New Brunswick

Feds to put millions into small nuclear reactor development in N.B.

Taxpayers are pouring tens of millions of additional dollars into subsidizing the development of small modular nuclear reactors in New Brunswick.

Provincial Green Party leader calls the announcement a sign of an impending election call

A Small Modular Reactor proposed for Oakville, Ont. intended to be operational in 2029. Two New Brunswick-based proposals have received government funding to help develop the idea. (Terrestrial Energy)

Taxpayers are pouring tens of millions of additional dollars into subsidizing the development of small modular nuclear reactors in New Brunswick.

Just weeks after the provincial government committed $20 million to support one of the two Saint John companies working on the technology, the federal government has provided more than $50 million for the second firm.

"This initiative marks the beginning of a coordinated effort to ensure New Brunswick is well positioned to become the global leader in the development of SMR technologies," federal cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc, an MP from New Brunswick, said during the announcement in Saint John. 

"This will obviously help meet our climate change goals as well."

Of the $56 million LeBlanc announced, $50.5 million goes to Moltex Energy to subsidize its work on developing its stable salt reactor technology.

Almost $5 million is going to NB Power to help prepare the Point Lepreau generating station site for the installation of small modular reactors built by Moltex or ARC Clean Energy, the second company in the mix.

Dominic LeBlanc, the MP for the New Brunswick riding of Beauséjour and minister of intergovernmental affairs, announced more than $50 million for Moltex, one of the companies trying to develop SMRs in New Brunswick. (Jean-François Benoit/CBC)

There's also $560,000 for a research centre at the University of New Brunswick that works on SMR technology.

Green leader David Coon said the large sums are a sign that the federal Liberal government is planning an election call soon and fears Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long could lose.

"They're worried about Saint John, so they found a prime time strategically to pump some money into Saint John," he said.

But LeBlanc said nuclear energy is essential to meeting Canada's emissions-reduction targets because it doesn't rely on fossil fuels and doesn't emit the carbon dioxide that causes warming temperatures.

"We're supporting an energy solution and an energy technology with extraordinary potential not only for the economic future of our province and the country but a real opportunity to change the energy future of the world, and that would be done right here in New Brunswick."

A concrete tower and lower buildings sit on the edge of the water with a flowering bush in the foreground with pink flowers.
Point Lepreau generating station is also getting $5 million from Ottawa to prepare the site for SMR construction. (CBC)

The New Brunswick Conservation Council immediately denounced the funding as well as the $20 million earlier given to ARC Clean Energy by the Higgs government and $10 million handed to both companies by the previous provincial Liberal government.

Louise Comeau, the council's director of climate change and energy solution, said the same amount could have been spent on $3,000 rebates for 28,000 electric vehicles and $5,000 energy retrofit rebates for 17,000 homes. 

"More money is being invested in long-term speculative SMR research than is going to investments to cut greenhouse gas emissions today," she said in a statement.

An anti-SMR group called the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development has raised questions about whether small reactors can ever be viable, given the huge upfront cost of development needed before they can be built and sold. 

Governments tout economic benefits

According to the Higgs government, if New Brunswick companies can secure just one per cent of the Canadian market for small reactors, the province would see $190 million in revenue. 

Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland says "the vast majority" of funding for Moltex and ARC must come from the private sector. The $20 million the province announced for ARC is contingent on matching private investment.

Both companies say they have private investors lining up. but public money is needed to send a signal to the market. 

On  Thursday LeBlanc said SMRs are a potential solution for remote northern communities that depend on diesel fuel.

"The development of these technologies can completely change the future of communities like that in northern Canada," he said.

But both ARC and Moltex told CBC News last fall their likely customers are provincial power utilities.

Green Party Leader David Coon says developing SMR's will 'open up a Pandora's box of radioactive waste.' (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

Coon says he's worried that the money will lead to NB Power "popping off the lids" of silos of nuclear waste now stored near the existing Point Lepreau nuclear plant so it can begin "experimenting" with its technology.

Moltex says it can affordably extract the most radioactive parts of the existing waste, now stored in pellet form, to reuse in its process.

The company says the remainder of the spent nuclear fuel would be less radioactive for a shorter amount of time, making ongoing storage easier.

But Coon says it will "open up a Pandora's box of radioactive waste."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.