Peskotomuhkati Chief Akagi remains critical of small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs), despite industry attempts to convince the public otherwise. Two private nuclear companies, NB Power and the New Brunswick governments are supporting the development of SMNRs on traditional Peskotomuhkati territory at Point Lepreau on the Bay of Fundy.
More than a decade ago, Chief Akagi, whose homeland unwillingly hosts the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station, was appalled to learn that the proposed solution for highly toxic, long-lived radioactive waste from the Lepreau CANDU reactor was to bury it deep underground.
“We were supposed to have developed a solution for nuclear waste, and the best we could do is ‘Let’s leave it for the next generation!’?” exclaimed Akagi.
The Chief recalled government officials explaining that the “door would not be locked,” assuming the next generation would certainly have the technology to deal with the radioactive waste. Akagi stated: “It seems there is no conscience that such a solution would burden our children and their children’s children with a problem our generation created and were willing to tolerate despite the consequences.”
Nuclear waste remains the elephant in the room at all nuclear industry events: nobody wants to talk about the toxic radioactive materials created during and after the generation of nuclear power.
Reserved excitement was the atmosphere in the room of more than 100 delegates at the Small Modular Nuclear Reactor (SMNR) Supply Chain Event on June 14 in Saint John. Delegates of the event came from across New Brunswick and Canada. Several attendees were from European countries as well.
The dynamic welcome team working hard to hype-up attendees included provincial Ministers Arlene Dunn and Mike Holland, Colleen d’Entremont of the nuclear-energy booster organization the Atlantica Centre for Energy, and Chief Terry Richardson of Pabineau First Nation.
Federal Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor’s recorded opening message was decidedly more reserved in tone. She used the word “potential” often when referring to the technology and benefits of SMNRs, in contrast to the absolute and “promotional-in-tone” statements of the others.
Chief Richardson referred to nuclear as “green” but acknowledged that “the waste aspect is another issue.” Holland, during his excited speech, alluded to nuclear waste when he said: “we set aside anything that could divide us,” while discussing the “full throttle attitude” of government and industry promoters of SMNRs.
Connecting with and energizing the crowd, Holland also stated: “the hair on our arms should be standing up, thinking about what we will be providing the world!”
Indeed, the hair on my arms did stand up while thinking about yet another unsolved toxic waste problem we will be distributing around the world if indeed SMNRs ever come to fruition.
In addition to opposing the nuclear waste generated by the Point Lepreau nuclear plant, Akagi continues to question new investments into nuclear energy. He was on a panel for a webinar in 2021 about the SMNR projects for New Brunswick, titled “The Bay of Fundy: Natural Wonder or Nuclear Industry Test Site?”
On the panel, Chief Akagi highlighted: “government agencies are investing vast amounts of public resources and revenues into technology which does not exist. I feel this is similar to Enron basing their wealth on projections… and we know how that turned out.”
Most recently, in May 2022, during the hearings about re-licencing NB Power’s Lepreau nuclear reactor, Chief Akagi reiterated his concerns, sharing a story close to his heart: “In the audience today is a mother whose daughter wrote an article to the Telegraph-Journal when she was 12 years old,” he told the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. “She was asking that they not allow the toxic soup from the nuclear waste to be left in her backyard, to which she actually received a reply. She was told she need not worry, for the technology would be advanced by the time she grew up to where the problem would be eliminated and there would be no toxic waste. This young lady is 41 this year and her concerns now span three generations,” he concluded.
Indeed, a poignant story, but also an accurate reflection of the legacy and future of nuclear waste in Canada.
Currently, SMNRs worldwide are in the research and development stage, as they have been for the past 40 years or so. At this point, discussions about the technology should be in the realm of scientists, not promoters and politicians. Yet, just like most meetings these days on topics from community development to marine environments, the presenter list is occupied by promoters —politicians and economists— not subject matter experts.
However, subject matter experts are trying to have their voices heard.
In 2020, a paper examining the economic viability of SMNRs was published by M.V. Ramana, professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Sarah Froese, a senior policy analyst for B.C. Assembly of First Nations, and Nadja Kunz, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in Mine Water Management and Stewardship at the University of British Columbia.
Their peer-reviewed research concluded that electricity from SMNRs will be more expensive than electricity from large nuclear power plants. The paper argued SMNRs are not a practical solution when compared to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
A year later, in May 2021, nine U.S. non-proliferation experts sent three open letters to Prime Minister Trudeau expressing concern that by backing New Brunswick’s Moltex SMNR project to extract plutonium from high-level nuclear waste at Point Lepreau, the government of Canada “will undermine the global nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime that Canada has done so much to strengthen.”
In May 2022, peer-reviewed research was published by scientists at Stanford and the University of British Columbia analyzing SMNRs and their wastes. Their work found that SMNRs will create more radioactive waste than conventional nuclear power plants per kilowatt of energy generated.
The study lead, author Lindsay Krall, a former MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation noted that their findings “stand in sharp contrast to the cost and waste reduction benefits that advocates have claimed for advanced nuclear technologies.”
Co-author Allison Macfarlane, professor and director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and the first geologist (and third woman) to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2012-2014, pointed out: “Some small modular reactor designs call for chemically exotic fuels and coolants that can produce difficult-to-manage wastes for disposal.”
Yet, peer-reviewed science continues to take a back burner.
For instance, for the study on SMNRs by the Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Science and Research that began in June this year, most witnesses invited to present their views were not independent experts but rather nuclear industry spokespeople.
Concerned and engaged citizens deserve to know the whole story. Many are starting to learn about the extent of the consequences from inaction on climate change, while we are being encouraged to understand the “cradle to grave” effects of all our energy choices.
At the same time, nuclear proponents are avoiding in-depth discussion of these wider issues, seemingly so unwilling to discuss the waste. Even during the recent supply chain event, they choose not to highlight the long-lived radioactive waste supply chain.
Why avoid the hard work of talking about the truth? Why not encourage scientists, academics, government and industry representatives to openly address all the interconnected issues related to SMNRs? Why look solely at imagined opportunities instead of encouraging balanced discussions?
Choosing the right technologies for climate action is a critical task, deserving of such detailed attention. Only then, we can then decide which risks we are willing to accept.
Kim Reeder, a senior policy advisor for the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick, coordinated a recent intervention, including supplementary documentation to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission by the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group.