The nuclear industry lobby in Canada is conducting an intensive campaign for public funding to build new nuclear reactors – so-called “small modular nuclear reactors” or SMNRs – claiming they are required for climate action. Both the federal and New Brunswick governments are boosting the industry campaign.
The proposed new nuclear plants are unlike Canada’s existing water-cooled CANDU reactors, including the NB Power Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station on the Bay of Fundy. The new ones are designed to use different cooling fluids (molten salt, helium gas, liquid sodium metal) and nuclear fuel that is not available in Canada (enriched uranium or plutonium).
Although based on decades-old precursors, most SMNRs are still in the early design stage. The most extensive expert report to date concludes that prototypes will be needed, and it will require decades to resolve the many design and safety issues that have prevented commercialization of similar designs in the past.
To date, 120 civil society, public interest and Indigenous groups across Canada, including 13 groups in New Brunswick – have endorsed a statement posted on the website of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, calling SMNRs “dirty, dangerous distractions” from the urgent need to fight climate change now, without further delay.
The statement quotes the 2020 World Nuclear Industry Status Report conclusion that developing new nuclear energy production is too slow to address the climate crisis, and much more expensive, compared to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Each new reactor (all of them quite different from each other) will require billions of dollars to design and build. Given the scarcity of private sector investors willing to put money into these risky technology builds, the industry proponents are pushing for public funding.
The federal government has given $20 million to a US-based nuclear company in Ontario and more than $50 million to Moltex Energy, a Saint John nuclear company recently relocated from the UK. In addition, New Brunswick taxpayers have handed $30 million to the Moltex and ARC nuclear projects in the province. Molex is proposing a risky experiment to extract plutonium from the used nuclear fuel at Point Lepreau. The ARC promoters hail from the US. Their design is based on an experimental reactor built in 1964 in Idaho. The ARC corporation wants to revitalize this old concept that has previously come to grief in several other countries: US, UK, France and Germany.
The federal gifts to the nuclear companies come from the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) department. At a recent nuclear-industry-sponsored event, a senior federal government official said the government recently topped up an ISED funding envelope, the “Net Zero Accelerator” fund, that now sits at $8-billion, and that he looked forward to seeing future announcements from that fund that will support the future of nuclear in Canada.
In recent years, highly destructive weather-related events have made it abundantly clear that climate change is accelerating, and action is needed now. The next decade is critical, with no time left for inaction or delay. A federal election will be decided soon, with the winning party poised to shape energy policy for years. So, what are the federal political parties saying about these nuclear subsidies in their proposed climate action plans?
The Liberal government has been aggressively promoting SMNRs since 2016, even though nuclear was not mentioned in the party’s 2019 election platform. Indeed, nuclear remains absent from the 2021 Liberal Party platform and from the Liberal plan for “A Cleaner, Greener, Future.” The latter document does mention that the Liberal government has created a Net Zero Accelerator fund as a key initiative to fight climate change, without specifying that that fund’s $8 billion is being proffered to the nuclear industry for new reactor development. Although building and deploying SMNRs is a central plank in the Liberal party’s climate plan, you would never know it from their platform document.
The Conservative Party platform clearly states that new nuclear reactors are part of their “Detailed Plan to Fight Climate Change.” Far from hiding it, nuclear energy is mentioned five times in the context of climate action. The document refers to making $5 billion available for a range of technologies including small modular nuclear reactors. Unlike the Liberals, the Conservatives are open about their support for the nuclear industry and echo its claims about SMNRs and climate action.
The New Democratic Party platform is vague: nuclear energy is not mentioned but “net zero” is mentioned 15 times without defining what exactly it means. “Net zero technology” has become a government buzzword for nuclear, although of course other technologies also fall under this label. The party’s position on new nuclear development is unclear. Richard Cannings, the NDP Natural Resources critic, issued a media release in late 2020 pointing out that renewable technologies are cheaper, safer and will be available quicker than nuclear. Although the NDP in its policy book claims that the party believes in halting nuclear expansion, it has not published a clear position on public funding for new nuclear development or the role of new nuclear in a climate action plan.
The Bloc Québécois is against federal funding for new nuclear reactors. Quebec does not have an operational nuclear power plant after shutting down its only operating CANDU reactor almost 10 years ago. In the past year, BQ MPs have issued several media releases with statements opposing SMNRs, and the party’s opposition is clear in its platform document: “The Bloc Québécois will oppose nuclear development, including small modular reactors, and any risk for Quebec from nuclear waste contamination from projects such as the Chalk River dump on the Ottawa River” [translation].
The Green Party policy book includes a clear statement against funding for new nuclear development and the party platform is also clear: “Institute a ban on further development of nuclear power in Canada.” In late 2020, the federal Green caucus issued a statement that SMNRs have no place in a plan to mitigate climate change and that the government should stop funding the nuclear industry and redirect funding to smarter energy investments. Recently Annamie Paul the party leader made a statement to the media ruling out nuclear energy as part of the Green climate action plan because, in part, nuclear would be too slow to be part of the immediate need for climate action.
Research is clear that new nuclear reactors are unproven, non-renewable, expensive, and prone to long delays and large cost over-runs. Per dollar invested, energy efficiency measures can reduce many times more greenhouse gases than any supply option, and renewable energy technologies such as wind power and solar photovoltaics can be installed in a single season.
In 1993, the report of the Canadian Senate Committee on Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions (COGGER) detailed numerous strategies for combating climate change. In their report, new nuclear reactors were not even mentioned, for the simple reason that new nuclear is too low down on the list of priorities. Even 28 years ago, nuclear was too slow, and too expensive, to give it pride of place.
In less than ten days, one of the two largest Canadian political parties is likely to win the election. Both are supporting new nuclear infrastructure development. The victor will oversee a fund with up to $8 billion of our federal tax dollars available to help private-sector nuclear companies, originating mainly in the US and the UK, to develop their nuclear prototypes in Canada.
Many of the 120 civil society, public interest and Indigenous groups opposed to federal funding for new nuclear reactors will be participating across Canada in climate action rallies on September 24, four days after the federal election. In Fredericton, the Climate Emergency rally endorsed by environmental, labour and social justice groups will be held at noon that day at the New Brunswick Legislature. Clearly, the struggle to define the role of nuclear energy in a truly effective climate action strategy for Canada is far from over.
An earlier version of this story was published in The Hill Times.
Dr. Susan O’Donnell is an adjunct professor and leader of the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Dr. Gordon Edwards is the President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and is based in Montreal.