New Brunswick

New Liberal leader questions small nuclear reactors

The new leader of the New Brunswick Liberals is questioning whether small modular nuclear reactors are the answer to the province’s energy needs, a more cautious stance than her party’s previous full-throated support for the technology.

Susan Holt says it’s not clear the technology is a responsible energy solution

Susan Holt, chosen over the weekend to lead the New Brunswick Liberal party, said she needs more information about small modular reactors. (Jacques Poitras/ CBC)

The new leader of the New Brunswick Liberals is questioning whether small modular nuclear reactors are the answer to the province's energy needs, a more cautious stance than her party's previous full-throated support for the technology.

Susan Holt said after winning the leadership Saturday that while the potential jobs created by SMRs would be good for the province, she was looking for more evidence they were the right bet for clean energy.

"It's an interesting project on the economic development level ... but I'm not sure it's the solution for electricity generation for our province," Holt told reporters.

"I think it's not clear yet if it will really give us energy in a way that's responsible and efficient with our investments, so there's still more to determine there."

Two companies based in Saint John, ARC Clean Energy and Moltex Energy, have received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding to develop reactors.

Former N.B. Power president Gaëtan Thomas warned the small reactors may not be ready in time for the end of coal-fired generation at Belledune. (Catherine Harrop/CBC)

Nuclear energy does not emit carbon dioxide that causes climate change, though environmentalists have flagged safety and long-term waste concerns.

Last year the province handed ARC $20 million, while Moltex received more than $50 million from the federal government.

The previous provincial Liberal government gave each of them $5 million.

Holt held the title of chief of business relationships at the Jobs Board secretariat under then-Liberal Premier Brian Gallant at the time ARC and Moltex got that initial funding.

Both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives have been enthusiastic supporters of SMRs until now, arguing they're needed to provide reliable baseload power as the province shifted away from greenhouse gas-emitting electricity generation to renewable energy.

Louise Comeau smiles at the camera.
Louise Comeau, director of Climate Change and Energy Solutions at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, welcomed Holt's interest in asking more question about SMRs. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Previous Liberal leader Kevin Vickers called SMRs "a complete game-changer" during the last election and said New Brunswick could be "a global leader" in the field. 

But at legislative committee hearings in January, former N.B. Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas and officials from Saint John Energy warned that SMRs may not be ready in time to replace electricity from the Belledune generating station, which must stop using coal by 2030.

Thomas told MLAs that regulatory requirements "may get us in a situation where we cannot meet the targets for 2030 or 2035."

Louise Comeau, the director of climate change and energy solutions for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, welcomed Holt's comments.

"It sounds to me like the new leader is open to more information and analysis, which is what we desperately needed on the question of small modular nuclear reactors," she said.

A man sits before a microphone inside the New Brunswick Legislature.
Former N.B. Power president Keith Cronkhite has said the utility was looking for fuel sources that would serve as stop-gaps until SMRs were ready. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"We've been more in a phase of hype and boosterism. … I think what she's said is we need to have more information, we need to look at all options, and we would really agree with that. Wind and solar and efficiency and other options all have to be part of the portfolio." 

Susan O'Donnell, a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick, said she was happy Holt was "reading the independent research about SMRs instead of the nuclear industry sales and promotional materials."

But Progressive Conservative Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland said he found Holt's comments "quite confusing" and "inconsistent" with support for SMRs from current Liberal MLAs.

He pointed out Holt "sat as an adviser to Premier Gallant at the point when the decision was made to make the investment" and then ran for the Liberals in 2018.

"She was part of a government that made the decision to invest, and not only that, she had moved forward and put her name on the ballot for that government that was in strong support of the SMRs," he said.

At the climate change committee hearings in January, Liberal MLA René Legacy said N.B. Power should shop around for other potential SMR suppliers in case ARC and Moltex weren't ready in time for 2030.

The utility has been touting the two Saint John businesses, but then-CEO Keith Cronkhite told the committee the utility was looking for stop-gap fuel sources that could power Belledune after the coal deadline until SMRs were ready.

N.B. Power's board fired Cronkhite in July, saying the Crown corporation needed to adapt more quickly to "massive change" in the energy market, including a shift to renewables.

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


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.