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.”
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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