Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, mentions “clean energy” and “clean growth” at every opportunity. (Telegraph-Journal, Oct. 14, 2022). The Minister declares that various “critical minerals, clean fuels, hydrogen, non-emitting electricity and transmission, carbon capture and removal …. and nuclear technologies” can be considered “clean fuels,” without defining “clean.”
Premier Blaine Higgs calls talks with the feds “an important initiative that will help New Brunswick align with the federal government on provincial priorities, such as small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) development and hydrogen production.” This commentary focuses on SMRs, hydrogen and the liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal, projects that the Premier has mentioned most often.
SMRs are promoted as “clean energy” without explaining the claim. In reality, the entire nuclear fuel chain creates massive carbon and radioactive footprints from uranium mining and tailings to transporting radioactive wastes over long distances to a still non-existent permanent underground storage facility.
The claim that hydrogen production is “clean” also doesn’t pass scrutiny, as 96 percent is currently made using fossil fuels. Hydrogen’s primary uses are in fertilizer and petroleum refining, yet the climate crisis dictates that we phase out oil without delay and eliminate this market.
Premier Higgs is also interested in developing another energy source that can’t be labelled “clean”: natural gas. Earlier this year, he declared his support for a liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminal in Saint John, even though it could take three to five years to develop and use four to seven times the energy.
What about an LNG gas supply? In the Oct. 25 Speech from the Throne, the Premier mused about lifting the 2014 moratorium on fracking despite ongoing opposition and lack of social license. LNG owner Repsol doubts that local supply would be sufficient to warrant investing in a costly conversion, and Germany needs LNG right now, not years from now.
But the most puzzling aspect of this “clean” energy approach is cost. Construction cost estimates for Canada’s SMRs are staggering: $5 billion (2022) for Saskatchewan and from $1.8 to $2.4 Billion for the Moltex project (2016). What will they cost in a decade or so? Construction costs of the most advanced SMR in North America, Nuscale, have risen from $3 billion to $6.1 billion in four years and construction hasn’t even started.
Electricity costs from SMRs will also likely be high, despite Minister Wilkinson’s assurances of affordability, “if done right.” The levelized costs of electricity (LCOE) for 2021 from Lazard, a prominent New York financial institution, reports utility-scale wind and solar at $26 to $50 dollars per megawatt hour (MWh), or 2.6 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). By contrast, nuclear power comes in at $131 to $204 / MWh or 13 to 20 cents / kWh. Electricity from SMRs will likely cost more, as their smaller size means higher costs per unit of power.
Would “green” hydrogen be any more affordable? Chemical engineer Paul Martin has concluded that producing hydrogen from offshore wind in New Brunswick would be far more expensive due to multiple conversion steps than simply using the electricity directly.
Time is critical for combatting the climate crisis. Amory Lovins, internationally renowned energy analyst, says that carbon, cost and time are the critical factors: we must reduce the most carbon for the least cost in the shortest time. The construction cost escalations and delays of mature nuclear technologies warn us that unproven SMR designs will likely take longer and cost more as engineers work out the technical and safety challenges identified in Vendor Design Reviews by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Association.
In contrast, wind, solar and existing hydro are cheaper, cleaner, and ready to go, reducing our carbon emissions in a few years, not in a decade or two. Costly unproven projects like SMRs and hydrogen commit our money to rising costs and delayed payback.
In energy debates, Indigenous peoples are too often disregarded. Wilkinson’s intention to “create a tailored approach to engagement” raises questions about how this will be done. Indigenous peoples’ rights to environmental protection and “the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources” in Article 29(1) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, now Canadian law, implies that Indigenous leaders be at the discussion table from the start.
The climate emergency now upon us is jeopardizing human existence (the result of failure by governments and industries in Canada and other developed countries). We must take responsibility to become stewards of the natural world. To limit climate breakdown, the immediate adoption of the most effective, available and sustainable renewable energy technologies must now be employed. Unfortunately, Minister Wilkinson, Premier Higgs, and the “clean energy” proponents are still not on board, even as devastating wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes become the norm.
According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5 C limit agreed to in Paris. Government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic.” (CBC News 4/4/22)
Sam Arnold and Ann McAllister are with the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB).
Correction: An earlier version of this story provided an incorrect figure for the cost per kilowatt hour of nuclear power. In fact, the cost is approximately 13 to 20 cents / kWh. This article was updated with the correct information on Thursday, November 17, 2022 at approximately 10:10 p.m.