Canada were recently each given $5 million by the New Brunswick government and NB Power to further nuclear technology development in the province. The two start-ups requested an additional $30 million from the federal government to develop a prototype for small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs), a request that the province is supporting.
SMNRs have been used since the 1950s, but in the last few years, there has been a growing interest in SMNRs as a cleaner and more reliable source of power than fossil fuels. SMNRs are nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors, although they are still large installations.
Supporters of their continued use and innovation argue that they create simpler and cheaper nuclear energy. At first glance, this might appear to be true. When looking at popular media sources in Canada, SMNRs seem to be a strong investment opportunity for Canadians; the Canadian Nuclear Association ensures that nuclear energy will create new jobs and spark a clean energy future, The Globe and Mail cites SMNRs as a “smaller, safer, cheaper” alternative to coal, and The Toronto Star advocates that fears of nuclear energy meltdown are unfounded and thus safe for use.
Articles like these, however, make it difficult to navigate the research and find the truth behind the projected image. These articles do not present the full picture and do not answer the questions many Canadians do not know to ask: How is nuclear waste being dealt with? What is nuclear waste? Are SMNRs economically viable? Are they socially, environmentally, and economically safe?
Forbes has projected SMNRs as the nuclear future, but Edward Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists argues that SMNRs are economically infeasible due to “economies of scale,” the balance between the size and cost of an operation to maximize profitability and utility. Conventional nuclear reactors are currently not a competitive source of energy, and they produce power at a higher cost than other alternatives. SMNRs are projected to perform even worse: the energy they produce will be even more expensive per unit than the already economically failing nuclear option.
In a US study comparing SMNRs and alternative resource portfolios (combination energy sources), SMNRs cost 40% more ($24-$28/MWh), an increased cost of $35 million dollars per year. These alternative portfolios included low- or non-carbon emitting portfolios, as well as carbon-emitting portfolios, such as natural gas.
The nuclear industry operates on government subsidies and, because of this, is hardly economically stable. In recent years, the largest nuclear companies of the past, like Toshiba’s Westinghouse Electric, have filed for bankruptcy. These companies are trying to stage a “nuclear renaissance,” SMNRs being their pay-to-see Mona Lisa.
SMNRs might produce less nuclear waste than conventional reactors, but the waste is just as dangerous. According to Dr. Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, radioactive waste produced by SMNRs is unsafe for over 500 years, highly flammable, increasingly dangerous to transport and store, and non-reusable.
Under the right lighting, a model can look flawless, but change the angle, and the rough edges of the makeup, the sweat, or the uneven skin tone becomes apparent. You can see this transformation in the photos below. The same runway show, same model, same dress, same day—but the photos were taken mere seconds apart.
Under different lighting, without the right journalistic editing and oversight, SMNRs present a false reality: one with many flaws that are not being addressed by the nuclear industry or by its governmental supporters. It is time we see nuclear energy for the Photoshopped image that it is. It’s time to talk about reality: SMNRs are not our future.
Rachel Bensler is a second-year student at UNB’s Renaissance College, the leader of the Fossil-Free UNB Campaign and part of the RAVEN project team.