Saskatchewan's plan to build small nuclear reactors draws mixed reactions

Proponents tout clean power potential while skeptics say it's a risk to human health and the environment.

Proponents tout clean power potential, skeptics say it's a risk to human health and the environment

Environmentalists say nuclear power's risks outweigh benefits. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Saskatchewan's push to build small nuclear reactors in the province is drawing mixed reactions from academics and environmental groups, with some touting the clean energy potential while others say it's a threat to human safety.

On Monday the province, along with representatives from Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick, released the strategic plan for expanding nuclear power by building small modular reactors (SMR). The report said the nuclear reactors are safe, reliable and a source of "zero-emission energy."

"The risk of not adopting nuclear power as base load power – what is the alternative?" said Esam Hussein, dean of engineering at the University of Regina, after reading the report.

We hear from an environmental advocate who does not think nuclear power is the answer, as well as from the dean of engineering at the University of Regina who says it would have benefits for Saskatchewan.

Hussein said that if governments want to move away from coal-fired energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they need to add nuclear power to their arsenal of clean energy sources alongside wind, solar and hydro.

On Tuesday, Ottawa announced plans to cut carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

"The choice we have now is live with climate change and wipe out humanity and all its creatures with ourselves, or take something that is known in a way. Nuclear power has been with us since the '50s," Hussein said.

The four provinces' strategic SMR plan includes a goal of building its first modular reactor in Ontario by 2028.

Four more would follow in Saskatchewan, with the first slated for 2034. A site has not been selected, according to SaskPower minister Don Morgan.

SMRS bring jobs and hefty price tag

The strategic plan included a list of economic benefits over the lifetime of the five plants, including a $17-billion direct and indirect impact on GDP and thousands of spin-off jobs.

SMR development in Canada depends on money from Ottawa. The reactors have an estimated price tag of $5 billion each.

SMRs produce up to 300 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 300,000 homes annually, according to the governments' strategic plan. A conventional nuclear reactor generates 1,000 megawatts of energy. SMRs are also moveable, manufactured in factories and transported by truck, train or ship.

"It's just kind of fanciful, kind of dreaming in Technicolor," said Dave Geary, a researcher and writer with Clean Green Saskatchewan after reviewing the plan.

I'm shocked that these politicians don't have more business sense.- Dave Geary

Geary said the governments' economic projections are likely unrealistic given the infancy of the SMR market.

"I'm shocked that these politicians don't have more business sense to be savvy to these kind of promises and dreams, you know?"

Geary said that beside the economic cost, the SMRs pose environmental risks.

"They're just little targets for criminal and terrorist activity, as we know in Ukraine right now, because the nuclear plants are very vulnerable to things happening." 

The provinces' strategic plan outlined challenges to developing the industry, including the need for nuclear waste disposal sites and securing public support.

Ann Coxworth, a nuclear chemist and member of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, agreed with Geary that the SMRs are still in the development stage. 

 "What these provinces are asking governments to do is to invest very risky money in a technology that has a lot of environmental problems associated with it and which cannot even hope to put a dent on greenhouse gas emissions for at least a decade," Coxworth said.

A quicker, better alternative, she said, would be to back energy conservation and efficiency plans.

"Some other options that are cheaper and safer are pretty well ready to roll."

Coxworth said that if people want to back green power supplies, governments should invest in storage and sharing options for energy created by hydro, wind and solar power. 

Like Geary, Coxworth was concerned about the risk to people and the environment if an accident happened at a SMR.

"We have highly hazardous waste being stored on site at reactors. And if we end up with a lot of the small reactors scattered over the countryside, we're going to have to have this waste problem that does not have a solution." 

Coxworth said the reactors would also need to be liquid cooled, meaning they need to be placed by a water source.

She said building the reactors near Lake Diefenbaker, a drinking water source for much of southern Saskatchewan, would be a logical location. That could threaten drinking water supplies if the reactors were ever compromised, she said.


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