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Nuclear industry eyes more federal support of ‘small modular reactors,’ as advocates push for Ottawa to hit pause

By Jolson Lim
Originally published in The Hill Times, December 3, 2018

The Canadian nuclear industry is looking for more federal government involvement in supporting the development of a new generation of reactors, after Natural Resources Canada put out a “roadmap” report earlier this month, spelling out steps different players in the sector could take.

The small modular reactor (SMR) roadmap was published on Nov. 7, and was co-developed between different public and private sector stakeholders. It recommends that federal, provincial, and territorial governments, along with utilities, industry, and the federally-funded national laboratory support demonstration of the use of SMR technology.

It also proposed: financial risk-sharing between the different players to support early deployment; the modernization of legislative and regulatory requirements to make development economically viable and timely; the development of a “robust knowledge base” for SMR technology; and for commitment to proactively engage with Indigenous communities.

SMRs are typically defined as nuclear reactors generating less than 300 megawatts of energy, and proponents see it as a promising source as the world struggles to fight climate change.

In Canada, backers see SMRs as a way to phase out diesel power for remote and Northern communities. However, to make it economically feasible within a small window of time for it to become a tool in reducing emissions, it would require demonstration soon, and eventually would require a fleet of reactors so manufacturers could benefit from more efficient and financially stable production.

But there is strong opposition to new nuclear energy development based on both environmental and safety concerns.

Nevertheless, any future development would likely have to involve government funding to support demonstration, on top of a regulatory review and placing a stronger emphasis on such technology in climate change plans.

“What would be so important now is for the government to show its policy support,” said John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA). “But that kind of holistic policy statement is not available yet.”

Mr. Barrett’s association submitted a letter addressed to Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) following the release of his fall economic update in November.

The letter calls for the extension of clean technology and clean infrastructure funding and support programs, such as the ability to expense of 100 per cent of capital investments and loan guarantees, to nuclear technology in the next budget.

It also asks the federal government to recognize nuclear as part of Canada’s suite of clean energy technologies and to create a funding mechanism for applied research and development of the next generation of reactors.

“Such measures would go a long way in creating the supportive business innovation climate needed in Canada today to encourage clean technology developers and start-ups in the nuclear sector,” it reads. “Only with a significant scale-up of such sources can Canada meet its Paris climate targets.”

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is currently partnering with small-reactor proponents to get a prototype built at one of its sites by 2026 for future demonstration. The company wants to prove the commercial viability of such reactors, and position Canada as a global hub for testing and development.

The company is aiming for it to occur at its Chalk River research facility, which sits about 200 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. CNL manages and operates the two research laboratories in Canada for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the crown corporation that owns such facilities.

Interest in SMRs is particularly strong in New Brunswick, where the local utility, NB Power, has partnered with an American firm to develop a small reactor in the province.

Mr. Barrett said Canada is in a commanding place with the development of SMRs, given its good regulatory and research environment and interest from different players. Globally, it makes the country an attractive place for development.

However, he said more federal focus is needed on nuclear energy.

“Nuclear is one of the tools that is sitting in the box and government hasn’t really pulled it out and taken a good look at what it can do,” said Mr. Barrett, adding it has a lot of export potential as well.

Concerns with SMRs

There are concerns that nuclear’s advantage as a low-carbon energy source is offset by serious safety and other environmental concerns.

Ole Hendrickson, a researcher for the advocacy group Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area—where the Chalk River facility is located—said proponents of nuclear energy ignore other emissions, including various noble gases, iodine, and radioactive waste that has to be expensively and carefully managed. Such waste remains dangerous long after its use, and disposal remains a major concern and question.

“We don’t see small modular reactors as any different,” he said.

Earlier this month, the group appeared on Parliament Hill alongside Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.) to voice their concern over SMRs ahead of the release of the roadmap report.

Lynn Jones, a member of the citizens’ group, also questioned whether federal government funding is worth it, given there are concerns about its economic viability that has recently seen nuclear power struggle to grow globally.

“They can’t possibly succeed without significant government subsidies, the private sector has backed away from them all over the world,” she said. “They’ve come to Canada to try and get the government to subsidize them.”

Her group recently submitted two petitions to the Auditor General of Canada, with the first voicing concerns that any investment in future nuclear power would tie-up funds that would otherwise go to other proven renewables that could more quickly and effectively reduce carbon emissions. The second petition asks federal ministers to provide a justification for considering nuclear power to be a form of clean energy.

“It would take way too long to develop SMRs, apart from the fact there’s lots of other concerns about them,” she said.

The road ahead

John Stewart, director of policy and research at the CNA—speaking as the project manager of the SMR roadmap—said the report makes recommendations to a wide range of players, including governments, waste management organizations, industry, researchers, and the regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

He said the “logical next step” is for one facilitating player to survey all those players to see what commitments they’re willing to make to further SMRs development.

“You need someone to do all that and elicit offers from the different players, get them to make specific commitments and eventually translate that into sort of national action plan,” he said.

He said he was pleased to see Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi (Edmonton Mill Woods, Alta.) attend the roadmap launch last month, despite not seeing a “lot in the way of signals” for nuclear power from the federal Liberal government.

Mr. Stewart said if the federal government offers a strong signal that SMRs can be a serious energy source, other players will follow up with tangible commitments.

“That would be a positive signal for other players to step up,” he said.

Nuclear energy accounts for almost 15 per cent of all electricity generated in Canada, particularly from two massive power plants in Ontario providing power to the Toronto region.

Mr. Stewart said nuclear power’s outlook has improved, but attitudes toward the severity of climate change haven’t matured fast enough that would see countries move quickly on SMRs.

“It looks better than it has in the past. Good would be going too far,” he said.