Hill Times Op-Ed: Political opposition growing to new nuclear reactors

By EVA SCHACHERL      DECEMBER 9, 2020

The nuclear industry and Liberals have not only been laying the groundwork for government funding. It appears they have been ensuring that the framework for nuclear energy in Canada gets even more accommodating.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has been hyping so-called next-generation reactors for months, portraying the industry as a future utopia. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Mead.

Many Canadians are anxious to see what our energy future will be. Politically, it’s a question that stirs passions from Alberta’s oil patch to Ontario’s cancelled wind farms.

But political debate is picking up around our nuclear energy future. And with good reason. Government-funded expansion of the nuclear industry, and a simultaneous watering-down of regulations, could be the Liberal government’s toxic legacy.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has been hyping so-called next-generation reactors for months. A recent nuclear industry summit—hosted with federal funding—portrayed nuclear energy expansion in Canada as a future utopia.

The Green Party caucus, the NDP’s natural resources critic Richard Cannings, and the Bloc Québécois’s environment critic Monique Pauzé have all slammed O’Regan’s expected small modular reactor (SMR) “action plan.” They say it does not belong in a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency, wind, solar, and storage technologies are ready to build, and much cheaper, according to Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm. The prototype reactors will take years, if not decades, to develop, and could absorb hundreds of millions, even billions, in taxpayer subsidies, according to Greenpeace Canada.

That would mean opportunities lost for those dollars to build many times the amount of zero-emission energy with renewables and energy-efficiency projects. The latter would not create toxic radioactive waste for future generations to contend with.

Independent research says that a nuclear solution for remote communities (as proposed by the government) is likely to cost 10 times more to build and operate than the alternatives.

It seems inevitable that the Liberal action plan will soon be launched with generous handouts for the nuclear industry, whose aspiring players in Canada today include SNC-Lavalin and U.S. corporations like Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy. Few Canadians are aware that “Canadian” Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) is owned by a consortium of SNC-Lavalin and two U.S. firms, Fluor and Jacobs.

In recent years, the nuclear industry and Liberals have not only been laying the groundwork for government funding. It appears they’ve also been ensuring that the framework for nuclear energy in Canada gets even more accommodating.

The biggest step was exempting most new reactors from the Impact Assessment Act, which, in 2019, replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. This was deemed so important to the nuclear industry’s future that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) lobbied the Liberal government to exempt small reactors—and won. So much for the CNSC, the regulator that’s supposed to oversee the industry, being seen as objective and “world class.”

The Impact Assessment Act was intended to create “greater public trust in impact assessment and decision-making.”  But there will be no federal assessment of nuclear reactors up to 200 thermal MW in size, nor of new reactors built at existing nuclear plants (up to 900 MWth). Yet new tidal power projects, as well as offshore wind farms with 10 or more turbines, need an assessment under the regulations, as do many new fossil fuel projects. 

Also exempted from federal assessment is the “on-site storage of irradiated nuclear fuel or nuclear waste” associated with small modular reactors. This will make it easier for SMRs’ radioactive waste to be potentially left in the northern, remote, and First Nations communities, where they are proposed to be built.

The nuclear regulator has also been responsible for introducing a suite of “regulatory documents” on reactor decommissioning and radioactive waste that environmental groups have called “sham regulation.”

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats at the CNSC have been busy signing a memorandum of cooperation with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Small Modular Reactors. This agreement means that Canada can recognize U.S. reviews of reactor designs in order to “streamline the review process.”

CNSC has also outlined its plan in a document called Strategy for Readiness to Regulate Advanced Reactor Technologies. In a nutshell, the document says that regulations for new reactor designs will have to be flexible. It notes that CNSC regulated the earlier generation of water-cooled reactors (such as CANDUs) at first based on “objectives” in the 1950s and ‘60s. Then, as experience with these reactors evolved, regulations became more detailed and prescriptive. It says the same may have to happen with the new next-gen reactor designs. 

In the 1950s, there were indeed few “prescriptive requirements” for the newfangled reactors. In 1952, the NRX reactor at Chalk River, Ont., had a meltdown. It was the first large-scale nuclear reactor accident in the world and took two years to clean up—which, by 1950s standards, included pumping 10,000 curies of long-lived fission products into a nearby sandy area. Then in 1958, the NRU reactor at Chalk River—a test bed for developing fuels and materials for the CANDU reactor—had a major accident, a fuel-rod fire that contaminated the building and areas downwind. It took 600 workers and military personnel to do the top-secret clean-up.

Let’s hope today’s regulators and lawmakers can learn from history. Does Canada really need or want to be the “leading-edge” testing ground for new experimental nuclear reactors? Canadians should have their say in a referendum—or at the ballot box.

Eva Schacherl is an Ottawa-based environmentalist. 

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