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Goal: $100k

Moltex Energy Canada Inc.— a startup company from the U.K., now based in New Brunswick — has sent the provincial government a ransom note. The company wants “more than $250 million in public funding” to develop its small modular nuclear reactor (SMR).

Speaking to the media, the company’s CEO warned “New Brunswick needs to decide if it’s in or out, because it’s a big commitment.” So far, Moltex has received $50.5 million from Ottawa, $10 million from New Brunswick, and $1 million from Ontario Power Generation.

We recommend rejecting the ransom demand for more.

Citing an old saying, economist John Maynard Keynes once observed: “Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.” So far, Moltex has received a little over $60 million and is acting as if the federal and provincial governments are already at its mercy. Another $250 million, and these governments will really be on their knees.

How does Moltex have the confidence to make this demand? Ultimately because these governments have drunk the Kool-Aid offered by a nuclear industry that has been moribund for decades but is still powerful enough to be invited to sing its own praises at House of Commons committee hearings.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, the last new nuclear reactor began producing electricity for the grid. None has been built in Canada since. Desperate to reverse its declining fortunes, the nuclear industry began touting a new generation of reactors it dubs SMRs, using the climate crisis as a cover.

This pitch caught the fancy of Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, whose governments signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019 to aggressively promote SMRs as a climate change solution. The following year, the Natural Resources Canada minister stated there is no path to net zero without nuclear power. Despite much evidence to the contrary, the federal government continues to argue that SMRs are needed for climate action. That mistaken belief in SMRs is what allows companies like Moltex to get public funding and demand more.

The $250 million will certainly not be the last demand. Consider NuScale, the SMR design furthest along in the U.S. regulatory process. In 2012, when NuScale estimated “it will cost (US)$500 million to obtain approval for its reactors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” the company had already invested US$100 million in technology development.

Desperate to reverse its declining fortunes, the nuclear industry began touting a new generation of reactors it dubs SMRs, using the climate crisis as a cover, write Susan O’Donnell & M. V. Ramana. #cdnpoli #SMRs #Nuclear

Fast-forward to a decade later: NuScale reports that the “cumulative capital invested to date” is US$1.4 billion, with a net loss (i.e., expenditure) of US$49.6 million just in the third quarter of 2022. And NuScale still has not obtained approval to build its first proposed SMR, projected to start operating in December 2029. Assuming all goes well, NuScale might spend more than $2.5 billion, five times the original estimate, before even starting construction.

NuScale is a pressurized light-water reactor design — the most widely deployed reactor design globally. In contrast, Moltex is proposing a reactor design cooled with molten salt. The last time anyone built one of these was at the Oakridge Laboratory in the United States — in the 1960s. That failed experiment provides evidence of how well such reactors might operate: long story short, we can expect lots of problems with molten salt reactors, while they operate and for decades thereafter as society grapples with the radioactive legacy of the nuclear waste they would produce.

A recent report by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that SMRs like the Moltex design will face significant challenges, even for deployment by 2050, and that building such reactors at a large commercial scale will continue to need substantial government and industry investments for decades after that.

The Moltex design has an additional problem: it requires another untested technology to produce the fuel needed for its SMR. Based on a February 2021 presentation to the U.S. National Academies committee, this new technology appears similar to the pyroprocessing process tried for two decades at the Idaho National Laboratory. That experience was meant to prove the viability of pyroprocessing; instead, the significant cost overruns and schedule delays demonstrated “the numerous shortcomings of this technology.”

All these potential problems make the path forward for Moltex long and hard — and very expensive. The NuScale experience suggests that developing an SMR design to the point of securing a licence to build it could cost up to 10 times what Moltex is asking for. Caving to Moltex’s demand now means falling deeper into a very deep money pit.

The graveyard of nuclear history is littered with reactor designs that were never constructed because they would not have worked. Throwing more money at Moltex will not guarantee success. Wouldn’t the best response be to stop now?

Susan O’Donnell, PhD, is an adjunct research professor in the environment and society program at St. Thomas University, a social scientist with expertise in technology adoption, and an activist and core member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick.

M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in disarmament, global and human security and a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin Books, 2012) and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream (Orient Longman, 2003).

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The same corporate scam is happening in Ontario where OPG is seeking permission to build an SMR at Darlington. They claim electricity rates -- despite millions in subsidies plus a $970 M low interest loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank -- for power from this reactor will jump to 16.3 cents/kwh, which is triple what renewables would cost. Once again, tax and ratepayers across the country will foot the bill, and will have to deal with the deadly waste for all eternity.

Once upon a time the federal government had scientists to help with "evidence-based decision making." Many were purged during the Harper era (I was one) and the rest were muzzled. So now the government is relatively free to practice "decision-based evidence-making". Make decisions first - adoption of an SMR roadmap and an SMR action plan - and rely on the nuclear industry to provide "evidence" for those decisions.

Existing and next generation nuclear power appears to be waning in focus mainly on historical high costs, technical problems during operations, the high radioactivity of the waste products and the multiple affordable renewable energy alternatives. Proponents have never adequately resolved these central issues over the decades.

I was originally open to SMRs based on the widely disseminated ideas that certain types can actually burn the waste accumulated and stored at existing facilities, and on the logic of lower cost through factory standardization. Today, they are being pummelled by factual if not entirely scientific analysis on these and other points.

It's time to quit this push for nuclear in mainstream power generation. I think perhaps a few very small nuclear facilities are needed worldwide to produce critical medical isotopes and for scientific research, but no further expenditures of public funds are justified on any form of nuclear power for widespread consumption, including the elusive fusion.

If climate heating was not an issue, I wouldn't exclude the recent in fusion and pure research, despite the significant but still too far away breakthroughs regarding fusion. But we now need an all out effort not just to try to turn around climate change in the full knowledge that our effort today will not be felt for at least a century, but to concurrently rebuild key elements of our physical and social infrastructure for adaptation. Society can take the damage of only so many heat waves, polar vortexes, increasingly frequent violent storms, floods and drought without collapsing from a lack of resilience.

The affordability of renewables is a very recent phenomenon largely brought to success with mass production in advanced industrial nations (e.g. Germany, China ...). The Industrial Revolution that gave us fossil fuels and climate heating is 300 years old. Let's-smash-capitalism and violently radical environmental narratives have nothing to offer the debate on nuclear power. Even they have to face the problem of what to do with the existing toxic waste. There are no acceptable alternatives to burying this stuff in deep, geologically stable repositories forever. Then we have to move on and build a better world.