Skip to main content

Canada’s Small Modular Reactor Odyssey

October 30, 2020

Published in Policy Options, November 18, 2020

Last month’s federal Speech from the Throne contained a somewhat cryptic statement that, in addition to “supporting investments in renewable energy” the federal government would be supporting “next-generation clean energy and technology solutions.” The meaning of that reference has become clearer over the past few weeks, as federal Natural Resources minister Seamus O’Reagan and Innovation minister Navdeep Bains have made apparent their enthusiasm for the nuclear industry’s latest thrust – small modular reactors (SMRs).

SMRs intended to be much smaller than conventional nuclear power plants. Small enough, in fact to potentially be constructed at a central location and shipped to their intended end-uses. Atomic Energy of Canada, 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 federal government, following an SMR “Action Plan” released last July, has provided a $20 million grant to an Oakville based company to bring SMRs to the market. It has also been reported that the federal and New Brunswick governments have entered into agreements with companies from the US and UK to develop SMRs next to the existing NB Power Point Lepreau nuclear plant. The Lepreau facility is Canada’s only operating nuclear plant outside of Ontario.   In addition to financial support, the federal government has already exempted the as yet-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.

The federal SMR plan faces more than a few significant challenges. The most obvious of these is that the much-touted SMRs at the centre of the plan don’t actually exist yet, 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, 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 their a potential low-carbon energy source, specifically one that avoids one of the major problems associated with conventional nuclear power plants – that they are non-scalable.  Nuclear power facilities have traditionally come only in one size – extra large – and been associated with up-front capital costs in the billions, and planning and construction timelines stretching over decades. They also tend to have profound lock-in effects, dominating and defining whatever energy system they are added to, pushing out potentially safer and cheaper alternatives.

These outcomes have been clearly witnessed in Ontario over the past few years as the province doubles down on its nuclear commitment, attempting to refurbish the Darlington and Bruce nuclear facilities. A range of other options such as energy efficiency, renewables, hydro imports from Quebec, have been pushed to the margins in the process.

Beyond the potential advantage of some degree of scalability, SMRs otherwise suffer from all of the same problems as 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 and partial or complete public assumptions liabilities for waste management, decommissioning and accidents. The economic prospects for SMRs are no better. Preliminary estimates of their costs put them ten times higher can completing 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. These are 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 in Canada of having been found to be “toxic” as defined through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. These tailings will require active management on timescales of a quarter of a million years or more.

At the other end of the process, despite more than forty years of effort, the question of what to do with the 90,000 highly radioactive waste fuel bundles generated by Canadian nuclear reactors each year 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 on a timescale of 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 waste fuel 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.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing is an extraordinary 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 kinds of 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. The United States abandoned its nuclear fuel reprocessing efforts in the 1970s over the weapons proliferation risks inherent in the process. Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization initially ruled out reprocessing as an option for managing waste nuclear fuel given the waste management challenges and security risks, and continues to express serious doubts about the benefits associated with the option.

While nuclear energy may offer a low-carbon energy source, it fails virtually all other tests for sustainability: high capital and legacy risks and costs; unique and uniquely severe catastrophic accident, security and weapons proliferation risks; profound technological lock-in effects; and the generation of high-volume waste streams from fuel production and waste fuel that present severe physical, chemical and radiological hazards and require care and management over hundreds of thousands of years. SMRs do nothing to solve these problems. Even if they were technologically successful, any energy the produced would represents precisely the types of trade-offs that need to be avoided in a transition to a low-carbon economy.

The other real problem with the SMR dream is that the technology, which is nowhere near actual existence in Canada, has simply been overtaken by other technological developments. The past decade has seen dramatic declines in costs of renewable energy sources, major technological developments have occurred around a variety of energy storage technologies, and the information and control technologies needed to manage and integrated distributed 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 is next-generation clean energy and technology solution investments into those pathways.