New Brunswick

Liberal MLA wants N.B. Power to shop around for small modular reactors

A Liberal MLA is urging N.B. Power to shop around for other nuclear power options as the utility faces a looming 2030 deadline to find new sources of electricity.

René Legacy says may not be enough time to wait for N.B. companies to develop own SMRs

A man in a blue suit and red tie stands outside smiling at the camera.
René Legacy, the Liberal MLA for Bathurst West-Beresford, says N.B.Power should at least consider companies outside the province when shopping for small modular nuclear reactors. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

A Liberal MLA is urging N.B. Power to shop around for other nuclear power options as the utility faces a looming 2030 deadline to find new sources of electricity.

René Legacy says eight years is not a lot of time to figure out replacement power for the Belledune generating station, and small modular reactors built in other provinces should be in the mix.

"I think everything should be on the table to make sure we can produce electricity in 2030," the Bathurst West-Beresford MLA said in an interview.

"Of course, I'd rather a New Brunswick-first solution, by far my favourite solution. But I don't think we can discount if there's anybody else available. … I'm not a big fan of eliminating any opportunities. If it's out there, at least study it."

A brown and beige building with a single smokestack with the NB Power symbol on the front.
N.B. Power's Belledune generating station must stop burning coal by 2030. (N.B. Power)

N.B. Power must stop burning coal in Belledune by 2030 to comply with the federal government's climate change plan.

The Crown corporation is working with two companies operating in Saint John, ARC Clean Energy and Moltex Energy, which are developing small modular reactors with the help of tens of millions of dollars in government money.

The utility sees SMRs as a way to overcome an electricity shortfall when coal power is phased out at Belledune at the end of the decade.

But this week former utility CEO Gaëtan Thomas said the regulatory process may delay those reactors past 2030 or even 2035, when federal rules will require that all electricity generation in Canada have net zero carbon emissions.

Legacy questioned N.B. Power CEO Keith Cronkhite about that at Thursday's meeting of the legislature's committee on climate change and environmental stewardship.

The committee has been hearing from witnesses about what should be in the province's new five-year climate plan, and much of the discussion has turned on the debate over renewable energy versus nuclear power.

N.B. Power CEO Keith Cronkhite told Legacy the Saint John companies working on SMR technology are on schedule to be ready by 2030. (Roger Cosman/CBC News)

Cronkhite said Thursday that an agreement with ARC Clean Energy that includes timelines and milestones has been "tweaked and adjusted" but that did not affect the overall schedule to have their reactors ready by 2030. 

"Overall we're on track to still achieve that original schedule," he said.

Legacy asked Cronkhite about reports that Terrestrial Energy, based in Oakville, Ont., may have SMRs ready in 2028 and suggested they might be an option for N.B. Power.

Cronkhite said the utility would "monitor" Terrestrial's progress but said their reactor design is "not as advanced" as the two being worked on in Saint John and N.B. Power is "laser-focused on that technology being here for 2030."

But he said the utility is also looking at ways to "alleviate" the 2030 date for Belledune's coal phase-out by examining whether other fuel sources such as biomass could be used at the plant until the SMRs are ready.

An architectural rendering of Terrestrial Energy's molten salt reactor power plant that it expects to have in production by the end of the decade. Legacy says N.B. Power should be at least considering the Oakville, Ont., company. (Terrestrial Energy)

"Should there be a technology, particularly the ARC technology, that isn't ready in 2030 but is ready in 2031 or 2032, we've afforded ourselves the time," he said.

N.B. Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau said the Crown corporation had identified ARC and Moltex as the companies with technology "best suited" for development in New Brunswick but officials were in "constant contact" with utilities elsewhere.

"Discussions will continue and courses of action can change in the years ahead on generation needs not only in the nuclear field, but many other generation options," he said.

Last year the province handed ARC Clean Energy $20 million in taxpayer funding to support its work, while Moltex Energy received more than $50 million from the federal government. The previous provincial Liberal government gave each of them $5 million.

Legacy says buying a reactor from a company other than those two is "not the ideal situation. I'd rather see ARC or Moltex be offered the opportunity."

But he said "time is moving on" and if N.B. Power is going to look elsewhere it can't afford to wait until 2028 or 2029.

He also said with other plants coming offline in the next two decades, including the Point Lepreau nuclear station in 2040, ARC and Moltex will still be able to sell several reactors to N.B. Power.

Cronkhite told MLAs Thursday that without Belledune, it would be difficult for N.B. Power to continue supplying the same level of electricity to New Brunswickers without nuclear power.

He said while wind and solar power now make more business sense, even when combined with hydro power, energy efficiency and demand-shifting technology, they won't be enough to power the province on the coldest days of the year. 

"We do need base-load generation, carbon-free, to provide that backup," he said. "We see small modular reactors … as part of that solution moving forward." 

Green Party Leader David Coon pressed Cronkhite about several reports touting wind power, including one by Dalhousie University's Renewable Energy Storage Lab that says some of New Brunswick's coastal areas are "world class in terms of wind speeds."

Green Party Leader David Coon pressed N.B. Power on wind power. Cronkhite told him wind is too unreliable for assuring electricity production in the peak winter months. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

Cronkhite said even so, there's not enough "wind diversity" in the province to guarantee it will generate enough electricity to meet demand at peak times.

"Typically what we see is if it's not blowing in northern New Brunswick, it may be blowing a little bit in southern New Brunswick but not enough to make up the difference," he said. 

"We have to make sure on those cold days of the year that we have the resources to back up and to step in when that wind is not blowing." 

The Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, released a report Thursday that said small nuclear reactors would be more expensive and generate less electricity that a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. 

"A clean energy portfolio can generate electricity in New Brunswick … at a lower life cycle cost to consumers than gas plants or SMRs while providing the same services," the report says.

Nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases, though critics say they create other environmental risks.

Pembina's report said it did not include SMRs in its combination of clean-energy options because the reactors aren't available yet. Instead it compared them to its portfolio of non-emitting sources like wind and solar.