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Shouldn’t a new and experimental reactor deserve a federal impact assessment?

These risks are all new to Canada. No sodium-cooled reactor has ever been built here.

 BY M.V. RAMANA AND SUSAN O’DONNELL | January 12, 2023 The Hill Times

Towards the end of December 2022, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault chose to ignore public concerns about small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), rejecting a request to put a project through an additional federal impact assessment, favouring the nuclear industry and weakening oversight of an untested and risky technology. 

When the revised Impact Assessment Act (IAA) became law in 2019, new nuclear reactors were exempted from assessment if they met certain conditions. Those pushing the exemption aimed to open the path to building new reactors. No surprise, then, that the conditions for exemption apply to almost all the SMR designs being considered for construction, even though Canada has no experience with them whatsoever. 

The first SMR officially deemed exempt under the IAA is the ARC-100 sodium-cooled fast reactor proposed by NB Power for the Point Lepreau site on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. Given the ecological sensitivity of the site and inherent problems with such reactors, the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB) formally requested Guilbeault to designate the project for a full impact assessment. The minister rejected the request on Dec. 22, claiming that a review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and the New Brunswick government would be adequate.

The federal impact assessment is the most rigorous form of public review available under law, seeking inputs from multiple stakeholders with different forms of expertise and outlooks. Ideally, the review panel would not be solely constituted by CNSC personnel and staff of the provincial government, a project funder. Indigenous nations and public interest groups had clearly stated their concerns to Guilbeault. Letters of support for CRED-NB’s request were submitted by the Wolastoq Grand Council, and Indigenous organizations representing the Peskotomuhkati Nation and the Mi’gmaq First Nations in New Brunswick, as well as more than 300 groups and individuals.

Why the public concern? Unlike the CANDU reactors operating in Ontario and New Brunswick, the ARC-100 design uses molten sodium instead of heavy water to transfer the intense heat produced by nuclear fission. Sodium reacts badly with air or water, burning or exploding upon such contact. Japan’s Monju demonstration reactor was shut down in 1995 within a few months of the reactor starting to generate power because of a sodium fire; it was reactivated in 2010 but was shut down again after another accident. The total price tag for this reactor and its cleanup is upwards of $10-billion.

Sodium also tends to leak out of pipes and vessels because of chemical interactions with the stainless steel in reactors. France’s Superphénix, the world’s largest sodium-cooled reactor, suffered numerous operational problems, including a major sodium leak. When put out of its misery in 1998, its load factor was under eight per cent, a fraction of the 80 to 90 per cent typical of commercial reactors. 

Sodium-cooled reactors have also had numerous accidents, starting with the 1955 partial core meltdown of the EBR-1 in Idaho. A decade later, the Fermi-1 demonstration fast reactor near Detroit, Michigan suffered a similar but more devastating accident, leading to the book We Almost Lost Detroit and a song by Gil Scott Heron

Sodium-cooled reactors have never been successfully commercialized despite numerous attempts over decades. Shut-down sodium-cooled reactors have proven difficult to decommission. In the U.S., the EBR-II reactor was shut down in 1994, but to date it has been unfeasible to extract the sodium metal from the highly radioactive spent fuel. The challenge is to dispose of this material without causing underground explosions due to a sodium-water reaction, as happened with the sodium-cooled Dounreay reactor in Scotland. 

Radioactive particles are still being found on the Dounreay foreshore, more than four decades after the reactor waste exploded. A similar accident with the proposed ARC-100 reactor could result in widely spread radioactive contamination next to the Bay of Fundy.

These risks are all new to Canada. No sodium-cooled reactor has ever been built here. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has never evaluated such reactors, one reason why the CNSC’s claim that its regulatory process provides sufficient oversight for SMR development rings hollow. What’s more, the CNSC’s active lobbying to speed up the regulatory process so SMRs could be more quickly brought to market suggests a fundamental conflict of interest by an “independent” regulator.

The ARC-100 project requires federal oversight and assessment. Its impacts on Indigenous rights as well as socio-economic factors and alternatives to the project will not be within the remit of either a CNSC review or a provincial assessment. The opportunities for an independent and official review of public concerns on these issues have now been significantly curtailed. 

Susan O’Donnell is an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University, and a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick. M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia.


January 15, 2023 - Posted by | Canada, Reference, technology

1 Comment »

  1. Whether it is liquid sodium or molten salt, whether it is thorium, uranium, plutonium. “mixed-oxide, or any other form of nuclear power of fusion power, nuclear power whether it is ” SMR’s” or conventional nuclear power, is too dangerous, too expensive and totally unnecessary for our energy needs. The Solutions Project and the Rocky Mountain Institute have the plans and the research to transition to a renewable energy economy by 2030. We have the resources and the technology to achieve that goal. The only thing that is in our way is the profit addicted, climate change denying fossil fuels and nuclear power industries, whose PAC donations to both Republicans and Democrats, have stopped the transitioning to safe, affordable, renewable energy. They deny the impact of climate change by carbon emissions and put forth the lie that renewable energy is not ready and will never work to meet our energy needs. They say that we “will starve and freeze in the dark,” and “wreck our economy in the process. Visit the Websites of the Solutions Project and the Rocky Mountain Institute, to read about the plans and the research on implementing safe, affordable, and renewable energy, without fossil fuels, nuclear fission or fusion energy.

    Comment by paulrodenlearning | January 15, 2023 | Reply

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