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As conventional nuclear reactors fail economically, the pro nuclear turn to the fantasy of small nuclear reactors

Small modular nuclear reactors – a case of wishful thinking at best,  NB Media Coop, by Gordon Edwards, Michel Duguay, Pierre Jasmin,  21 Dec 19

On Friday the 13th, September 2019, the Saint John Telegraph-Journal’s front page was dominated by what many readers hoped will be a good luck story for New Brunswick – making the province a booming and prosperous Nuclear Energy powerhouse for the entire world. After many months of behind-the-scenes meetings throughout New Brunswick with utility company executives, provincial politicians, federal government representatives, township mayors and First Nations, two nuclear entrepreneurial companies laid out a dazzling dream promising thousands of jobs – nay, tens of thousands! – in New Brunswick, achieved by mass-producing and selling components for hitherto untested nuclear reactors called SMNRs (Small Modular Nuclear Reactors) which, it is hoped, will be installed around the world by the hundreds or thousands!

On December 1, the Saskatchewan and Ontario premiers hitched their hopes to the same nuclear dream machine through a dramatic tripartite Sunday press conference in Ottawa featuring the premiers of the provinces. The three amigos announced their desire to promote and deploy some version of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors in their respective provinces. All three claimed it as a strategy to fight climate change, and they want the federal government to pledge federal tax money to pay for the R&D. Perhaps it is a way of paying lip service to the climate crisis without actually achieving anything substantial; prior to the recent election, all three men were opposed to even putting a price on carbon emissions.

Motives other than climate protection may apply. Saskatchewan’s uranium is in desperate need of new markets, as some of the province’s most productive mines have been mothballed and over a thousand uranium workers have been laid off, due to the global decline in nuclear power. Meanwhile, Ontario has cancelled all investments in over 800 renewable energy projects – at a financial penalty of over 200 million dollars – while investing tens of billions of dollars to rebuild many of its geriatric nuclear reactors. This, instead of purchasing surplus water-based hydropower from Quebec a lot less expensive and more secure.

In a December 2 interview on QUB radio, Gilles Provost, spokesperson for the Ralliement contre la pollution radioactive (Movement against radioactive pollution, a Quebec-based group) and former environmental journalist at Le Devoir, criticized the announcement of the three premiers as ill-considered and premature, since none of the conjectural nuclear reactor prototypes exist in reality. Quite a contrast to the three premiers’ declarations, boldly claiming that “SMRs” (they leave out the “N” to minimize public opposition) will help solve climate change, knowing full well that it will take a decade or more before any benefits can possibly be realized – IF EVER.

These new nuclear reactors are so far perfectly safe, because they exist only on paper and are cooled only by ink. Declaring them a success before they are built is quite a leap of faith, especially in light of the three previous Canadian failures in this field of “small reactors.” Two 10-megawatt MAPLE reactors were built at Chalk River and never operated because of insuperable safety concerns, and the 10-megawatt “Mega-Slowpoke” district heating reactor never earned a licence to operate, again because of safety concerns. The Mega-Slowpoke was offered free of charge to two universities – Sherbrooke and Saskatchewan –both of whom refused the gift. And a good thing too, as the only Mega-Slowpoke ever built (at Pinawa, Manitoba) is now being dismantled without ever producing a single useful megawatt of heat.

2 “Nuclear renaissance” – clambering out of the dark ages?

This current media hype about modular reactors is very reminiscent of the drumbeat of grandiose expectations that began around 2000, announcing the advent of a Nuclear Renaissance that envisaged thousands of new reactors — huge ones! — being built all over the planet. That initiative turned out to be a complete flop. Only a few large reactors were launched under this banner, and they were plagued with enormous cost-over-runs and extraordinarily long delays, resulting in the bankruptcy or near bankruptcy of some of the largest nuclear companies in the world – such as Areva and Westinghouse – and causing other companies to retire from the nuclear field altogether – such as Siemens.

Speculation about that promised Nuclear Renaissance also led to a massive (and totally unrealistic) spike in uranium prices, spurring uranium exploration activities on an unprecedented scale. It ended in a near-catastrophic collapse of uranium prices when the bubble burst. Cameco was forced to close down several mines. They are still closed. The price of uranium has still not recovered from the plunge.

Large nuclear reactors have essentially priced themselves out of the market. Only Russia, China and India have managed to defy those market forces with their monopoly state involvements. Nevertheless, the nuclear contribution to world electricity production has plummeted from 17 percent in 1997 to about 10 percent in 2018. In North America and Western Europe, the prospects for new large reactor projects are virtually nil, and many of the older reactors are shutting down permanently without being replaced. By Gordon Edwards PhD, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility; with assistance by Michel Duguay, PhD, professor at Laval University & Pierre Jasmin, UQAM, Quebec Movement for Peace and Artiste pour la Paix. https://nbmediacoop.org/2019/12/21/small-modular-nuclear-reactors-a-case-of-wishful-thinking-at-best/

January 11, 2020 - Posted by | Canada, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

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