Can small nuclear reactors help Canada reach its net-zero 2050 goals? Some experts are skeptical
'Nuclear power is like fighting world hunger with caviar,' says researcher Benjamin Sovacool
Canada has expressed interest in a new, smaller type of nuclear reactor that proponents say will be critical to help the country reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But there is debate among researchers, advocates and other experts on whether these new reactors are necessary to reach net-zero — or whether it's better accomplished by focusing efforts elsewhere.
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, cautions that any stance on the role small modular reactors will play in Canada's energy future depends on research and data that could still be years away.
"We have a data set, currently, of zero," he told What on Earth.
"You can forecast what they might be based on technical assessments ... but it's based on no real data. It's based just on what we hope will come out of different plans."
Small modular reactors, or SMRs for short, are smaller than a conventional nuclear power plant and can be manufactured in a factory before being transported and assembled elsewhere — something proponents say will lower costs.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN organization for nuclear cooperation, considers an SMR to be "small" if it generates under 300 megawatts of electricity, compared to traditional nuclear reactors that typically generate about 800 megawatts, or about enough to power about 600,000 homes at once (assuming that 1 megawatt can power about 750 homes).
The federal government called it the "next wave of innovation" in nuclear energy technology and an "important technology opportunity for Canada."
In October, the federal government announced it was investing $20 million into Terrestrial Energy to help the Oakville, Ont., company develop its design of a small modular reactor.
Last December, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe released a joint statement committing to developing SMRs in Canada. Alberta joined that agreement in August. While the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently conducting pre-licensing reviews on several designs, forecasts suggest it could be years, perhaps 2030, before SMRs would be operating in Canada.
According to the Canadian Nuclear Association's SMR roadmap, the small reactors would help replace energy capacity lost by closing coal plants, help power off-grid projects like mines and oilsands sites, and replace diesel fuel in remote communities.
"We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear," Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan told The House in September.
"This is a zero-emission energy source."
Nuclear energy is actually considered a low-emission — not zero-emission — energy source by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others.
While the nuclear fission that takes place inside a reactor doesn't emit carbon, greenhouse gas emissions result from the surrounding processes and operations: mining the uranium, building the reactor and its eventual decommission.
"When you look at the entire fuel cycle and you broaden the lens across it, you start to capture a whole host of emissions that are often excluded," said Benjamin Sovacool, director of the energy group at the University of Sussex, and a lead author for the IPCC on how to mitigate climate change between now and 2050.
Sovacool said that renewables like solar and wind provide a bigger bang for the buck to lower emissions, and are widely available now, unlike SMRs.
"Nuclear power is like fighting world hunger with caviar, it's like using the most expensive option when there are far more plentiful and nutritious options available when you account for the costs," he told What on Earth.
'A real, necessary tool': Nuclear association head
John Gorman, however, is convinced nuclear power is the way forward — and that SMRs are a crucial part of the plan.
He's the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association — but before that, he was head of the Canadian Solar Industries Association.
"When I moved over from the renewable side, I had to do a lot of homework to really look into the technology, its track record, the way that it deals with some of the issues that are of most concern to people," he told Lynch.
"I've come to the realization after all of that that really there is no way to net zero without nuclear. And secondly, it just is a really safe, remarkable technology."
Gorman pointed to decades of North American experience working with nuclear energy, and affirmed the importance of going through the regulatory process throughout development to ensure SMRs are as safe and efficient as possible.
He said the seven-to-10-year estimates for SMRs to become a reality in Canada are "a blink of an eye in terms of energy planning," and that they will become "a real, necessary tool" for Canada's net-zero targets.
Kammen isn't convinced that SMRs have quite yet earned a green light.
"You ... have to worry about the end of life and the risk issues that are not a feature of wind or solar," he said.,
"A bad batch of solar panels is actually a learning event, whereas a bad batch of components for a nuclear plant can be catastrophic."
SMRs 'a dangerous distraction': Environmentalist rep
Kerrie Blaise, staff lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said SMRs and nuclear energy present "a dangerous distraction from real climate action."
Her stance is echoed by more than 25 environment and citizens' groups, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Equiterre, which released a statement in October.
Blaise said the modular nature of SMRs means that fuel for the reactors — and, eventually, the radioactive waste they produce — will have to be transported more frequently, especially if they are deployed in remote locations like mines and Indigenous communities.
She added that "the economics don't add up" regarding arguments that nuclear energy should be "part of the mix" along with renewable energy.
"The cost of renewables continues to go down due to incremental manufacturing and installation improvements, while nuclear, despite having had half a century of industrial experience, continues to have costs that are rising," she said.
Nuclear power has been declining worldwide for decades, and cost has been one challenge, according to a 2019 report from the IEA, which said "new projects have been plagued by cost overruns and delays."
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Kammen said he's seen a large amount of private sector investment in SMRs, which could help accelerate development to make it competitive alongside renewables like solar and wind.
But it will be some time, he said, before anyone can guess what "mix of technologies" will be best.
"These new nuclear plants need to perform at a cost level that we have not seen. They need to perform at a reliability level we haven't seen.... And then finally, the most critically, these plants have to be demonstrated to be operated safely during their lifetime and for the fuel management at the end of life cycle," he said.
"That's a big list of ifs. So I'm rooting for nuclear, but I think that list of challenges is exceedingly long."
Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Produced by Lisa Johnson and Rachel Sanders.