Canada’s leading nuclear industry players announced an inter-provincial corporate partnership Thursday to support the launch of a research centre that will work on developing small modular reactors (SMRs) for use in Saskatchewan.
Saskatoon-based Cameco is the world’s biggest uranium producer and has long supplied fuel to Bruce Power, Ontario’s largest nuclear power company.
SMRs are designed to produce smaller amounts of electricity, between 50 and 300 megawatts, without the emissions usually associated with power generation.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said nuclear power is a critical part of the solution to climate change and will help rural and remote communities as a new base for the electrical grid.
“We are not going to be able to deal with things like climate change or very broad issues if we are not going to commit to integrating nuclear power into our systems. It has to be part of the solutions. We simply are unable to get the job done without it,” Moe said.
In December, Moe signed a memorandum of understanding with the premiers of Ontario and New Brunswick to work together on further developing the nuclear industry.
The partnership between Cameco and Bruce Power will also research developing infrastructure for hydrogen technologies and cancer-fighting isotopes.
“This new initiative will help drive Ontario-made and Canadian-made innovation for these emerging technologies and support our province’s economic recovery,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said.
This agreement comes on the heels of Saskatchewan announcing a nuclear secretariat to make way for reactors.
“That technology is a long ways away and a lot of it’s going to depend on... the court of public opinion, whether or not people want that in their own backyard, and that’s the whole issue anywhere in the world," Brooke Dobni.
The secretariat is mandated to develop and execute a strategic plan for the use of “clean-energy small modular reactors” in the province.
“The deployment of small modular reactors in Saskatchewan will require collaboration with several partners to fully encompass the benefits Saskatchewan could see in way of jobs, enhanced value chains for Saskatchewan’s uranium, and our made-in-Saskatchewan climate policy,” Environment Minister Dustin Duncan said in June.
No timeframe or SMR sites were included in the announcement, but the government’s plans already have some northern residents raising alarms.
Committee for Future Generations outreach co-ordinator Candyce Paul of La Plonge at the English River First Nation told Canada’s National Observer that they haven’t been consulted on any aspects of the plan, but all signs point to the north as a site for the reactors.
Paul’s group fights nuclear waste storage in Saskatchewan and was instrumental in stopping a proposal that considered Beauval, Pinehouse and Creighton as storage locations in 2011.
“When we informed the communities that they were looking at planning to bury nuclear waste up here in 2011, once they learned what that entailed, everybody said no way. Eighty per cent of the people in the north said no way, absolutely not. It didn’t matter if they worked for Cameco or the other mines. They said if it comes here, we will not support it coming here,” she said.
Paul said she sees small modular nuclear reactors as another threat to the environment and to human safety in the region.
She noted that even with SMRs under 300 megawatts, nuclear waste is a byproduct.
“Even if they’re not burying nuclear waste here, they could be leaving it on site or hauling it through our northern regions and across our waterways,” Paul said.
She said that waste generated from SMRs would become a dangerous part of the transportation system “even if they do remove it.”
“It will be big, big transports of highly radioactive stuff, driving down the roads as an easy dirty bomb. You’d be driving down the road (behind a nuclear waste transport vehicle) and not know you’re following it,” Paul said.
Paul said the intent behind installing SMRs is anything but green and that the real goal is to prop up Saskatchewan’s ailing uranium industry and develop oilsands in the northwest.
Paul said that communities around Canada, and especially in the Far North, have long been pitched as sites for SMR development and have refused.
A 2018 brief from Pangnirtung Hamlet Council in Nunavut concluded “any Arctic-based nuclear power source should be an alternative energy choice of last resort.”
“None of our people are going to get trained for operating these. It supports people from other places. It doesn't really support us,” Paul said.
SMRs have been pitched in the north as a way to move away from reliance on diesel fuel, which can be costly. Paul said any benefits of that remain to be seen.
She said companies would need to do environmental impact assessments for smaller reactors even though the exclusion zone around SMR sites is smaller.
“Even if the exclusion zone is only a few kilometres, a few kilometres affects a lot in an ecosystem and especially in an ecosystem that is wild,” Paul said.
“I’m not feeling confident in this at all, Canadian nuclear laboratories saying that it would only be a small radius exclusion zone. Well that’s our territory. That’s our land, our waters, our wildlife.
"It’s not their backyard, so they couldn’t care less.”
Brooke Dobni, professor of strategy at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business, told Canada’s National Observer that any development of small reactors would take a long time.
“It could be a good thing, but on the other hand, it might have some pitfalls. Those talks take years,” Dobni said.
He said nuclear reactors face bigger challenges because of public concerns about the environment and that the high cost of building infrastructure and then containing nuclear fallout and radiation are all concerns before they can go ahead.
“Anything nuclear is 25 years out if you’re talking about small reactors, those kinds of things to power up the city,” Dobni said.
“That technology is a long ways away and a lot of it’s going to depend on public opinion.
The court for that is the court of public opinion, whether or not people want that in their own backyard, and that’s the whole issue anywhere in the world.”
Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer