The Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick is questioning the federal environment minister’s rejection of an impact assessment for a small modular nuclear reactor installation on the Bay of Fundy.
CRED-NB is a grassroots coalition of individuals, businesses, and citizen organizations that advocates for nuclear-free renewable energy in New Brunswick.
The environmental group submitted a request on July 4, 2022, to Steven Guilbeault, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
The environment minister has since ruled out any possibility of a full federal Impact Assessment for the ARC-100 SMR.
NB Power has proposed to construct, operate, and decommission a small modular reactor commercial demonstration unit at the existing Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, along the Bay of Fundy.
“The minister in his decision letter said that he had decided that a federal impact assessment for the ARC small modular nuclear reactor was unwarranted” said Ann McAllister, a spokesperson for the CRED-NB, in an interview with the NB Media Co-op.
She added: “The reason that he gave for that was that he said there was enough existing federal and provincial legislation to address the potential adverse impacts of the project and the public concerns and Indigenous rights. That was his decision.”
“We, of course, don’t agree with that. But that was what he decided,” she remarked.
Check out the full interview here:
What is a Small Modular Nuclear Reactor?
A Small Modular Nuclear Reactor (SMR) is a “reactor that generates 300 megawatts of electricity or less,” i.e. five to 10 megawatts, McAllister said. They are described in Canada’s SMR Action Plan as a “new class of nuclear reactors that are considerably smaller in size and power output than conventional nuclear power reactors, with enhanced safety features.”
McAllister, however, said SMRs are not “necessarily small in size or in impact.”
According to McAllister, there are over 100 small modular reactor designs that are under consideration worldwide and, in Canada, there are as many as 50. In contrast, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has six or so designs under consideration, McAllister said.
CRED-NB raised their latest concerns regarding SMRs after Environment Minister Guilbeault decided not to designate the impact assessment, although he has the sole authority to do so.
McAllister says that the ARC SMR is a liquid sodium-cooled reactor that doesn’t use heavy water, the coolant in the existing CANDU reactor at Point Lepreau. Heavy water is chemically slightly different than regular water.
She also said that large sodium reactors built in the UK, Germany, France, and Japan have had “terrible problems”, and have been shut down because of problems such as “waste explosions, accidents, and malfunctions”.
“Sodium is violently reactive and explodes on contact with air or water flows and bursts into flame. As a result, there have been problems with all the sodium reactors with fires and leaks,” said McAllister.
In 2019, nuclear industry lobbyists pressured the federal government to change the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which then exempted SMRs that were below a certain threshold from undergoing a full environmental Impact Assessment, according to McAllister.
The impact of that law change is now seen in ARC SMRs being exempted from an impact assessment. McAllister notes the New Brunswick Clean Environment Act also fails to mitigate the impact of SMRs.
Alternatives to SMRs?
McAllister said alternatives to SMRs include renewable energies like wind power and negotiating power purchase agreements with Hydro Quebec, among other options.
Global News, however, reported that New Brunswick Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development Tom MacFarlane indicated “the province is looking to additional nuclear capacity and upgraded transition lines in order to meet its power needs after coal power generation is phased out in 2030”.
NB Power also runs the Belledune Generating Station, the province’s only coal-fired generation plant, with a capacity of more than 450 megawatts.
It is one of the largest power generators in the province but the federal ban on the use of coal power takes effect in 2030.
Global News also reported that New Brunswick’s “first SMR is expected to be online in 2029 and provide 100 MW of power, should the current projections hold. Another 300-MW reactor is hoped to come online sometime in the early 2030s”.
In 2019, Chris Rouse, an industrial systems analyst, developed an Integrated Resource Plan for NB Power. This financial plan shows how NB Power could become a 95 per cent renewable energy utility in fifteen to twenty years while phasing out nuclear power by around 2040, the end of life for the existing Point Lepreau reactor.
“We’re lucky in New Brunswick in the sense that we’re still a small province, and we don’t use a heck of a lot of power,” McAllister said.
In 2019, the province averaged about 1,600 megawatts use daily, with peak demand on very cold winter days at 3,300 megawatts daily, she said.
“That is not a lot of power. That is manageable. We can do it,” said McAllister. “We do not need nuclear power.”
The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada emailed the following statement to the NB Media Co-op.
Projects described in the Physical Activities Regulations (known as the “Project List”) are subject to the Impact Assessment Act (the IAA). The Project List identifies the types of projects that may require a federal impact assessment under the IAA. Proponents with activities identified on this list are required to submit information on the project to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (the Agency) to determine whether a federal assessment is required. The intent is to ensure that projects most likely to cause significant adverse effects in areas of federal jurisdiction are subject to the IAA.
The Project List includes a number of physical activities of various types including those related to nuclear facilities, including certain storage and long-term management of disposal facilities. The Small Modular Reactor Demonstration Project (ARC-100), proposed by Énergie NB Power, is not specifically described in the Project List and is therefore not automatically subject to the requirements of the IAA. However, physical activities that are not described in the Project List may be designated by the Minister.
On October 4, 2022, the Agency began the process for the designation request received by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change for the Small Modular Reactor Demonstration Project (ARC-100). On December 22, 2022, the Minister determined that as proposed, the project does not warrant designation under IAA. The reasons for the Minister’s determination are provided in the Minister’s response.
Based on information provided by the proponent, the Agency is of view that a second project being proposed by Énergie NB Power called the Moltex Small Modular Reactor Project, should it proceed as described by the proponent, would likely involve activities that are described in the Project List and would therefore be subject to the requirements of the IAA.
The Agency is awaiting the proponent’s submission of an Initial Project Description for its proposed Moltex Small Modular Reactor Project, which will trigger the start of the planning phase under the impact assessment process under the IAA.
If the Agency ultimately decides an impact assessment is required for the Moltex Small Modular Reactor Project , the review will consider the potential environmental, health, social and economic impacts of the proposed project, including its benefits. At the end of the process the Minister, or the Governor in Council, will decide whether the project is in the public interest.
For more information about the steps in the IA process, please visit Basics of Impact Assessments on our website.
Additional context on the Project List
In relation to physical activities that constitute a new nuclear fission or fusion reactors, the Project List identifies different thresholds for projects that are located within a licensed boundary of an existing Class IA nuclear facilities (900 megawatts thermal (MWth)) versus projects that are not located within the licensed boundaries of an existing Class IA nuclear facility (200 megawatts thermal (MWth)) as set out under subsections 27(a) and 27(b) of the Project List.
Additional info on the Small Modular Reactor Demonstration Project
The Small Modular Reactor Demonstration Project is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that would have a thermal output between 286 to 429 megawatts thermal (MWth) (100 to 150 megawatts electric (MWe)). The Agency notes the project would not involve fuel reprocessing, would be located within the boundaries of an existing licensed nuclear facility and have a thermal capacity below the required threshold of 900 megawatts thermal.
Additional info on the Moltex Small Modular Reactor Project
Although located within the licensed boundaries of an existing Class IA nuclear facility, the proposed Moltex SMR would involve recycling spent fuel for use in the reactor, and would require construction and operation of a fuel reprocessing facility. The Agency is of the view that the recycling of spent fuel and the new fuel reprocessing facility would likely be captured under subsections 26(a) and/or 26(c) of the Project List, and would therefore be subject to the requirements of the IAA.”
Arun Budhathoki is a video-journalist with the NB Media Co-op. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada, administered by the Canadian Association of Community Television Stations and Users (CACTUS).
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated incorrectly that the ACR-100 design involves the use of heavy water. In fact, heavy water is the coolant in the existing CANDU reactor at Point Lepreau, not the ARC SMR. The article has also been edited to more accurately convey McAllister’s comments on SMRs and alternative sources of energy. The article was updated at approximately 10:30 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. on Friday, January 27, and again on Monday, January 30, 2023 at 1:50 p.m.