PC leader Blaine Higgs says federal funding to build two new nuclear reactors in New Brunswick is confirmed and will be announced after the election. The province and NB Power have already given $10 million to start the development of the nuclear projects. Liberal leader Kevin Vickers is also supporting the plans to build the new reactors.
The federal funding will go to two foreign companies – from the UK and the US – recently established in Saint John. Since arriving in Canada, both companies have been lobbying the provincial and federal government for the money to build their reactors. The CEO of one company estimated the final cost of its reactor at almost $3 billion.
In the month leading up to the snap election, non-government organizations have written to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan offering to host a public consultation in New Brunswick on radioactive waste policy.
The matter is urgent because the two new reactors in New Brunswick will each produce new categories of radioactive waste for which there is as yet no explicit provision.
The groups are responding to the Minister’s promise in July to “consult and engage with all Canadians” to develop a socially acceptable policy framework and to formulate a strategy for the long-term management of all categories of radioactive waste.
Last November, a team of experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommended that Canada improve its radioactive waste policy and formulate a national strategy. In February Canada agreed to act on that recommendation.
In May, 100 public interest groups across Canada, including nine in New Brunswick, asked Minister O’Regan to launch a public consultation process and to suspend three current radioactive waste disposal projects until Canada has an acceptable policy in place. The projects in question seem to be inconsistent with existing IAEA guidelines for long-term safety.
But even before the Minister’s department (NRCan) has fully engaged on the radioactive waste file, it has been promoting the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) in Canada.
Indeed, NRCan has prepared an “SMR Action Plan” that anticipates “civil society consultation and engagement” from July to September 2020, and promises to “finalize and print” its Action Plan for new reactors in October.
However the department has not yet reached out to public interest groups that have written to the Minister requesting to be consulted. In fact, the “statement of principles” drafted for the SMR Action Plan specifically excludes involvement in the process by any party that does not agree to endorse NRCan’s commitment to “support the development and deployment of various SMR technologies in Canada, with first units in operation by the late 2020s.”
The new reactors propose to make use of the plutonium contained in the solid used nuclear fuel bundles stored at NB Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station.
But extracting plutonium from used nuclear fuel is highly controversial, raising international concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation, since plutonium is the primary nuclear explosive in the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Extracting plutonium also requires converting solid high-level waste into a highly corrosive liquid form, complicating the handling and long-term management of the resulting waste. Less than one percent of the used fuel is recuperated for useful purposes.
For public policy, radioactive waste is more of a societal problem than an industry problem. Nuclear wastes will long outlive the nuclear industry that created it and the nuclear regulator that licensed its production.
Because radioactivity cannot be shut off, these wastes will pose a potential danger to the health and safety of future generations and the environment with no discernible finite time horizon. Even low and intermediate level wastes remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, and high-level wastes are known to be radiotoxic for millions of years.
The nuclear industry will seek permission at some point to abandon its radioactive wastes, thereby limiting its future liability. Our nuclear regulator has already said it will comply by granting a “licence to abandon.” But the liability is not thereby eliminated. The wastes may be reconfigured, repackaged and moved from one place to another, but they are not destroyed.
Efforts to destroy a small number of radioactive waste materials by “burning them up” in an “advanced” reactor inevitably creates other radioactive waste materials, many of them more intensely radioactive and some of them longer-lived than the ones that have been “burnt up.”
The Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB) formed in May to oppose the new reactors and advocate for non-nuclear, renewable energy development in future.
Susan O’Donnell is the lead researcher for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick and a member of the NB Media Co-op Editorial Board. Gordon Edwards is the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility in Montreal.