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Canada’s Coalition for Responsible Energy Development sceptical about Small Nuclear Reactors

Questions abound about New Brunswick’s embrace of small nuclear reactors
Critics question business case, but CEO says the market is ‘screaming’ for the units,
 Jacques Poitras · CBC News Dec 07, 2020

When Mike Holland talks about small modular nuclear reactors, he sees dollar signs.

When the Green Party hears about them, they see danger signs.

The loquacious Progressive Conservative minister of energy development recently quoted NB Power’s eye-popping estimates of the potential economic impact of the reactors: thousands of jobs and a $1 billion boost to the provincial economy.

“New Brunswick is positioned to not only participate in this opportunity, but to be a world leader in the SMR field,” Holland said in the legislature last month.

Green MLAs David Coon and Kevin Arseneau responded cheekily by ticking off the Financial and Consumer Services Commission’s checklist on how to spot a scam.

Is the sales pitch from a credible source? Is the windfall being promised by a reputable institution? Is the risk reasonable?

For small nuclear reactors, they said, the answer to all those questions is no. 

“The last thing we need to do is pour more public money down the nuclear-power drain,” Coon said, reminding MLAs of the Point Lepreau refurbishment project that went $1 billion over budget. …….

Premier Blaine Higgs is a fervent supporter, but in the last provincial election the Liberals promised they’d do even more than Higgs to promote them.

Under Brian Gallant, the Liberals handed $10 million to two Saint John companies working on SMRs, ARC Nuclear and Moltex Energy.

Greens point to previous fiascoes

The Greens and other opponents of nuclear power fear SMRS are the latest in a long line of silver-bullet fiascoes, from the $23 million spent on the Bricklin in 1975 to $63.4 million in loans and loan guarantees to the Atcon Group a decade ago.

“It seems that [ARC and Moltex] have been targeting New Brunswick for another big handout … because it’s going to take billions of dollars to build these things, if they ever get off the drawing board,” said Susan O’Donnell, a University of New Brunswick researcher.

O’Donnell, who studies technology adoption in communities, is part of a small new group called the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development formed this year to oppose SMRs.

“What we really need here is a reasonable discussion about the pros and cons of it,” she said……..

What we didn’t see was a market analysis,” O’Donnell said. “How viable is the market? … They’re all based on a hypothetical market that probably doesn’t exist.”

O’Donnell said her group asked for the full report but was told it’s confidential because it contains sensitive commercial information………..

The market is screaming for this product,”  Rory O’Sullivan, CEO of Moltex said, adding “all of the utilities” in Canada are interested in Moltex’s reactors ……

ARC’s CEO Norm Sawyer is more specific, guessing 30 per cent of his SMR sales will be in Atlantic Canada, 30 per cent in Ontario and 40 per cent in Alberta and Saskatchewan — all provincial power grids.

O’Donnell said it’s an important question because without a large number of guaranteed sales, the high cost of manufacturing SMRs would make the initiative a money-loser.

The cost of building the world’s only functioning SMR, in Russia, was four times what was expected.

An Australian government agency said initial cost estimates for such major projects “are often initially too low” and can “overrun.”

Up-front costs can be huge

University of British Columbia physicist M.V. Ramana, who has authored studies on the economics of nuclear power, said SMRs face the same financial reality as any large-scale manufacturing.

“You’re going to spend a huge amount of money on the basic fixed costs” at the outset, he said, with costs per unit becoming more viable only after more units are built and sold.

He estimates a company would have to build and sell more than 700 SMRs to break even, and said there are not enough buyers for that to happen. ….

O’Sullivan says:    “In fact, just the first one alone looks like it will still be economical,” he said. “In reality, you probably need a few … but you’re talking about one or two, maximum three [to make a profit] because you don’t need these big factories.”

‘Paper designs’ prove nothing, says expert

Ramana doesn’t buy it.

“These are all companies that have been started by somebody who’s been in the nuclear industry for some years, has a bright idea, finds an angel investor who’s given them a few million dollars,” he said.

“They have a paper design, or a Power Point design. They have not built anything. They have not tested anything. To go from that point … to a design that can actually be constructed on the field is an enormous amount of work.

Both CEOs acknowledge the skepticism about SMRs.

“I understand New Brunswick has had its share of good investments and its share of what we consider questionable investments,” said ARC’s CEO Norm Sawyer….

But he said ARC’s SMR is based on a long-proven technology and is far past the on-paper design stage “so you reduce the risk.”

Moltex is now completing the first phase of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s review of its design, a major hurdle. ARC completed that phase last year.

But, Ramana said there are problems with both designs. Moltex’s molten salt model has had “huge technical challenges” elsewhere while ARC’s sodium-cooled system has encountered “operational difficulties.” …..

federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan told CBC earlier this year that he’s “very excited” about SMRs…..

O’Donnell said while nuclear power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it’s hardly a clean technology because of the spent nuclear fuel waste.

Government support is key

She also wonders why, if SMRs make so much sense, ARC and Moltex are relying so much on government money rather than private capital.

…….. So far, Ottawa hasn’t put up any funding for ARC or Moltex. During the provincial election campaign, Higgs implied federal money was imminent, but there’s been no announcement in the almost three months since then.

Last month the federal government announced $20 million for Terrestrial Energy, an Ontario company working on SMRs.

…….O’Donnell said her group plans to continue asking questions about SMRs.

“I think what we really need is to have an honest conversation about what these are so that New Brunswickers can have all the facts on the table,” she said.


December 8, 2020 - Posted by | Canada, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

1 Comment »

  1. Albert Einstein said a long time ago “it is a hellish thing to use atoms to boil water” and he was right. No nuclear power plant on this earth ever made a profit. They could pay back investors with high interest gains. The money reserves for the longterm storage of the high radioactive waste are nowhere to be seen.
    The small reactors are of the minimum seize of sea containers and at least another 20 years away before commercially feasible.
    At the end there will be still the deadly problem with the high radioactive wast.

    Comment by Werner Rhein | December 11, 2020 | Reply

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