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.

“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…”

Even small nuclear reactors have big waste problems, @charlesmandel2 reports. #NuclearWaste #SMRs #cdnpoli

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.

Susan O'Donnell, an academic and nuclear activist, raises concerns over the next generation of nuclear power, citing toxic nuclear waste, the potential for stolen fuel to become weaponized, and the time and money needed to develop small modular reactors. File photo

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.”

Elizabeth May, former Green Party leader, isn't sold on the idea. She once said, “Exploring an untried reactor is just another way of delaying climate action.” File photo

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.”

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I'm quoted extensively in this article. It's so refreshing to read an article that focuses on the risks of the government's support for new nuclear development, instead of the industry's ongoing promotion and sales pitch that has become the government's talk as well. We need more of these articles critical of the government spin to balance the relentless nuclear marketing materials, so that Canadians can understand the choices we have moving forward. Kudos to the National Observer, thank you.

As a subscriber, I am very disappointed to see a poorly-researched article such as this in the National Observer. None of the reactors in Canada, or the proposed SMRs, contribute to weapons production, at all. In fact, the role of the nuclear industry in Canada in providing vital medical diagnostics and therapies is an under-reported contribution. SMRs are simplified, safer designs of existing reactor technologies, and the build time will be reduced as a result. On the topic of "waste"... some of the SMR designs actually use spent fuel from other reactor types as fuel.

Let's get some facts on the table here--there is nothing but baseless scare-mongering in the article.

Hi Doug, I suggest you check out the link in the article to the report by Dr. Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists in the US, that brings up many of the points you raised. Yes, the plans by the SMR proponents in Canada, specifically the reprocessing plans by Moltex Energy, raise significant nuclear weapons proliferation concerns. Your suggestion that these new reactors are safer is debunked by Dr. Lyman's research. Here's the link that was in the story: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/advanced-isnt-always-better

It's a good article. A fair article. It raises every possible objection, and it raises them in the subjunctive, as "could be" possibilities. Even the article title "...isn't always better" contains the implication that some of the designs ARE better. For some designs, the only substantial critique was that they can't be economically deployed in great numbers before 2050.

For others, the only substantial critique are concerns about nuclear proliferation, a lifelong focus, Dr. Lyman's whole career. It's a concern, but it's just such a small one. The "business model" of threatening the planet with nuclear attack - whether by nation-states or private groups - has become comically unlikely in recent decades, the stuff of GW Bush fantasies about Saddam/AQ, and Sheldon Adelson paranoia about Iran. The worst terrorists have proven to be rational actors (AIPAC used to love the phrase "The Mad Mullahs of Tehran" because, frankly, only a madman would attack Israel even with nuclear bombs....) and there's no profit for even terrorists in building nukes. Years of mass surveillance and torture itself revealed exactly zero nuclear plots even brewing in terrorist groups. Because it's expensive, difficult, insanely dangerous, and unprofitable.

Dr. Lyman deserves all respect, but after a lifetime of this fear, with no evidence to support it, I just don't have it any more.

I'd tend to agree that nuclear proliferation, at least to specifically non-state actors, is a low-probability risk. Mind you, it's such a high magnitude risk that even low probabilities need some attention. At the state level things are a bit different--we have proliferation to dangerous countries such as Israel and North Korea, not to mention India and Pakistan with their none-too-stable cold war. But most states don't really need to steal fissile material to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea managed and they're not exactly a technological powerhouse. If Iran, for instance, really was developing nuclear weapons they would have them by now--they clearly have the technical capacity. So yeah, not a big issue.

But I would say that "can't be economically deployed in great numbers before 2050" is a VERY substantial critique, especially in the context of climate change. The government is touting reactors as a solution to climate change. I live in Vancouver. By the time reactors could be deployed as a solution to climate change, the Stanley Park seawall would be long gone. So would the salmon. And who knows what would have happened to the rain forest overall--I don't think Douglas Firs would grow too well in a California climate. Every hundred million dollars the government spends on a solution to arrive in 2050 that they could have spent on solar panels or transit is a bad hundred million dollars.

The waste and the expense are also pretty significant critiques. I think nuclear waste is a fairly big problem, it's been getting swept under the rug and kicked another couple of years down the road over and over for decades, and inviting bigger and worse versions of it is stupid if there isn't a really big payoff. But the payoff is negative. What's the point of having the government lay out a ton of money to try to research a solution that will be too late to do any good, when it arrives will be by far the most expensive form of energy available, and comes with radioactive waste and risk of meltdowns attached? Where exactly is the upside here? Everything nuclear does, other things do better and cheaper.

Thanks for this Rufus .. all important points .. Concerning "The waste and the expense are also pretty significant critiques." .. It is VERY significant in that in their 2020 Annual Report, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization which is owned & controlled by the nuclear energy producers (NWMO - https://www.nwmo.ca/~/media/Site/Reports/2021/03/15/20/13/2020-NWMO-Annu...) states their approved annual budget is now increasing to $176 MILLION from $136M in 2019. The estimated cost for their proposed Deep Geological Repository (DGR) is estimated at $23 BILLION in 2015 dollars. Natural Resources Canada's minister Seamus O'Regan shows his biased towards the nuclear industry by tasking NWMO to develop Canada's Radioactive Waste Strategy. So now Canadians get the industry's preferred option creating yet another environmentally contaminated region of Canada, out-of-sight, out-of-mind of both the nuclear energy producers and the people who benefit from the dirtiest, most dangerous, most expensive energy ever created.

Hello Doug,
You raise interesting points, producing medical isotopes, contributing to weapons production and reprocessing fuel from other reactor technologies. The isotope production (cobalt-60 and technetium-99) seems to be a side effect of producing all the other waste. Could those isotopes not be produced by a particle accelerator? See for example https://www.triumf.ca/isotope-production . It seems to me that if the intent is to make isotopes, the side effects should be minimized. As for weapons production, I can't wait for "business opportunities" like the one with India that led to a bomb test in 1974 made from plutonium "harvested" from a Canadian designed and built reactor (similar to NRX at Chalk River). Finally reprocessing seems to be a bit of a bait-n-switch tactic. It's touted as reducing the amount of waste, but the real intent seems to be lowering the cost of production by increasing the burn-up of fissionable material. The radioactive and poisonous wastes are simply transmuted into other wastes. At least with the original, it's the devil we know.
Kind regards

Thanks Louis .. very thoughtful comment .. One additional point I often see Canada's nuclear energy industry attempt to claim is their efforts and their existence alone that contributes to the medical applications such as various isotopes. These are two very different applications of nuclear research. Medical isotopes can still continue to be developed without the continued public funding for nuclear energy. If nuclear energy is so important then any and all proposed SMNR developments should be funded by the private sector. Because these pop-up, foreign nuclear start-ups are all rushing to access government funding, I suspect the biggest scam in Canadian history is being undertaken by this very expensive marketing effort by the nuclear industry. The only "what-ifs" and "potential" exists in the world of the powerpoint presentations being marketed by these proposed SMNRs, if they ever actually can safely be created and operated anywhere.

Where in the article is there any claim to the false statement in your comment "contribute to weapons production"? It is this type of false information that ignores the realities of nuclear weapons proliferation, which is what is actually written about in this well-researched article. There is actual references in the article justifying why weapons proliferation is a major problem for any further unnecessary nuclear energy developments in Canada.

We are being sold a bill of goods on nuclear.

"Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has made bullish speeches endorsing its use."
E.g., "We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear."
Fatuous statement. The Trudeau Liberals have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 even with nuclear, because they continue to push fossil fuels: new export pipelines enabling oilsands expansion and new LNG projects. Hopelessly disingenuous.
Alberta's push for nuclear seems to be motivated by the drive to reduce emissions in the oilsands. I.e., the oil industry sees SMRs as a possible lifeline. SMRs extending the life of fossil fuels would boost overall emissions, not reduce them.
*
Renewables (solar and wind) are ready to go. At much lower cost. Why opt for more expensive technologies still on the drawing board?
The IEA's 2020 ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide rates SMRs as just "Moderate" (lowest rating) in terms of Importance for net-zero emissions. Wind and solar rate High in Importance for Net-Zero Emissions and much higher in Technology Readiness Level.
*
Benjamin Sovacool, director of the energy group, U of Sussex: Renewables 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."
"Can small nuclear reactors help Canada reach its net-zero 2050 goals? Some experts are skeptical" (CBC)
https://www.cbc.ca/radio/whatonearth/can-small-nuclear-reactors-help-can...
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M. V. Ramana, "Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check" (2021)
https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9374057

Important and critical points Geoffrey Pounder .. thanks for adding to this important discussion ..

Is this a regular Tuesday, or the Tuesday in the 'Groundhog Day' movie? There's just a lot of overlap with an article by the same author, quoting the same source, from just 13 days ago.

I see my grumpy complaints in the comments 12 days ago did not stimulate an interview with a nuclear scientist..or even somebody with a bachelor's degree in the subject.

Pro-nuke material from the industry lobbyist is replaced with pro-nuke enthusing from the government, and then we turn to the anti-nuclear activists for the "other side". I would have liked to see academia consulted, a Canadian nuclear engineer or three, about the specific government proposals, rather than a link to one general article.

I'm afraid I got irritated by a fellow commentator who replied that nuclear engineers are compromised by their industry ties, their participation in research projects with industry funding. I had to retort that this is the exact argument system used by anti-vaxxers: they disregard all science from immunologists and infectious-disease experts, because they're 'compromised by Big Pharma', via the same accusation of participation in industry-funded research. So they get to impeach and ignore any scientist they disagree with.

You can rev up a friendly National-Observer audience with this material, but if you want the article noticed by everybody else, you'll bring in a wider crop of interviewees.

Seems that your definition of a "nuclear scientist" highlights the level of corporate-control the nuclear industry has over its "science" and its "research" since it has been privatized by the Harper and Trudeau governments. The industry's attempts to control the narratives with their very expensive marketing and sales people (which seems to be a key objective in your comment) makes it very difficult to believe anything that comes from one of the most corrupt industries I have ever seen being supported by our status quo, neo-liberal governments. Claiming someone is a nuclear scientist just because they work for the nuclear industry is like claiming Canada's nuclear safety regulator (CNSC) is neutral because it is led by a former OPG nuclear executive. Or that NWMO is actually capable and accountable to anyone but their nuclear industry owners. What a joke the nuclear industry has become in Canada! It is about greed and protecting the status quo.

I was referring to nuclear scientists in academia, of course; they work for universities, not "industry".

That suggestion was met with the complaint that they work on researchprojects partly-funded by industry. Hence my analogy to immunologists being impeached by anti-vaxxers on the same grounds.

I don't know if you deliberately misunderstood what I thought to be a very clear statement, or not.

So nobody should talk about the same major political issue twice?

I may be the fellow commenter you referred to. But most research into vaccines is still undertaken by the public sector--most of what Big Pharma does is clinical trials. And certainly back in the day, all the foundational research was done by crusading scientists working in the public interest. Consider Jonas Salk, who wouldn't patent the polio vaccine, in much the way Banting didn't patent insulin.
If all the vaccine research was being done by Big Pharma, I would indeed want a second opinion because they would indeed be compromised (and Big Pharma really are a bunch of venal, greedy, corrupt jerks; cf. opioid crisis).

Also, there is no real discussion about whether the task of protecting people from viruses should be done by vaccines or something else. In terms of some kind of medicinal thing you give to people, vaccines are the only game in town. If there were controversy over whether we should use vaccines or, alternatively, "waccines", to immunize people, I wouldn't listen too hard to people working for waccine makers who said waccines were the way to go--especially if I was aware of the very strong case that waccines sucked compared to vaccines.

So yeah. Nuclear power is expensive and dangerous and comes with many drawbacks and is generally a bad technology whose continued use works against the public good. Other alternatives are much better. Anyone who nonetheless goes to work for a nuclear power company and takes money to design nuclear power plants, has to first convince themselves that it is an OK thing to do and mentally discipline themselves to ignore all the reasons it isn't. I'm not going to listen to someone who designs cigarette filters when the tobacco company trots them out to claim cigarettes don't cause cancer.

"Cui Bono?" (who gains?) is not just A, but probably THE, most important question to ask when it comes to news and policy. Your objection to my comments basically boils down to saying we should close our eyes to that question; it is an irresponsible position.

Thank you for this important critical look at one of the most corrupt industries Canada has ever been part of creating and sustaining. The history of nuclear developments in Canada tells an important story of nuclear weapons and how this industry has sustained itself over the years with seemingly limitless public funding. Before being privatized by the Harper government in 2015 with their CoCo contract with American corporations and SNC Lavalin (https://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_201711_07_e_42672.html), Canada had some semblance of responsibility and accountability for its part in the dirtiest, most dangerous, most expensive nuclear business. Today Canada is simply paying BILLIONS to these corporations to clean up the messes left behind by the nuclear industry while our safety regulatory, led by former nuclear industry executives, rubber stamps and weakens safety requirements and levels (see Port Hope - https://www.phai.ca/en/home/phai/media-releases/default.aspx as one example for these types of undertakings). Canadians have every right to be very concerned when the nuclear industry and their organizations use their very expensive marketing people and associations to promote and claim they know what is best for us. It is this type of critical reporting and the voices of people who challenge the corporate-controlled narratives that made me a National Observer supporter!!

And then there's the question of what to do with a small modular reactor after a couple of decades - when the fission products have built up in the fuel - and the irradiated metal, concrete and graphite components have turned into radioactive waste "activation products" - and the reactor has to be shut down. Canada's nuclear regulator says abandoning it in place - converting the SMR into a "waste facility" - is the way to go. One of the other commenters asked why nuclear engineers weren't interviewed for this story. Well, here (https://www.nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/pdfs/REGDOC-comments-received/REGDOC...) is what one nuclear engineer told the CNSC about on-site reactor abandonment. Did the CNSC listen? No.

One of my simple heuristics for evaluating what I read goes like this: if an engineering argument has no numbers, it's bullshit.

There are endless opportunities to put numbers on the toxicity, hazards, and safety record of the Canadian nuclear industry. Not a single one appears in this article. It's bullshit, plain and simple.

One of my simple heuristics for evaluating what I read goes like this: if an engineering argument has no numbers, it's bullshit.

There are endless opportunities to put numbers on the toxicity, hazards, and safety record of the Canadian nuclear industry. Not a single one appears in this article. It's bullshit, plain and simple.

Typical effort by another ignorant "engineer" or some nuclear wantabe who ignores there is much more to any story than numbers. Numbers are so easily being manipulated and produced by very expensive and well resourced private sector nuclear industry proponents. The numbers challenging these fantasy efforts are in this story references for anyone who wants to actually click on them but that might be too difficult for someone with this simplistic "heuristics" mindset. The only BS I am reading is in this type of response to an important contribution by Charles Mandell and the National Observer.

Someone here calls nuclear energy "the dirtiest, most dangerous, most expensive energy ever created." Cost aside, fossil fuel energy, with its dirty and deadly pollution, kills millions of people every year ("almost one-fifth of global deaths"). And that death toll is just from the air pollution caused by fossil fuel burning and doesn't include deaths from the extreme weather events and other impacts of climate disruption caused by fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. I can't imagine that nuclear energy is killing even a minuscule fraction.

There's another issue that I haven't seen raised here: energy density. In a globalized economy that shows no signs of de-industrializing, nuclear is (zero-carbon once built) energy-dense power that can keep the "wheels of industry" turning, for instance, in building out the needed renewable energy infrastructure. Otherwise, we'll keep using energy-dense fossil fuels to power the transition to renewables.

I don't know if I'm for or against, but wanted to add these thoughts into the mix discussed here.

I made that comment about nuclear energy being the dirtiest, most dangerous and most expensive energy created. I base this on the facts that nuclear energy requires a fuel supply chain that is VERY CARBON intensive creating a legacy of radioactive materials along the way from the mining, milling, processing, facilitating fuel bundles, to the actual operation and maintenance of the reactors to the deadly high-level radioactive waste materials produced by the reactors. There are so many environmental sacrifice zones created across Canada created to provide the fuel for this industry. One current example to explore, if you are interested in understanding these facts is what is happening in Port Hope - https://www.phai.ca/en/home/phai/default.aspx ..

The Ad Standards group ruled in 2010, in response to a complaint, that nuclear could not be advertised as non-emitting due to the radioactive materials that are emitted into our air, water and soil. And yet, the industry and government marketing agents for this industry continue to mislead and misinform the public so they can subsidize this unsustain energy production. The BILLIONS of dollars being wasted on this industry to subsidize corporations like SNC Lavalin speaks volumes about the level of corruption embedded within any nuclear energy effort.

The fly-by-night corporate start-ups that are now racing to Canada for the government hand-outs is creating an environment for risky experiments in these proposed nuclear reactors. There have been many failed experiments with similar reactors in the past that are seldom talked about or shared. Now Canada and the Trudeau government is taking the position that we can be their testing ground for their theories and experiments at a huge financial cost.

Anyone "sitting on the fence" about nuclear energy are ignoring and avoiding doing any simple research and reading about this industry. For those who support it, they are simply happy with the status quo of protecting the fossil fuel and their nuclear industry subsidies and the wealth they create for a few folks.