While the world is turning overwhelmingly toward renewable sources of energy, currently about four times cheaper than new nuclear plants and with an established track record, NB Power and the New Brunswick government insist on gambling on two new unproven nuclear plants, misleadingly termed “small modular nuclear reactors” (SMNRs or SMRs).
SMRs do not exist at all in Canada except on paper or as computerized plans. There is no guarantee these new untested reactors will ever succeed in producing electricity in Canada in a safe and affordable manner. But public utilities across the country are being pressured to generate power without emitting greenhouse gases during operation.
Instead of investing big bucks in negawatts (energy efficiency) or renewables, four provinces–New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta–are promoting new nuclear plants, SMRs, as their best strategy for combatting climate change. Since these plants are not likely to materialize for more than a decade, if ever, the nuclear strategy is another way of “kicking the can down the road.”
The nuclear industry’s SMR promotion drive is particularly intense in New Brunswick, where NB Power must shut its Belledune coal-energy plant by 2030 and build replacement power generators beforehand. That’s just eight years away, and the proposed new nuclear plants will very likely not be ready in time.
During the past two weeks, SMRs were in the New Brunswick news again. Several presenters to the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship raised the SMR topic, and MLAs had many questions.
At the Standing Committee hearings, representatives of environmental groups, including Louise Comeau of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and Dale Beguin of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, called SMRs a “wild card” because of uncertainties about the cost and time required to design and build the technology, with no guarantee of success.
On the other hand, Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland, as well as the former and current CEOs of NB Power, said that while the Moltex project is longer-term, the ARC SMR is a sure bet. Although they acknowledge it might not be ready when the Belledune plant must close, NB Power CEO Keith Cronkhite said he is “laser-focused on that [ARC] technology being here for 2030.”
The ARC reactor is cooled not with water – not even heavy water – but with liquid sodium metal, a material that bursts into flames or even explodes on contact with air or water. The US, France, Germany, the UK and Japan all tried to commercialize sodium-cooled reactors several decades ago.
These countries all failed in their attempts after decades of research and development, and they have now relegated sodium cooled reactors to the back burner as an especially problematic nuclear option: too risky, too temperamental, too expensive. In New Brunswick, it appears, these well-known problems are not yet appreciated.
Are SMRs in New Brunswick a wild card or a sure bet? Will they ever be developed in New Brunswick? Let’s assess the situation.
SMR funding history in New Brunswick
The historical facts are straightforward. In 2018, NB Power and the NB government, in a scheme devised to avoid public scrutiny, gave $10 million to two SMR companies. One was from the US, ARC Nuclear, the other was from the UK, Moltex Energy. Each company was given $5 million to come to Canada and set up shop in Saint John. With help from NB Power, each company then applied for more funding from the federal government to develop their SMR designs.
In February 2021, after it seemed the federal government would not fund ARC, the New Brunswick government stepped in and promised the company $20 million in instalments, tied to the company acquiring private sector funding. Apparently, the province never asked for an independent scientific review of the ARC-100 reactor design before giving the seed money to develop it.
In March 2021, the federal government gave $50.5 million to Moltex to develop its SMR design. Drastically different from the ARC design, the Moltex plant would use liquid plutonium as a fuel and molten salt as a coolant, based on a concept first tried in the US over fifty years ago, but never successfully commercialized. Again, there is no sign that the federal government received a positive independent scientific review of the Moltex design before announcing the grant.
NB Power is planning to build both SMRs – ARC and Moltex – on a site near the existing Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station on the Bay of Fundy. These new reactors require novel fuels and unorthodox coolants (not water!) that have never before been tried in Canadian commercial reactors. Nor have either of these reactor designs been licensed or tested.
SMR development in Canada
Although four provinces have expressed an interest in SMRs, New Brunswick is the only one to give funding directly to a private company to develop such a reactor. Twice, in fact.
The feds have directly supported three SMR projects, including the Moltex project in New Brunswick. In October 2020, the federal government gave $20 million to Terrestrial Energy, a US nuclear company with an office in Oakville, Ontario. Terrestrial is championing another molten salt reactor, quite different from the Moltex design. The feds are also supporting plans for a small gas-cooled demonstration reactor, designed by Global First Power, to be built at the federally-owned Chalk River nuclear research facility in Ontario.
Before any nuclear reactor can be built in Canada, the design must obtain a construction licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). On its website, the CNSC lists 10 SMR companies currently in the “Vendor Design Review” (VDR) stage. Most of these companies are headquartered outside Canada and almost all of them are start-ups – including both New Brunswick companies, ARC and Moltex – small companies that have never built a nuclear reactor of any description anywhere.
A Vendor Design Review is sometimes misconstrued as “approval,” which is not the case. A VDR is an optional pre-licence procedure to ensure that nuclear companies are prepared for the licence process. The VDR is not a technical review. It simply helps the vendor to properly understand the regulatory requirements and to embark on a proper path forward towards meeting those requirements. By analogy, one might imagine an optional pre-driver’s-license process just to ensure that a candidate understands what a driving licence is and what will be required to obtain one. That’s what a VDR is in relation to a nuclear reactor licence.
Only one SMR project in Canada has reached the stage of undergoing a CNSC environmental assessment and applying for a site preparation licence: the small demonstration reactor at the Chalk River federal lab.
In December 2021, the public utility Ontario Power Generation (OPG) announced it had chosen to develop an SMR design proposed by an American company, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. According to a recent interview with an OPG official, it seems the Ontario public utility is planning to guarantee the cost of the SMR development.
Costs and funding for SMR development
Developing SMRs is costly. In the New Brunswick context, where will the money come from? Unlike OPG in Ontario, NB Power does not have the funds to pay for the development of an SMR. NB Power is almost $5 billion in debt, most of it due to the Point Lepreau nuclear plant.
Public utilities across Canada have failed to address the cost of SMR development. In 2021, NB Power joined with the public utilities in Ontario and Saskatchewan to release a report, “Feasibility of Small Modular Reactor Development and Deployment in Canada.” Astonishingly, the report never mentions the cost.
In the four years since ARC and Moltex came to New Brunswick, neither company has revealed how much it will cost to build their nuclear reactors. However, the Moltex CEO is on record from 2016 saying that the cost for their first reactor could be as high as $2.5 billion.
That figure is likely a gross underestimate. The most advanced SMR design in the US, called NuScale – a water-cooled reactor based on existing technology used in large power reactors – has already cost more than a billion dollars. The NuScale project has taken more than 15 years to design, and the build has not yet started. Meanwhile, the estimated cost has risen from about $3 billion in 2015 to $6.1 billion USD in 2020.
In Canada, the federal government has established an $8 billion fund available for SMR development, the “Net Zero Accelerator Initiative,” to support projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, part of the Strategic Innovation Fund within the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
However, public funding for SMRs is strongly opposed in Canada. Three federal opposition parties – Bloc Québécois, NDP and Greens – have all issued statements opposing federal funding for SMRs. A broad coalition of 120 civil society, public interest, Indigenous and faith-based groups – including 13 groups in New Brunswick – have signed a statement calling SMRs a “dirty, dangerous distraction” from tackling climate change.
Technical readiness of SMR designs for New Brunswick
Of the two nuclear reactor designs proposed for New Brunswick – the Moltex reactor and the ARC-100 – NB Power and the government are claiming that the ARC technology is the more advanced.
On numerous occasions, Minister Mike Holland has called the ARC-100 a proven technology. At the recent Legislative hearings, NB Power’s CEO Keith Cronkhite called the ARC design “proven” and former CEO Gaëtan Thomas said the ARC project was “completely proven.”
These are exaggerated claims based on the performance of the second Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR-2) built in Idaho 60 years ago. EBR-2 was not a commercial facility, and it was only one-fifth the power of the ARC reactor. True, it operated as a research project under laboratory conditions for almost 30 years, but it relied upon a highly enriched type of fuel that would never be allowed for use in a commercial plant.
The first commercial sodium-cooled reactor in the US (the Fermi-1 plant, just outside Detroit) suffered a partial meltdown and was quickly scrapped. The book “We Almost Lost Detroit” describes in detail what went wrong. In other countries, sodium fires and erratic performances led to the abandonment of sodium-cooled reactors in France (the Superphénix), in Japan (the Monju breeder), in Germany (the Kalkar plant), and in Scotland (the Dounreay reactor).
All of these shut-down sodium-cooled reactors have proven to be far more expensive to decommission than they were to build. The costs of radioactive decontamination are extraordinarily high in every single case. Although the EBR-2 reactor was shut down permanently in 1994, scientists are still – 27 years later – trying to extract the sodium metal from the highly radioactive used metallic fuel so that that high-level radioactive waste material can be safely disposed of without causing underground explosions due to sodium-water or sodium-air reactions, as happened in the case of the Dounreay reactor.
The US government considers the ARC design to be at the “concept development” stage. In 2020, the US Department of Energy funded the development of the ARC nuclear reactor design under a program to assist the progression of advanced reactor designs in their earliest phases and to support projects low on the Technology Readiness Level scale. It is research to prove feasibility, far from commercial viability.
The need for alternatives to fossil fuel energy is now, not 10 or 20 years from now, and developing speculative technologies to address the challenge is a risky strategy. Some would call it foolhardy.
Conclusion: Will SMRs ever be developed in New Brunswick? Our advice is, “Don’t hold your breath!” But do hold onto your pocketbook. Failure can be a very expensive experience.
Dr. Susan O’Donnell, a social scientist with expertise in technology adoption, is an adjunct research professor in the Environment and Society program at St. Thomas University and an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick, where she leads the RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) research project.
Dr. Gordon Edwards, an internationally recognized expert on nuclear energy development, is president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) in Montreal.