This year, the federal government has made apparent its enthusiasm for the nuclear industry’s latest dream – small modular reactors (SMRs). Following up on an SMR “Action Plan” released last July, it recently provided a $20-million investment to an Oakville, ON-based company to bring the reactors to the market. But Ottawa’s enthusiasm may be unjustified. SMRs face more than a few significant challenges – economic and environmental – along with the more fundamental consideration that they don’t actually exist yet in Canada.
SMRs are intended to be much smaller than conventional nuclear power plants, small enough to potentially be constructed at a central location and shipped to their intended destinations. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), which hasn’t sold a new reactor in decades, sees SMRs as potential replacements for coal-fired power plants and as energy sources in remote locations.
The New Brunswick government has entered into agreements with companies from the U.S. and U.K. to develop SMRs next to the existing NB Power nuclear generating station at Point Lepreau, located on the northern shore of the Bay of Fundy. The Point Lepreau facility is Canada’s only operating nuclear plant outside of Ontario.
In addition to financial support, the federal government has already exempted the still-to-be-designed SMRs under 200MW capacity from the environmental review requirements of the recently adopted Impact Assessment Act. Even larger units may escape review if they are on the site of an existing nuclear plant.
But the federal government may be getting far ahead of itself on the SMR concept. The much-touted SMRs at the centre of its plans are nonexistent, even at a meaningful design stage.
Smaller nuclear reactors – none of them designed or built in Canada – have been used in highly specialized applications, most notably nuclear-powered submarines and a few mostly military or quasi-military ships. These applications have involved extreme requirements and situations where costs (and environmental considerations) are secondary factors.
The federal government’s key selling point for SMRs is that they are a potential low-carbon energy source specifically one that avoids one of the major problems associated with conventional nuclear power plants — that they were too large and inflexible to meet smaller-scale energy needs.
Nuclear power facilities have traditionally come only in one size – “extra large” – and have been associated with up-front capital costs in the billions. Their planning and construction timelines stretch over decades. They also tend to have profound lock-in effects, dominating and defining whatever energy system they are added to, and pushing out potentially safer and cheaper alternatives.
These outcomes have been clearly witnessed in Ontario over the past few years as the province doubled down on its nuclear commitment, attempting to refurbish the Darlington and Bruce nuclear facilities. A range of other options such as energy efficiency, renewables and hydro imports from Quebec, have been pushed to the margins in the process.
Beyond the potential advantage of some degree of scalability, SMRs otherwise have all the problems of conventional nuclear facilities. Virtually all recent attempts at construction of new nuclear facilities in the United States and Europe have proven hopelessly uneconomic, even with major government subsidies, as well as partial or complete public assumption of the liabilities for waste management, decommissioning and accidents. The economic prospects for SMRs are no better. Preliminary estimates of SMR costs put them 10 times higher than competing technologies in similar applications.
Nuclear energy may be able to make some claim of being low carbon relative to conventional fossil fuels, but it cannot be considered very “clean.” SMRs will be subject to the same basic fuel cycle as existing reactors. That cycle is associated with severe environmental impacts and risks.
Uranium mining in Canada for example, generates of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of mine tailings each year that are radioactive, acidic and hold the unique distinction among mining wastes of having been found to be “toxic” as defined by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. These tailings will require active management for a quarter of a million years or more.
At the other end of the process, despite more than 40 years of effort, the question of what to do with the 90,000 highly radioactive waste fuel bundles generated each year by Canadian nuclear reactors remains unresolved. Nearly three million of these bundles are now sitting in various forms of storage at nuclear power plants. According to the federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization, they will require isolation from human contact and the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. Effectively, the risks and costs of managing the legacy of nuclear power generated in the present will be transferred onto generations far into the future — a violation of one of the core tenants of sustainability.
It has been reported that some SMR proponents plan to solve the nuclear waste problem by the reprocessing of waste nuclear fuel from the New Brunswick Point Lepreau Plant. If true, this is an option of frightening dimensions. Reprocessing involves opening waste fuel bundles from reactors to extract plutonium to provide the fuel for the new reactors, an extraordinarily hazardous undertaking.
The process typically involves dissolving the waste fuel in acid to leach out the desired radioactive elements. This produces waste streams that are liquids and therefore virtually impossible to contain over the timescales on which they would have to be managed. In security terms, reprocessing is precisely how the materials needed to produce nuclear weapons are obtained.
In Canada, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) initially ruled out reprocessing as an option for managing waste nuclear fuel, given the waste management challenges and security risks. It continues to express serious doubts about the benefits associated with the option.
The other real problem with the SMR dream is that it has simply been overtaken by other technological developments. The past decade has seen dramatic declines in the cost of renewable energy sources.
At the same time, major technological developments have occurred around a variety of energy storage technologies, vital to managing the intermittent nature of some renewables like solar and wind. Finally, the information and control technologies needed to manage and integrate renewable and other low-impact energy resources into reliable energy supplies have matured.
Simply put, cheaper, safer and cleaner options are available to support a low-carbon sustainable-energy transition in Canada. Canadian governments would do well to put their investments in next generation clean energy and technology into those pathways, instead of an SMR dream that will never be realized.