Small modular reactor plan bolsters nuclear industry's future, but renewables could address energy issues now

Small modular reactors are the nuclear power industry's hope for overcoming problems such as high costs and radioactive waste, but the technology won't necessarily solve those issues, writes Eva Schacherl.

While SMRs are hailed as start of a nuclear renaissance, there are big questions about costs and timeframe

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan, seen in this file photo, unveiled the federal government's action plan for the development of small modular nuclear reactors on Dec. 18, 2020. He said SMRs have the potential to produce enough reliable electricity to help Canada achieve its transition to net-zero emissions by 2050. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

This column is an opinion by Eva Schacherl, an advocate for the responsible management of radioactive waste. She has worked for environmental, health care, youth services and governmental organizations. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In late December, as many Canadians were easing into a low-key holiday break, Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O'Regan pulled out a bag of goodies for the nuclear industry. It was the much-hyped Small Modular Reactor Action Plan for Canada.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are experimental nuclear technologies that are still on the drawing board. They are the nuclear power industry's hope for overcoming the problems that have plagued it: high costs, radioactive waste, and risks of accidents.

Public interest groups across the country, however, argue that SMRs won't solve these issues.

The dozen SMR vendors backing the technology include GE-Hitachi, Westinghouse, and SNC-Lavalin (which, along with two U.S. corporations, already holds a multibillion-dollar contract with the federal government to run Canadian Nuclear Laboratories at Chalk River, Ont.). O'Regan's plan did nothing to clarify the price tag of a nuclear renaissance, but it says the federal government expects to share the cost and risks of SMR projects with the private sector.

Proponents say that SMRs will cost less than conventional nuclear and be flexible enough to serve remote communities reliant on costly and polluting diesel. O'Regan has also said that SMRs are necessary to fight climate change: in short, a utopia of "clean, affordable, safe and reliable power," as he told a nuclear conference last year.

But is this any more than a dream? The enthusiasm for SMRs sometimes sounds like a New Age cult — let's examine the claims.

An illustration shows a NuScale Power Module on a truck. NuScale is one of the small modular reactor companies whose designs are going through the approval process with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Many are designed to be small enough to transport by truck or by shipping container. (NuScale Power)

First, must we have a new generation of nuclear reactors to get to the promised land of net-zero emissions?

Many studies show a path to net-zero without nuclear energy. Energy scientists who modelled a 100 per cent renewable energy system for North America, for example, concluded that nuclear energy "cannot play an important role in the future" because of its high cost and safety issues. Closer to home, it has been shown how Ontario can meet its electricity demand without nuclear, using renewables, hydro and storage.

Meanwhile, a new study in Nature Energy uses data from 123 nations to show that countries focused on renewables do much better at reducing emissions.

Indeed, some fear that the federal government's faith in nuclear reactors will delay Canada's transition to clean energy. SMRs will take decades to develop and deploy, yet it's projected that we have as little as 10 years left to stop irreversible damage from climate change.

Can SMRs one day be cost-competitive with renewable energy?

Right now, the cost difference between nuclear power and other low-carbon alternatives is growing because renewables and energy storage keep getting cheaper.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of the most advanced SMR project, in Idaho, has increased from $4.2 billion to $6.1 billion before shovels are even in the ground. That's nearly $12,000 per kilowatt of generation capacity.

The Canada Energy Regulator says wind and solar projects in Canada cost $1,600 to $1,800 per kilowatt to build in 2017 – and that their costs are expected to go down steeply.

The more powerful SMRs designs currently generate about a third of the electricity of a traditional reactor, but are much more compact. This illustration compares the physical size of a small modular reactor and associated power generation facility to Ontario's existing Bruce Nuclear Generation Station A. (CBC News)

Can small reactors wean off-grid communities and mines from diesel fuel?

Perhaps some day. But if the government has a few hundred million dollars to spare for SMR projects, they should spend it now to speed up renewable energy adoption in those locations instead. Studies show that renewables would offer power as much as 10 times cheaper, using technologies that are ready to go now rather than ones still on the drawing board.

Finally, nuclear energy is neither green nor clean. All reactors produce radioactive waste that will need to be kept out of the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years.

The proposal that some SMR models would reuse highly radioactive CANDU fuel and plutonium will only create worse problems in the form of radioactive wastes that are even more dangerous to manage.

For a livable future, Canada has pledged to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Will we get a bigger bang for our buck from reactors that are still just design concepts? Or by retrofitting buildings, improving energy efficiency, and building solar, wind, geothermal and tidal power with existing technology?

Clearly, the latter. And it needs to be done now.


Eva Schacherl is an advocate for the responsible management of radioactive waste. She has worked for environmental, health care, youth services and governmental organizations.


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