The Government of New Brunswick is supporting proposals by two start-up multi-national companies with offices in Saint John to build a type of nuclear reactor judged to be dangerous by experts worldwide.
Last year, the government handed $5 million each to ARC Nuclear, based in the US, and Moltex Energy, based in the UK, to develop proposals to build prototypes of so-called Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs) in the province. The government is also supporting both companies in their proposal for millions more taxpayer dollars from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund.
It seems that these two SMNR entrepreneurs in New Brunswick, along with other nuclear “players” worldwide, are trying to revitalize the “plutonium economy” — a nuclear industry dream from the distant past that many believed had been laid to rest because of the failure of plutonium-fuelled breeder reactors almost everywhere, including the US, France, Britain and Japan.
The phrase “plutonium economy” refers to a world in which plutonium is the primary nuclear fuel in the future rather than natural or slightly enriched uranium. Plutonium, a derivative of uranium that does not exist in nature but is created inside every nuclear reactor fuelled with uranium, would thereby become an article of commerce.
The proposed SMNR prototype from ARC Nuclear in Saint John is the ARC-100 reactor (100 megawatts of electricity). It is a liquid sodium-cooled SMNR, based on the 1964 EBR-2 reactor – the Experimental Breeder Reactor #2 in Idaho. Its predecessor, the EBR-1 breeder reactor, had a partial meltdown in 1955, and the Fermi-1 breeder reactor near Detroit, also modelled on the EBR-2, had a partial meltdown in 1966.
Admiral Hyman Rickover, who created the US fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, tried a liquid-sodium-cooled reactor only once, in a submarine called the Sea Wolf. He vowed that he would never do it again. In 1956 he told the US Atomic Energy Commission that liquid sodium-cooled reactors are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”
The ARC-100 is designed with the capability and explicit intention of reusing or recycling irradiated CANDU fuel. In the prototype phase, the proposal is to use irradiated fuel from NB Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. Lepreau is a CANDU-6 nuclear reactor.
The other newly proposed NB SMNR prototype is the Moltex “Stable Salt Reactor” (SSR) — also a “fast reactor”, cooled by molten salt, that is likewise intended to re-use or recycle irradiated CANDU fuel, again from the Lepreau reactor in the prototype phase.
The “re-use” (or “recycling”) of “spent nuclear fuel”, also called “used nuclear fuel” or “irradiated nuclear fuel,” is industry code for plutonium extraction. The idea is to transition from uranium to plutonium as a nuclear fuel, because uranium supplies will not outlast dwindling oil supplies. Breeder reactors are designed to use plutonium as a fuel and create (“breed”) even more plutonium while doing so.
It is only possible to re-use or recycle existing used nuclear fuel by somehow accessing the unused “fissile material” in the used fuel. This material is mainly plutonium. Accessing this material involves a chemical procedure called “reprocessing” which was banned in the late 1970s by the Carter administration in the US and the first Pierre Elliot Trudeau administration in Canada. South Korea and Taiwan were likewise forbidden (with pressure from the US) to use this chemical extraction process.
Why did both the US and Canada ban this recycling scheme? Two reasons: 1) it is highly dangerous and polluting to “open up” the used nuclear fuel in order to extract the desired plutonium or U-233; and 2) extracting plutonium creates a civilian traffic in highly dangerous materials (plutonium and U-233) that can be used by governments or criminals or terrorists to make powerful nuclear weapons without the need for terribly sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.
Argonne Laboratories in the US, and the South Korean government, have been developing (for more than 10 years now) a new wrinkle on the reprocessing operation which they call “pyroprocessing.” This effort is an attempt to overcome the existing prohibitions on reprocessing and to restart the “plutonium economy.”
Both New Brunswick projects are claiming that their proposed nuclear reactor prototypes would be successful economically. To succeed, they must build and export the reactors by the hundreds in future.
On the contrary, however, the use of plutonium fuel is, and always has been, much more expensive than the use of uranium fuel. This is especially true now, when the price of uranium is exceedingly low and showing very little sign of recovering. In Saskatchewan, Cameco has shut down some of its richest uranium mines and has laid off more than a thousand workers, while reducing the pay of those still working by 25 percent. Under these conditions, it is impossible for plutonium-fuelled reactors to compete with uranium-fuelled reactors.
And to make matters worse for the industry, it is well known that even uranium-fuelled reactors cannot compete with the alternatives such as wind and solar or even natural-gas-fired generators. It is an open question why governments are using public funds to subsidize such uneconomical, dangerous and unsustainable nuclear technologies. It’s not their money after all – it’s ours!
Dr. Gordon Edwards, a scientist and nuclear consultant, is the President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He can be reached at: email@example.com
Note from the NB Media Co-op editors: Dr. Edwards visited New Brunswick in March for a series of public talks on the development of so-called Small Modular Nuclear Reactors. The story of his talk in Saint John can be accessed here. The video of the webinar presentation scheduled for Fredericton can be accessed here.
For more NB Media Co-op stories on small modular nuclear reactors, go here.