New Brunswick

Small modular reactors might not be ready by 2030, former N.B. Power CEO warns

Small modular nuclear reactors may not be ready in time to replace electricity generation lost from the phaseout of coal power in 2030, former N.B. Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas says.

No guarantee SMRs will be approved in time for coal's phaseout in 2030, Gaëtan Thomas tells committee

Former N.B. Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas says New Brunswick can't get to net-zero emissions without nuclear power, but that it's not a certainty SMRs will be approved by 2030 when coal is phased out. (CBC)

Small modular nuclear reactors may not be ready in time to replace electricity generation lost from the phaseout of coal power in 2030, says a former N.B. Power CEO.

Gaëtan Thomas told a committee of MLAs on Wednesday that New Brunswick can't get to net-zero emissions without nuclear power, but that it's not a certainty small modular reactors, or SMRs, will be approved before the end of the decade.

Thomas pushed back at suggestions that the SMR technologies being developed in New Brunswick are unproven, arguing one of the two companies operating here is using a system that is "completely proven." 

But he said getting the proper regulatory approval for its new fuel-handling requirements won't be quick. 

"That's new, and that in some cases will delay this by three or four years, and may get us in a situation where we cannot meet the targets for 2030 or 2035," he said.

N.B. Power's Belledune generating station must stop burning coal by 2030 and the utility is looking for a way to replace electricity from the plant with an energy source that doesn't emit carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change.

Saint John Energy also issues warning

Thomas wasn't the only official appearing at the committee Wednesday who issued a warning about SMRs.

Saint John Energy vice-president Ryan Mitchell told MLAs that the technology may take a long time and could prove expensive.

"The pathway to decarbonize the province and the electricity system is going to require many different solutions. There really is no silver-bullet solution. We do believe that there is a role for nuclear within that," he said.

"We certainly would suggest there be caution in terms of the timing that that solution would be available, and basically the cost that might be associated with that." 

Saint John Energy is now working on a wind farm on the western edge of the city that would produce about 15 per cent of the utility's electricity and would save it about $4 million annually.

Mitchell said surveys by Saint John Energy show public support for action on climate change and told MLAs that "a wartime-like effort" to reduce emissions "could prove to be a real province-building initiative." 

The climate change and environmental stewardship committee is hearing from experts and stakeholders to develop recommendations for a new five-year provincial climate change plan.

Alex LeBlanc of the New Brunswick Business Council, which represents the CEOs of major employers in the province, said climate policies, including carbon pricing, were changing how companies think about emissions and their bottom lines.

"While all businesses are concerned about increasing energy and transportation costs, I'm hearing increasingly concerns about costs of inaction, lost competitiveness due to not adapting quickly enough," he said.

N.B. Power’s Belledune generating station must stop burning coal by 2030. (Jacques Poitras/CBC News file photo)

Thomas retired from N.B. Power in 2020 and is now president of the Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, a francophone business lobby group.

He's also a member of an independent advisory group set up by the federal government to recommend how to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Thomas said more wind and solar power will help the province reduce emissions, but getting to net zero won't be possible without nuclear.

"I don't see how we can do it with the knowns," he said, referring to existing, proven technology.
"The reality is solar and wind will never be 100 per cent in New Brunswick. … If you get out of oil, gas and coal, what else is there in New Brunswick?"

Thomas said because wind and solar power are generated intermittently, there needs to be a more reliable, all-weather source of electricity to back them up.

He predicted that eventually, about one-third of New Brunswick's electricity will come from wind, a third will come from nuclear and a third will come from N.B. Power's hydroelectric dams and from hydro energy bought from Quebec and Labrador.

Two companies operating in Saint John, ARC Clean  Energy and Moltex Energy, have received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for their research from the federal and New Brunswick governments.

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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