Nuclear powered tar sands?

The premiers of three Canadian provinces propose to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change by supporting the development of small nuclear reactors.  This is a really bad idea. And a very expensive one.

Messrs Ford, Moe, and Higgs: the premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick respectively, have decided that small modular nuclear reactors  are going to be the central part of their provinces’ plans to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and meet the provincial targets they have set in line with Canada’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

There’s only one problem:  these small modular reactors do not yet exist. They are a figment of the imagination of a nuclear power industry which is increasingly being phased out across Europe and North America, and which is desperately looking for a reason to be still in business.   

The three stooges?

The premiers’ sudden enthusiasm for small modular reactors (SMRs) has been whipped up by a gung-ho report authored by the nuclear power industry called A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors. According to  the report , “In Canada and around the world, markets are signalling a need for smaller, simpler, and cheaper nuclear energy. At the same time, demand for nuclear energy is poised to grow with global action on climate change.” 

Nuclear powered tar sands extraction? What could possibly go wrong?

There is absolutely no evidence for this assertion.  Nuclear energy may indeed be ‘poised’, but it’s definitely not growing.   

The plan for lots of made-in-Canada SMRs fits in well with the big-business inclinations of the three premiers, each of whom, it should be recalled, is fiercely opposed to the federal government’s policy of setting a price on carbon emissions, even though this has been shown to work well in Canada, and where its impact on the majority of families, when run as a revenue-neutral program, is negligible. No matter. The three premiers are convinced that they have the found the answer to the climate crisis in nuclear energy.

According to the Roadmap report, the market potential in Canada is significant. SMRs are seen as a “key player” in meeting Canada’s commitment to phase out conventional coal-fired power plants by 2030, and in providing heat and power to tar sands facilities, remote communities, heavy industry plants and off-grid mines.  The deployment of SMRs in these applications is seriously wishful thinking for several technical reasons, but the main problem here is that all the SMR models are still at the concept stage.  Not only that, there are reportedly one hundred designs under review, and it is  proposed that what is called “a fleet approach” is desirable—where several designs are adopted to match the different power requirements of the industries where the SMRs are supposed to be deployed.

It’s obvious that getting any of the  SMR concepts up and running is a long-term effort. Just agreeing on the final designs is probably going to take a year or more; then construction of the prototypes several years more, followed by careful monitoring of their operation and performance and, very probably, several technical adjustments. A commercially-available SMR ready for action is at least 10 years away. The Roadmap report reckons the industry can roll out the first SMR model by 2026, but this is very, very optimistic. The Canadian federal government has suggested 2030, if all goes well—but in the nuclear power business, usually it doesn’t.

The larger problem is that forceful action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and methane is required now—not in ten year’s time. A proposal to deploy a new technology that won’t be available until perhaps 2030 is reckless and irresponsible and is frankly an insult to the majority of Canadians who recognise that urgent action is needed without delay.  Several towns and cities across Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have declared a climate emergency.  So this is the response of the provincial premiers?  Their solution is to wait until 2030?    


In the Roadmap report, solar energy and wind power are not regarded as significant sources of energy even though these are now the least-cost option in many countries including Canada. The latest figures from investment firm Lazard show that electricity from wind and utility-scale solar is substantially less costly than nuclear power. Electrical energy from solar and wind can now be generated at a levelized cost of between 3 and 6 US cents per kilowatthour.  In contrast, nuclear energy costs are between 11 and 19 US¢/kWh—more than three times higher.  Moreover, electricity generated by the new SMRs is certain to cost more than the power produced by the larger gigawatt-scale plants now operating in Ontario and New Brunswick.

The reality is that solar energy and wind power can supply nearly all the electrical power that Canada will ever need–and with zero emissions of greenhouse gases.  Dreaming about the bright lights of a nuclear power industry supposedly restructured to tackle climate change is a dangerous illusion.  Moreover, the cost of developing new nuclear technology that won’t be available for a decade is going to run to several billion dollars. This is money that could be much better spent on improving and scaling up the technologies that are commercially available now, and where Canada already has significant technical expertise and experience. The manufacture of electric vehicles, utility-scale batteries, advanced power grid technology, more efficient wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, and distributed energy, are all priority areas of action where Canada could be a world leader. Spending billions of dollar on a nuclear technology that may well be obsolete by 2030 is a colossal waste of money.   

Meanwhile, the latest global data show that greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb and are now 4% higher than they were in 2015 when the Paris agreement was signed. Earlier this month, another report found emissions would have to fall by 7.6% a  year for the next 10 years just to stall the rise in global temperatures.

Postponing action is no longer an option, said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we must now deliver deep cuts to emissions [of] over 7% each year…over the next decade. This shows that countries simply cannot wait.”

Last week the European parliament declared a climate emergency and called for a more stringent target: a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. So some political leaders absolutely understand the need to act urgently and forcefully—but not, apparently, three of Canada’s provincial premiers.   


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3 thoughts on “Nuclear powered tar sands?

  • 12/17/2019 at 1:20 pm

    It appears that the proposal assumes that the existing CANDU power stations will be replaced by a larger number of small breeder reactors, although the Road Map does not provide any information on how or why that should be accomplished.

    Neither Canada nor the US has a plan for their energy future. The Prime Minister has casually suggested that we should try to achieve a “net zero” target by 2050 even though most of the government agency reports predict that in 2040 the only progress will be a minor reduction in our reliance on coal (the predictions do not extend to 2050). The US, European and Chinese car industries are making good progress in the switch to EV’s, but there are major deficiencies in the plans for building networks of charge stations. There are no significant initiatives for replacing fossil fuels for thermal applications (heating, cooling and domestic hot water). Solar and Wind generation have reached parity in terms of $/kWh but there is a debate about how their supply fluctuations can be matched to the large grid demand variations.

    All three of those energy requirements can be met by employing a single technology that is rarely even mentioned – exergy storage. Exergy stores store heat at the temperature that is required by the application, using either local solar power or off peak grid power to drive heat pumps that pump heating or cooling into the stores, employing local sources of heat such as the atmosphere or ground heat/cooling. Such systems thus radically reduce both the summer and winter grid demand peaks so they fix the electricity supply requirement at the same time as they meet the thermal needs. The stores require that some electricity be stored so they also create a network of EV charge stations as a side benefit.

  • 12/15/2019 at 4:00 pm

    Martin, Nuclear energy and specifically nuclear energy from salt-based fusion materials like Thorium are definitely the cleanest and most environmentally friendly way to produce power going forward. Thorium powered nuclear energy has been known about since Einstein was persuaded by the US to use Uranium so that it could be weaponized. The difference is that Thorium powered nuclear energy waste has a half-life of 20 years vs uranium that has a half-life of 24,000 years and Uranium can be weaponized where thorium cannot be weaponized.
    If you also consider the footprint of nuclear energy (salt-based fusion/ fission materials vs solar or wind (fabrication, waste and space required footprint!)! it is definitely the best alternative! As a true environmentalist that looks to real science and not just populism, this should be very attractive!

    • 12/17/2019 at 9:21 am

      Nuclear power based on Thorium is definitely a better option for nuclear but the die is cast. Canada is locked into uranium. The problem is that we don’t have enough time to develop these options. The world needs to flatline its emissions by at the latest 2025 and that’s not enough headroom to develop small modular reactors let alone thorium based technology. Economics will win the day. Utility scale solar and wind are by far the least cost option. The worst and most wasteful nonsense is trying to develop fusion. We already have our very own fusion power plant–at a safe distance of 150 million km from Earth!


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