The federal government and the four provincial governments that back nuclear power as part of the solution to greenhouse gas emissions face widespread opposition to their plans.
Environmental groups, some 120 women in leadership positions and three political parties have raised objections to the continued use of and ongoing development of nuclear power in Canada over the past couple of years. And frustration over the continued push for nuclear has intensified in recent months.
Anger over the intent to position nuclear power as a viable renewable comes at a time when federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan (under whose department falls the responsibility for nuclear power) has made bullish speeches endorsing its use.
Within the last three years, four provinces have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop the next generation of nuclear power known as small modular reactors (SMRs). Alberta is the most recent signatory to the MOU, joining Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan in April.
While the governments tout nuclear as an integral part of any climate crisis solution, alongside solar, wind and other renewables, many environmentalists point out there is one intractable problem no one has been able to solve. Regardless of how small reactors become, they will still produce toxic waste, a deal-killer in many people’s eyes.
Critics also raise red flags over the possibility that the design of some SMRs will enable terrorists to more easily steal nuclear fuel for weapons. And they point out SMR technology is at least five years away and will land too late to address the growing climate crisis.
The breadth of opposition is enormous. In a massive display of solidarity in November, some 100 environmental groups signed a letter from the Canadian Environmental Law Association calling SMRs dirty and dangerous. Susan O’Donnell, an academic at the University of New Brunswick, is one of the more vocal protesters against the use of nuclear. She maintains Canada doesn’t have a solution to the long-term problem of radioactive waste from the CANDU reactors now operating, “and now we’ll be creating new kinds of waste that we won’t know what to do with either.”
“We should not be funding technologies until we figure out how to deal with all those environmental issues that they raise, and we’re so far from doing that.”
Moltex Energy Canada in New Brunswick is developing an SMR that will generate heat when nuclear fission takes place in tubes filled with molten salt fuel. O’Donnell says the process will create new toxic waste streams never dealt with in Canada before.
Even small nuclear reactors have big waste problems, @charlesmandel2 reports. #NuclearWaste #SMRs #cdnpoli
“We have no experience with it, and if you look at the peer-reviewed literature on this, they actually don’t even know what kinds of materials can contain these liquid waste streams. It’s going to be dirty, it’s going to be messy, and it’s right beside the Bay of Fundy, which is a big red flag for environmentalists.”
She also believes SMRs “are not worth the wait. They’re too slow and costly as a climate crisis solution, and that’s what they’re being touted as…”
SMR technology is still in its infancy; while the Liberal government has given nuclear manufacturers tens of millions of dollars, so far, SMRs remain in research and development with the first reactors expected to be built sometime between 2026 and 2030.
O’Donnell dismisses SMRs as a speculative technology, and contends that it will take at least a decade to get them off the drawing board — and even longer to find out if they actually work. “We don’t have that kind of time for the climate crisis,” she recently told Canada’s National Observer.
When it comes to protesting the ongoing development of the Canadian nuclear industry, O’Donnell is far from a lone voice in the wilderness. Since the Liberal government began seriously pushing nuclear in 2019, a number of disparate groups have pushed back equally hard.
In September, the Green Budget Coalition — made up of groups ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation to the Sierra Club Canada Foundation — stated uncertainties, questionable economics, and a previously unsuccessful track record in developing new nuclear technology should preclude federal support for SMRs.
The coalition points out that between 2002 and 2009, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited received $433.5 million in federal subsidies to develop the Advanced CANDU Reactor 25, but none were ever built. The coalition further cautioned “spending federal resources pursuing such an unproven technology during the climate emergency while the costs of renewables continue to fall and timelines for commercial SMRs continue to be pushed further into the future is imprudent.”
A group of roughly 120 women in leadership roles around Canada took out an open letter to the Treasury Board in the Hill Times in September. In no uncertain terms, they asked the government to stop funding for SMRs and concentrate on other forms of renewable energy.
“We urge you to say ‘no’ to the nuclear industry that is asking for billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to subsidize a dangerous, highly polluting and expensive technology that we don’t need. Instead, put more money into renewables, energy efficiency and energy conservation. This will create many thousands of jobs and quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The law association letter noted some proposed reactors would extract plutonium from irradiated fuel, creating concerns over weapons proliferation and new forms of radioactive waste “that are especially dangerous to manage.”
More recently, in March, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in the U.S. issued a report titled 'Advanced' Isn’t Always Better by Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety in the UCS Climate and Energy Program. Among the concerns its author raised was that molten salt reactors — the same type of SMR that Moltex in New Brunswick is working on — create unique challenges for nuclear security because of difficulties accounting for the nuclear material accurately as the liquid fuel flows through the reactor.
Lyman cautions some designs with on-site, continuously operating fuel-reprocessing plants could “provide additional pathways for diverting or stealing nuclear-weapon-usable materials.”
At various points, the federal NDP, the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois have all also expressed opposition to funding SMRs. Elizabeth May, the former Green Party leader, previously said, “Renewables are far cheaper than nuclear without the toxic waste. Exploring an untried reactor is just another way of delaying climate action.”
In an email to Canada’s National Observer, the Department of National Resources says that it is carrying out a review, expected to be completed by the fall, to develop a new policy for radioactive waste management. The policy will cover both existing waste, and future waste, including that from “emerging new and innovative nuclear technologies, such as SMRs.”
The department also notes Canada remains committed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “including the full implementation of safeguards sent by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
Back in New Brunswick, O’Donnell expresses frustration that the MOU the four provinces signed with the federal government binds the parties to promoting the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear. The MOU also expressly says part of its mandate is to “work co-operatively to positively influence the federal government to provide a clear, unambiguous statement that nuclear energy is a clean technology and is required as part of the climate change solution.”
O’Donnell calls that sales job indefensible given the governments are leaving it up to volunteer advocates to share information about alternatives such as solar and wind. “But instead, we just get silence or this barrage of nuclear sales material, and that’s really the frustrating thing.”