In the September Speech from the Throne, the Canadian government signalled its intention to fund private-sector companies to develop prototype nuclear power reactors as part of its climate action plan.
On Oct. 15, the federal government made their first nuclear funding announcement from its Strategic Innovation Fund: $20 million to a company with offices in Ontario, the US and the UK to develop its prototype reactor.
During the recent New Brunswick election, Premier Blaine Higgs claimed that federal funding would be announced soon for two private-sector companies to develop prototype nuclear reactors next to the existing reactor at Point Lepreau. In a “shadowy” deal, the New Brunswick government and NB Power have already handed $5 million each to two nuclear start-ups, Moltex Energy from the UK and ARC Nuclear from the US, to set up offices in Saint John.
The two companies then applied for a combined $70 million in grants from the federal Strategic Innovation Fund to develop their prototype nuclear reactors. The Moltex reactor alone is expected to cost more than $2 billion to develop, so the initial federal grants, if received, will be only a drop in the bucket.
On Monday this week, a New Brunswick official told the Telegraph Journal they “hope to be able to make an announcement in the near future” of federal funding for the two companies now based in Saint John. In the same news story, a comment by federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc suggested the federal funding might be conditional on the province contributing more money to the nuclear projects.
Both the federal and New Brunswick governments are claiming that the prototype nuclear reactors will help to tackle the climate crisis. During the October federal funding announcement, for example, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan stated that that prototype nuclear reactors “have the potential to play a critical role in fighting climate change.” However, in the same announcement, the minister confirmed to a reporter that the prototypes will take more than a decade to develop and will contribute nothing toward meeting Canada’s 2030 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
SMRs, the type of nuclear reactors promoted by both the provincial and federal governments, are in particular over-hyped as a climate change solution. The nuclear industry has been promoting SMRs for remote communities and mining sites currently relying on diesel fuel but new research has found that potential market is too small to be viable.
Anyone interested in evidence-based policy is wondering: Why are governments funding prototype nuclear reactors as part of a climate action plan? Even if these prototypes work as planned – not a guarantee – no evidence exists that nuclear power will achieve carbon reduction targets and considerable evidence indicates the contrary.
The same week as the September Throne Speech, the release of the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR) confirmed, as did its previous reports, that developing new nuclear energy is too slow and uneconomical to address the climate crisis, compared to deploying renewable energy technologies.
In October, research based on data from 125 countries over a 25-year period made a similar finding. Earlier, in December 2019, research from Stanford refuted claims that nuclear energy is zero-carbon. In November 2019, the American business magazine Forbes published an article arguing that building new nuclear reactors now actually makes climate change worse.
Canada’s plans to fund prototype nuclear reactors contrast with the European Union’s proposed Green New Deal released in June this year. The European plan specifically excludes investment in nuclear energy because of its environmental implications: all nuclear power reactors, big and smaller, generate dangerous radioactive waste that must be kept isolated from all living things for hundreds of thousands of years.
If prototype nuclear reactors do not belong in a climate action plan, why are the federal and New Brunswick governments funding them?
Read part 2 of the article here.
Susan O’Donnell is a researcher and primary investigator of the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
An earlier version of this article was published in Rabble.