Nuclear opponents taking 'best shot' to slow approval of N.B.'s small reactors
Minister says momentum growing for non-emitting technology
Opponents of small modular nuclear reactors in New Brunswick are hoping to slow down the federal regulatory process for one of the projects, even as political momentum for the technology grows.
They're asking the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to reverse an exemption for ARC Clean Technology's proposal from the federal impact assessment process.
That would send the review to public hearings that would slow the process and give opponents a platform to argue against the reactors.
"It's to make people aware of the risks. We want the impact assessment to bring the risks out into the sunlight," said Ann McAllister, a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick.
"Done right, the assessment process should include independent experts. … In that sense, it's the best shot we have to bring the risks out into the open."
Under federal legislation, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault can reverse the exemption "if the project may cause adverse direct or incidental effects within areas of federal jurisdiction" or if public concerns about that warrant no exemption, the agency said.
Guilbeault must decide by Jan. 2 whether to reverse ARC's exemption.
Political momentum growing
ARC is one of two Saint John-based companies proposing to pilot a small reactor next to NB Power's existing Point Lepreau nuclear generating station.
Company CEO Bill Labbe said an additional assessment wouldn't compromise ARC's ability to get a first reactor operating at Lepreau by 2030.
The political momentum for nuclear power has grown in the last year. The war in Ukraine and the resulting squeeze on world oil markets are forcing governments to accelerate their search for alternatives to fossil fuels.
In October, the Canada Infrastructure Bank, a federal Crown corporation, announced it would provide Ontario Power Generation with a $970-million loan to build the first SMR at Darlington, Ont.
New Brunswick Energy Development Minister Mike Holland called the federal announcement "a very positive affirmation of the sector in general."
Ottawa sees nuclear power — which does not emit greenhouse gases — as key to its reduction targets. Holland said that view is getting more acceptance.
"The landscape of energy today and the conversation around it, versus the conversation two years ago, is absolutely different," he said.
"We've had to look at different global realities and perhaps even have more folks look at a more creative way of moving away from fossil fuels."
Germany has delayed the shutdown of its last three nuclear reactors while it searches for new sources of energy abroad.
Port of Belledune interested in SMRs
The Port of Belledune in northern New Brunswick recently announced plans to use one of ARC's small reactors to power the potential future expansion of hydrogen energy generated there for export.
That would see an SMR operating at Belledune between 2030 and 2035, the port said in a news release.
The port hopes to export hydrogen power to Germany and other European countries looking to end their dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Ottawa removed small modular nuclear reactors from the list of projects requiring impact assessments in 2019.
Even so, the proposal from the other Saint John-based SMR company, Moltex Clean Energy, will require one because of its plans to recycle nuclear waste.
But ARC is exempt unless the activists can persuade Guilbeault.
"The goal is to make more people aware of the risks of SMRs," McAllister said.
"The impact assessment is the only process that has that kind of comprehensive examination."
Guilbeault is a former environment activist who once opposed nuclear power but said recently that the technology may be required to hold global temperature increases to targets set out in Paris in 2015.
"There is a wide consensus out there that we need to use all the non-emitting, from a pollution perspective, technologies that are at our disposal to achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius," he told CBC's The House.
"Obviously, my role is different now from when I was working for non-governmental organizations. My fundamental beliefs haven't changed but my role has changed."
An impact assessment of ARC's technology would look at species at risk, fish habitats, migratory birds, as well as Indigenous rights.
Chief Terry Richardson of Pabineau First Nation, near Bathurst, which signed a consultation agreement with the Port of Belledune in 2018, said he sees SMRs as a good option.
"We're not looking at something that's new, right?" he said.
Coal to be phased out by end of decade
Holland says an assessment of ARC would be redundant because the same technology has already operated in larger-scale reactors.
"I do think the fact that it's a known technology should count for something," he said.
But Labbe said ARC is ready to comply with whatever regulatory process it faces.
The case for nuclear may be even more urgent with the proposed Atlantic Loop project now apparently in jeopardy. That project would see power grids from Quebec and the four Atlantic provinces linked with more transmission cables, making more emissions-free hydroelectricity from Quebec and Labrador available to the region.
That would help New Brunswick and Nova Scotia replace electricity generated by coal, which must be phased out by 2030.
Emera, the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, said in October it would pause its key role in the Atlantic Loop after the provincial government there capped electricity rates.
"There isn't enough money in order to continue to pursue that," CEO Scott Balfour said.
Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said last month Ottawa still intends to be "a significant partner" in the project and hopes for an agreement in the first quarter of 2023.
Holland says questions about the Atlantic Loop show why SMRs are important.
"When you have jurisdictions that are key to the process saying they don't know if they can invest in it, it would be naive to say it doesn't put the project at risk," he said.
"Let's continue to have that conversation, but let's not make that the only conversation."
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