Canada may be preparing to mass-produce thousands of small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), based on a technology roadmap coordinated by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and released last week, according to an exposé on The Tyee.
The reactors “do not make economic sense,” and have raised concerns with environmental groups and politicians opposed to the roadmap process, writes author M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC. Nearly two dozen civil society groups have joined a sign-on opposing SMRs “when renewable, safer, and less financially, socially, and environmentally costly alternatives exist.”
“SMRs, as the name suggests, produce relatively small amounts of electricity in comparison with currently common nuclear power reactors,” The Tyee explains. In contrast to the last four Candu reactors commissioned at Ontario’s Darlington nuclear station, with rated capacity of 878 megawatts, SMRs “are defined as reactors that generate 300 MW or less—as low as 5 MW”. The technology has vocal support from Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the CNA, and the Candu Owners Group, with CNL President and CEO Mark Lesinski declaring that SMRs “represent a key area of interest to CNL. As part of our long-term strategy, announced earlier this year, CNL established the ambitious goal of siting a new SMR on a CNL site by 2026.”
The Candu Owners Group, meanwhile, pledged to deploy “their existing nuclear expertise to lead the next wave of nuclear generation—small modular reactors, that offer the potential for new uses of nuclear energy, while at the same time offering the benefits of existing nuclear in combating climate change while providing reliable, low-cost electricity.”
And while Natural Resources Canada claims to be simply “engaging partners and stakeholders, as well as Indigenous representatives, to understand priorities and challenges related to the development and deployment of SMRs in Canada,” The Tyee notes that “its personnel seem to have already decided that SMRs should be developed in Canada.” Kim Rudd, Parliamentary Secretary to Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, stated last year that Canada “recognizes the potential of SMRs to help us deliver on a number of priorities, including innovation and climate change.” Added Diane Cameron, director of NRCan’s Nuclear Energy Division, in what The Tyee casts as a “premature” interview with CIM Magazine: “I think we will see the deployment of SMRs in Canada for sure.”
“Canada is an ideal country in which to establish the global SMR industry, with a domestic need for the technology, a mature and robust regulatory environment, and most importantly, with the facilities and expertise that CNL can offer potential vendors,” said CNL Vice-President of Research and Development Kathy McCarthy.
The Tyee notes that Canada was a late arrival in an SMR technology race that began in 2001, and essentially ran out of steam by 2017. “Why this collapse? In a nutshell, because there is no market for the expensive electricity that SMRs will generate. Many companies presumably enter this business because of the promise of government funding. No company has invested large sums of its own money to commercialize SMRs.”
“The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it’s not the deployment—it’s that there’s no customers,” said Danny Roderick, then-president and CEO of Westinghouse, in 2014. “The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market.”
As with every other nuclear power reactor design, SMRs are ultimately tripped up by poor economics. Compared to larger, conventional systems that have their own fundamental problems with high costs, “SMRs start with a disadvantage: they are too small,” Ramana writes. “SMR proponents argue that they can make up for the lost economies of scale two ways: by savings through mass manufacture in factories, and by moving from a steep learning curve early on to gaining rich knowledge about how to achieve efficiencies as more and more reactors are designed and built. But to achieve such savings, these reactors have to be manufactured by the thousands, even under very optimistic assumptions about rates of learning.”
In the past, he adds, the learning rate in nuclear power plant manufacturing has been “extremely low”.
And despite Rudd’s and Cameron’s enthusiasm for Canadian SMR sales, “the potential markets that are most often proffered as a reason for developing SMRs are small and remote communities and mines that are not connected to the electric grid. That is not a viable business proposition. There are simply not enough remote communities, with adequate purchasing capacity, to be able to drive the manufacture of the thousands of SMRs needed to make them competitive with large reactors, let alone other sources of power.”
SMRs “will also impose the other well-known problems associated with nuclear energy—the risk of severe accidents, the production of radioactive waste, and the linkage with nuclear weapons—on society.”
But “rather than seeing the writing on the wall, unfortunately, NRCan and other such institutions are regurgitating industry propaganda and wasting money on technologies that will never be economical or contribute to any meaningful mitigation of climate change.”
The problems already clustering around the SMR concept had Gordon Edwards, the veteran anti-nuclear advocate who leads the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, spelling out the acronym as the “Second Make-Believe Renaissance” of nuclear. The first time the industry tried to reinvent itself, around 2001, Edwards joked “that the industry is looking for a Renaissance because they know that they are still stuck in the Dark Ages,” he recalled in a September 12 release.
“The originally planned renaissance depended on plants that were larger than ever and safer-than ever,” but the effort “was a huge flop: more hype than substance,” Edwards wrote. Nearly two decades later, “there is a bewildering variety of SMR designs, using uranium, plutonium, or thorium in the fuel, using molten salt, liquid metal, or ordinary water as coolant, but all intended to run for a long time with a replaceable core.”
But after all that, “Small Reactors are NOT cheaper than large reactors, quite the contrary! Because of the safety features that must be included in order to be licenced, needed to contain the enormous inventory of intensely radioactive fission products and extremely radiotoxic actinides and prevent them from escaping, these SMRs can only begin to break even if they are purchased in the hundreds or thousands of units. The economies of scale only kick in when they are mass-produced. So mass-marketing is absolutely essential. Don’t be surprised if your community is targeted!”
And just as the SMR roadmap was being released last week, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada’s nuclear regulator was asking the government to ease the technology’s path to commercialization by short-circuiting the review process laid out under the federal Impact Assessment Act, Bill 69.
“Briefing notes from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) show it is worried that protracted impact assessment hearings could be detrimental to the commercialization of the reactors in Canada,” the Globe stated, citing documents received under an access to information request. “The commission told the government it should retain responsibility to conduct environmental reviews when construction projects are proposed.”
“The future of the nuclear industry, especially for Canadian participants, is dependent on the success of SMRs,” stated an April, 2018 note to now-retired CNSC president Michael Binder. “It is very important to get the project list right so that there is a reasonable threshold on what kind of projects require an IA [impact assessment].”
Another briefing note “also says CNSC is recommending the government adopt thresholds to ensure proposals to build small reactors do not face a full impact review,” the Globe states.
In August, The Hill Times said the federal government had “shied away from explicitly endorsing new nuclear generation as part of its climate plan”. But Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi did write August 11 that “emerging nuclear technology could help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and diesel, increase Canadian energy security, increase our economic competitiveness, and support innovation.”
At the time, Ramana was “skeptical of the economies of scale argument for smaller reactors,” The Hill Times wrote. “He pointed to the United States and France, where the more nuclear plants they’ve built, the more costs have risen. That has to do with finding new safety vulnerabilities and then spending more money to patch them up.”
With SMRs, “even if operators were to grasp the technological, safety, and manufacturing know-how relatively well, it still may not be enough to become more economical than less-complex renewables and still mean the construction of thousands of plants,” The Hill Times added. “And if demand isn’t there, factories to mass produce parts won’t run, or vice-versa, [and] that creates a chicken and egg problem.”
“We have other solutions to the climate crisis at our fingertips that are safer and cheaper and create a more diverse sector of jobs,” Gretchen Fitzgerald, national policy director at Sierra Club Canada, said at the time.
“We are in a climate crisis,” added Lynn Jones of Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, referring to the IPCC’s recent report on 1.5°C pathways. “We can’t afford to take this detour right now to enhance the profits of a few multinational private sector nuclear businesses. Every dollar we spend now is important.”