During his 2021 State of the Province Address on Feb. 10, while promoting the virtues of fiscal restraint, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs took a short break to announce a gift of $20 million to a company called ARC Clean Energy.
Sometime in the last month, the American company with an office in Saint John changed its name from “ARC Nuclear” to “ARC Clean Energy.”
In 2018, New Brunswick gave $5 million to ARC Nuclear, a nuclear energy company based in the United States. In 2021, it somehow looks better for our province to give $20 million to a clean energy company based in Saint John.
For a tiny start-up, the ARC company has been remarkably successful at getting money from governments in the two countries. Six weeks ago, when the parent American company was still called ARC Nuclear, the US government gave it $26.5 million ($33.6 million Canadian).
Last week, when the New Brunswick government gave it $20 million, the ARC company announced it would invest $30 million of its own money in the project. They call it “private-sector” investment. American taxpayers might call it something else.
The ARC company’s nuclear reactor, ARC-100, is very different from the NB Power CANDU nuclear reactor at Point Lepreau. The Lepreau reactor uses natural uranium mined in Canada as fuel. In their promotional brochure, the ARC company lists new fuel types for its reactor that appear to be sourced from the US.
The first type is enriched uranium. We don’t have a uranium enrichment plant in Canada. The US has an enrichment plant.
The second type of fuel proposed, the waste from light water nuclear reactors, we also don’t have in Canada. The US has light water reactors and lots of nuclear waste that it would be happy to export to Canada.
Another kind of fuel the ARC-100 proposes is “the nuclear material removed from weapons, which currently creates a serious storage and security problem.” Obviously, Canada does not have a serious nuclear weapons storage and security problem, but the US does. How convenient for the Americans if the Canadians could help them out with that.
If it is ever built, and if it operates successfully, like all nuclear reactors the ARC-100 will create spent (irradiated) fuel containing toxic radioactive poisons. It will require secure storage, isolated from all living things, for hundreds of thousands of years.
However, because it uses a new kind of fuel, the ARC reactor would create a new kind of nuclear waste. The ARC spent fuel would be smaller in volume but much more radioactive by weight than the Lepreau spent fuel.
Our Canadian nuclear safety regulators have no current experience with this type of nuclear reactor and nuclear waste. The ARC-100 reactor is currently in pre-licencing review in Canada. Our regulators will need to rely on expertise in the United States to assess the ARC-100 licence application.
After securing the $58 million from the American and New Brunswick governments, the ARC company is now waiting for another $20 million from the Canadian government. In his speech, Premier Higgs suggested it will be forthcoming.
The ARC-100 is an untested new version of an old nuclear reactor design built in the US many years ago. Will the new version work? Nobody knows, it’s currently only an idea and a drawing. Even $78 million will not be enough to transform the drawing into a functional nuclear reactor, it will need at least a billion dollars more.
If the American, Canadian and New Brunswick governments eventually provide the billion or so dollars required to move the ARC-100 off the drawing board, it will take at least another decade before we know if the reactor will work as promised. By that time, most everyone involved in this adventure – in the US and Canada – will be retired or on to other schemes.
But that’s far into the future. For now, all we know for sure is that New Brunswick has given our American nuclear company another multi-million-dollar gift.
An earlier version of this article was published in French in l’Acadie Nouvelle.
Susan O’Donnell is the primary investigator of the RAVEN project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) at the University of New Brunswick. RAVEN is a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB).
Dr. O’Donnell recently gave a presentation to the New Brunswick Environmental Network about the two nuclear reactors proposed for the province. The NB Media Co-op published the video of her presentation here.