'Viable alternative' or 'greenwashing?': Sask. experts divided on nuclear power

The Saskatchewan government says it is not ruling out nuclear power as a way to alleviate some reliance on coal, but experts are divided on whether it’s a good solution.

Former professor pushes renewable energy while researcher says nuclear may be logical addition

Nuclear power is being proposed in Saskatchewan due to the presence of uranium in the province. Pictured: Cameco uranium mine in Cigar Lake, Sask. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

The Saskatchewan government says it is not ruling out nuclear power as a way to alleviate some reliance on coal, but experts are divided on whether it's a good solution.

Premier Scott Moe said the provincial government has been in discussion with Ontario and New Brunswick about small modular nuclear reactor technology.

Jim Harding, a retired professor of environmental injustice studies and author, said this is a repackaging of an idea that has been suggested since the 1980s by both NDP and Sask Party governments because of the uranium in the province.

Harding said Saskatchewan's grid is small enough to be supported by harvesting wind and solar energy.

There are new technologies and nuclear is not one of them."​​​​​- Jim Harding, author and environmental researcher

"There are new technologies and nuclear is not one of them," Harding said.

Harding said that from a carbon point of view, nuclear power would be "greenwashing," a term for making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice.

"The nuclear power plant itself doesn't generate carbon emissions like a coal plant, or even a gas plant. But the whole nuclear fuel cycle from mining, to refining, to enriching, to the building of the reactor with massive amounts of concrete and steel, and to the waste management is high carbon," said Harding. "We have to look at the whole cycle of an energy system if we're going to reduce carbon and avert the worst case."

Harding called nuclear costly and said it gets even more expensive when something goes wrong, like in Chernobyl and Fukushima. He said that according to studies on probability, catastrophic nuclear meltdowns are expected to occur every 20 years.

"They've built a structure right over the Chernobyl reactor that exploded actually. And that was 1986 and it's 2019 and they're still struggling to contain the radiation," said Harding. "So if you look at risk benefit and cost benefit, and in particular in the context of passing costs to future generations and quickly dealing with carbon, it just doesn't stand up."

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society released a report on climate change in the province last December. The report says the province should be investing more in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via Associated Press)

Harding said private investors are shying away from nuclear energy due to the risks, so he estimates that the project would carry public debt for decades.

John Root, executive director of The Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, said smaller modular reactors could be cost-effective because they wouldn't take as much capital as a large, centralized system. He said they are also thought to be safer and more convenient.

Root said a network of these small scale modular nuclear reactors could, in principle, be a viable alternative to burning coal, but a prototype would still need to be created.

"In practice we don't quite know what the nuclear reactor would look like. There are many as maybe a hundred ideas about small modular reactors circulating around the world," said Root. "In Canada there aren't any."

Root said it would probably take about seven years to build a prototype. He expects one to be up and running in a lab in Ontario by 2030.

I think it makes a lot of sense for Saskatchewan because we don't have that many options here for baseload power.- John Root, executive director of the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation

He said nuclear energy could save money because a fuel charge could last up to a decade.

"I think it makes a lot of sense for Saskatchewan because we don't have that many options here for baseload power and we are learning that converting carbon is pretty expensive, especially when you think about the impact on the environment," said Root. "You don't have a lot of waterfalls, the wind doesn't blow every day, sun doesn't always shine, but you could run something like a nuclear fleet for a steady baseload and then add the renewables on top of that."

According to the National Energy Board, Saskatchewan's greenhouse gas emissions per capita are the highest in Canada at 244 per cent above the national average. The largest emitting sectors in Saskatchewan are oil and gas production at 33 per cent of emissions, agriculture at 23 per cent and electricity generation at 20 per cent.

Sask. Electricity Generation by Fuel Type (2017). In 2017, Saskatchewan generated 25.5 terawatt hours (TW.h) of electricity (as shown), which is approximately 4 per cent of total Canadian generation. (National Energy Board)

'Why should we be guinea pigs?'

Harding said the province also has one of the highest carbon footprints in the world per capita.

Saskatchewan's goal is to lower its emissions to 40 per cent less than 2005 levels within the next 11 years, but its main source of power is still coal. The Premier said the province will look at cleaner power generation while keeping the assets it already has, such as carbon capture storage.

"This, in some ways, is one of the most backward parts of the country in terms of energy and environment. It's almost like people don't seem to care," said Harding.

"In relative terms it's small but you have to approach this globally if you're going to deal with the climate crisis."

Harding said smaller nuclear reactors are not the answer, because not much is known about them over time.

"They haven't been built anywhere," said Harding. "They're all in the test phase and they've never proven cost effective or comparatively cost effective.

"Why should we be guinea pigs when the rest of the world's going in the other direction and phasing out nuclear?"

With files from The Afternoon Edition


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.