New Brunswick

NB Power's not counting on small nuclear reactors in electricity plan

NB Power may be talking up the economic potential of small modular nuclear reactors, but it’s not ready to start banking on their electricity just yet.

20-year forecast doesn't include SMRs, despite utility wanting them within the decade

NB Power's 20-year forecast of where it plans to get its power doesn't count small modular nuclear reactors as a possible source of wattage, despite its own goal of having two New Brunswick companies operating reactors within a decade from now. (Mike Heenan/CBC News)

NB Power may be talking up the economic potential of small modular nuclear reactors, but it's not ready to start banking on their electricity just yet.

The utility's new 20-year forecast of where it plans to get its power doesn't count SMRs as a possible source of wattage, despite its own goal of having two New Brunswick companies operating reactors within a decade from now. 

Last year NB Power said that if "financial and project planning predictions … continue to show promise," it envisions ARC Nuclear and Moltex being able to demonstrate their reactors at Point Lepreau "with an in-service date of approximately 2030."

But the new Integrated Resource Plan released last week says NB Power looked at SMRs replacing the burning of coal at its Belledune generating station "but cost uncertainty limited the scope of these analyses."

Both the utility and the province's energy development minister say it's normal to exclude SMRs for now but they should be factored in when the plan is updated in three years. 

Minister Mike Holland says the province can't start counting on electricity output until two designs now being crafted in New Brunswick get regulatory approval.

"It's a little difficult for the utility to start incorporating that into an integrated resource plan until they've reached those certifications," he says.

"As that technology refines and those targets are met, in IRPs in the future you'll hopefully be able to see that we incorporate that once those uncertainties and the regulations are met going forward."

More info needed

NB Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau says there is still "some information regarding SMRs required" before they can be included.

"It's important for us to state there is still great enthusiasm for SMRs in New Brunswick, but to deploy them in an IRP expansion plan we'd need a number of characteristics to be defined first."

The provincial government, NB Power and two companies, ARC Nuclear and Moltex Energy, have been relentlessly promoting the potential of SMRs. 

ARC and Moltex have both set up offices in Saint John to work on two different designs for small reactors, which would produce less electricity than a conventional reactor and be cheaper to build. (ARC Nuclear)

ARC and Moltex have both set up offices in Saint John to work on two different designs for small reactors, which would produce less electricity than a conventional reactor and be cheaper to build.

The two companies have received $5 million each through an NB Power subsidiary set up to fund new projects.

Moltex says it's "on its way to having an operational reactor by 2030" and ARC says it's "slated for 2028 in time to replace the existing [Belledune] coal generation station in 2030."

But the NB Power Integrated Resource Plan doesn't conclude they're a viable replacement yet.

It says the utility has been looking at several options to replace the 490-megawatt output of Belledune, its last remaining coal station.

Belledune future

The federal government's climate plan requires coal to be phased out as a source of electricity by 2030.

The report says imported electricity and renewables would not be enough to replace Belledune's capacity, and converting the plant to burn natural gas would be costly.

And with the "cost uncertainty" of SMRs and biomass fuels, NB Power is hoping the province will instead sign an "equivalency agreement" with the federal government that would allow Belledune to keep burning coal until 2040.

Moltex says it's "on its way to having an operational reactor by 2030" and ARC says it's "slated for 2028 in time to replace the existing [Belledune] coal generation station in 2030." But the NB Power Integrated Resource Plan doesn't conclude they're a viable replacement yet. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Under such a deal the plant would continue to burn coal but at reduced amounts that would "get to the same equivalent reductions" over the longer period of time, Holland said.

The IRP says an equivalency deal would require the province to draft a regulation to "hold the total emissions of the electricity sector to specific targets over the period of the agreement."

The minister said there's been "a constant focus" on filling the gap from Belledune and that wind energy and an agreement to buy more electricity from Hydro-Quebec are both part of that.

The Quebec deal, which could be part of an "Atlantic Loop" that envisions an increasingly integrated power grid among five eastern provinces, also isn't factored into the IRP.

During the New Brunswick election campaign, Premier Blaine Higgs said Ottawa would be announcing funding for ARC and Moltex soon, but three months later there's still no word on that. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

NB Power has touted the potential economic impact of SMRs, including $1 billion in new economic activity in the province and $120 million in new government revenue.

But the utility hasn't been specific about how many reactors it expects the two companies to sell. Both are aiming for sales to power utilities.

Belliveau said the next three years will be pivotal for SMR development. 

The federal government recently announced $20 million to support SMR development at an Ontario company, Terrestrial Energy. 

During the New Brunswick election campaign, Premier Blaine Higgs said Ottawa would be announcing funding for ARC and Moltex soon, but three months later there's still no word on that.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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