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Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, the nuclear industry’s latest pipe dream.

Ramana and Schacherl: Why the Liberals’ nuclear power plan is a pipe dream

Not only is this form of power expensive compared to the alternatives, we still haven’t resolved issues around radioactive contamination and hazardous waste streams.

M.V. Ramana, Eva Schacherl, Nov 16, 2020   On Nov. 18, Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan will announce the federal government’s action plan for small modular nuclear reactors, the nuclear industry’s latest pipe dream.

At least a dozen corporations around the world are hoping for taxpayer funding to further develop their SMR designs, all of which are still on the drawing board. Last month, the federal government handed out $20 million to Terrestrial Energy. Other expectant entities include SNC-Lavalin, which bought Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s CANDU division and is developing a CANDU SMR; United Kingdom-based Moltex Energy; and Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation.

The Liberal government says it supports small modular reactors to help Canada mitigate climate change. The government is simply barking up the wrong tree, for several reasons: cost, cost and cost, as well as renewables, safety and radioactive waste.

Nuclear power is very expensive compared to other low-carbon options, and the difference keeps growing because the cost of renewables and energy storage is going down rapidly. Peter Bradford, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official, likened the use of nuclear power to mitigate climate change to fighting world hunger “with caviar.”

The high price tag for nuclear power plants has led to a near freeze on new ones around the world. Canada’s last nuclear plant came online in 1994, and Ontarians will remember when plans for two reactors at Darlington were shelved in 2009 after a $26-billion bid – three times the expected budget. Nuclear projects also have a long history of cost and time overruns. The cost estimate of NuScale, the most advanced SMR project in the U.S., has gone up from $4.2 billion to $6.1 billion. That works out to almost 10 times the cost per kilowatt of building wind power in Alberta. There is no way SMRs can be cost-competitive with wind or solar energy.

O’Regan has said he doesn’t know any way to get to net zero-carbon emissions by 2050 without nuclear power, but this is refuted by many studies. Ontario can meet its electricity demand using only renewables and hydro power backed up by storage technologies. A recent study using data from 123 countries shows that renewable energy outperforms nuclear power in reducing emissions. It concludes that nuclear investments just get in the way of building up renewable energy.

Advocates claim that we need nuclear energy to back up solar and wind power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. However, nuclear reactors cannot be powered up and down rapidly and safely. If they are, their cost of generating electricity increases further. Nor do nuclear plants run reliably all the time. In France, which generates 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, each reactor was shut down for an average of 96.2 days in 2019.

The federal government sees small reactors playing a role in remote off-grid communities and mines that now rely on diesel. But together they require less than 0.5 per cent of Canada‘s electricity generation capacity. Power from SMRs could be 10 times more expensive for those communities than adding wind and solar energy. There is also strong opposition to SMRs from First Nations communities, who say these represent an unacceptable risk.

The risk from nuclear power comes in multiple forms. There is the potential for accidents leading to widespread radioactive contamination. Because reactors involve parts that interact rapidly in complex ways, no nuclear reactor is immune to accidents. And they all produce radioactive nuclear waste streams that remain hazardous for up to one million years. Dealing with these is a major challenge, and there is no demonstrated solution to date.

Canada has a big challenge ahead: to decarbonize by 2050. Let’s get on with it, in the quickest and most cost-effective way: by improving the efficiency of our energy use, and building out solar, wind and storage technologies. The federal Green Party is correct in stating that nuclear reactors “have no place in any plan to mitigate climate change when cleaner and cheaper alternatives exist.” Let’s forget the dirty, dangerous distraction of small nuclear reactors.

M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. Eva Schacherl is an advocate for protecting the Ottawa River and for environmental and social justice.

November 17, 2020 - Posted by | Canada, Reference, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors


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