Several Members of Parliament and activists are warning the Canadian government that its support for nuclear energy projects could prove costly and ineffective—even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau maintains that nuclear is “on the table” for achieving the country’s climate goals.
The federal government considers nuclear energy—including small modular reactors (SMRs) that are touted as easier to build and run than traditional nuclear plants—as key to meeting energy needs while aiming for net-zero by 2050.
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In Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2023 budget in March, investments for nuclear power and SMRs were included alongside hydropower and other “non-emitting electricity generation systems” eligible for a $25-billion, 15% tax break from the Clean Electricity Investment Tax Credit.
And Trudeau has since made multiple public statements in support of nuclear energy. “Nuclear is on the table, absolutely,” he said, during a speech in British Columbia earlier this month. And at a University of Ottawa visit, he said investment in nuclear and SMRs is something Canada is “very, very serious” about, reported the Canadian Press.
“We’re going to have to be doing much more nuclear over the coming decades,” Trudeau said.
But on April 25, anti-nuclear activists and a cross-partisan group of MPs held a media conference on Parliament Hill, urging Ottawa to rethink its stance on nuclear and calling the energy source a dangerous distraction from climate action, reported CBC News.
Speakers in the group said Trudeau and his cabinet are getting bad advice about nuclear energy.
“The nuclear industry, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, has been lobbying and advertising heavily in Canada, trying to convince us that new SMR designs will somehow address the climate crisis,” said Prof. Susan O’Donnell, a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB). The reality, she added, is that SMRs will produce “toxic radioactive waste” and could lead to serious accidents while turning some communities into “nuclear waste dumps”.
Moreover, there is “no guarantee these nuclear experiments will ever generate electricity safely and affordably,” O’Donnell said, since SMRs are still relatively untested.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May called government funding for nuclear projects a “fraud.”
“It has no part in fighting the climate emergency,” May said. “In fact, it takes valuable dollars away from things that we know work, that can be implemented immediately, in favour of untested and dangerous technologies that will not be able to generate a single kilowatt of electricity for a decade or more.”
Liberal MP Jenica Atwin, New Democrat Alexandre Boulerice, and Bloc Québecois MP Mario Simard also attended the media event, the National Post reports. Atwin, who was first elected as a Green in 2019 before crossing the floor, “is the only Liberal to publicly break ranks so far, but said she has had conversations with colleagues who appear to be ‘open-minded’ to learning more about her concerns,” the Post says.
Advocacy groups like the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) have also pushed back against SMRs, arguing they “pose safety, accident, and proliferation risks” akin to traditional nuclear reactors. CELA urged [pdf] the federal government to “eliminate federal funding for SMRs, and instead reallocate those investments into cost-effective, socially responsible, renewable solutions.”
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says renewables will “lead the push to replace fossil fuels” but that nuclear can help in countries where it is accepted. As of 2022, there were only three SMR projects in operation—one each in Russia, China, and India, CBC News reported.
Canada’s First SMR Passes Pre-Licencing
In Ontario, which currently produces 60% of its electricity from conventional nuclear stations, plans for one such SMR passed a regulatory checkpoint in March. Slated to be Canada’s first new nuclear reactor since 1993, the BWRX-300 is being built by Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and North Carolina-based GE Hitachi.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) said it found “no fundamental barriers to licencing” the BWRX-300 after a pre-licencing vendor design review. As an assessment requested by the developer, the design review makes a preliminary identification of shortcomings. It is an integral part of the regulatory process, aimed at providing feedback to the vendor about “how it is addressing Canadian regulatory requirements and CNSC expectations in its design and design activities,” a CNSC spokesperson told The Energy Mix in an email.
The BWRX-300 is the first SMR to pass such a review, reported the Globe and Mail. It is also expected to be North America’s first grid-scale deployment of an SMR. The CNSC nod of approval is a checkpoint in OPG’s plans for the Darlington New Nuclear Project (DNNP), which will bring the BWRX-300 SMR to the existing Darlington nuclear station in Bowmanville.
Darlington is Canada’s second-largest nuclear facility by energy output, capable of meeting around 20% of Ontario’s current power demand. It is also the only site in Canada licenced for a new nuclear build with an accepted environmental assessment, thanks to a prior application process from 2006. The project that underwent assessment was cancelled in 2014, but OPG maintained the licence and resumed planning activities for the site in 2020, with operations set to begin in 2028.
CNSC staff concluded in their review that GE Hitachi “understands and has correctly interpreted the intent of regulatory requirements for the design of nuclear power plants in Canada” and that they “did not identify any fundamental barriers to licencing.”
The review is not binding on the commission and does not involve the issuance of a licence, but its completion does give OPG “a head start on licencing,” said GE Hitachi spokesperson Jonathan Allen.
However, the pre-licencing review also revealed “some technical areas that need further development,” CNSC said. The commission will require OPG to supply further details on severe accident analysis and the engineered features credited for mitigation. OPG must also demonstrate that the reactor’s design meets the requirement for two separate and diverse means of reactor shutdown (or an alternative approach) and provide further information “on the protective measures for workers in the event of an out-of-core criticality accident.”
“From the list of areas needed for further development, it looks like [GE Hitachi] has some work to do,” said Allison Macfarlane, director of the University of British Columbia’s public policy school, who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) between 2012 and 2014.
BWRX-300 Raises Safety Questions
The BWRX-300 is a leading concept that GE Hitachi says is its simplest boiling water design, and could deliver 60% lower capital costs per megawatt than other SMRs.
But Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Mix he has concerns about the design. He pointed to a joint CNSC-NRC review [pdf] that identified several issues associated with reactor containment, including a potential for “reverse flow” of steam from the containment back into the reactor vessel under certain accident conditions. The review also found that the reactor’s reliance on isolation condensers may not always be effective to remove heat from the reactor during loss-of-coolant accidents.
“The consequences of a failure of isolation condensers is apparent from the fate of Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1, which experienced a core melt only hours after the system was lost,” Lyman said, citing the 2011 nuclear disaster in Ōkuma, Japan.
He added he is “extremely skeptical” that the BWRX-300 design will mature quickly enough to allow CNSC to make a meaningful determination of its safety in time for the anticipated 2028 start date. SMR designs need to undergo further testing and analysis before they can be considered safe, and yet vendors are rushing to deploy new, untested reactor designs without going through the necessary stages of technology development, including testing of full-scale prototypes, Lyman said.
“History has shown that shortcuts in this process are an invitation to disaster,” he added.
SMRs fall under the same Class 1A Nuclear Facilities Regulations as traditional reactors, so they do receive the same level of CNSC scrutiny. With its mandate to ensure the safe conduct of nuclear activities in Canada, the commission “will only issue a licence if the applicant has demonstrated the reactor can be operated safely,” the spokesperson said.
Next steps for the DNNP include a CNSC assessment, already under way, to review OPG’s licence application. This will result in a Commission Member Document that offers results and recommendations to an independent commission. Then there will also be two public hearings. The first is slated [pdf] for January 2024 and will consider the applicability of the previous environmental assessment to the BWRX-300. A separate, future hearing will determine whether to issue a construction licence for the DNNP.
“It is the independent commission who will make the decision as to whether the licensee or applicant is qualified to carry on the proposed activities and in a safe manner that protects the public and the environment,” the CNSC spokesperson said.