Feds’ Small Modular Reactor Action Plan is a dangerous distraction from climate change mitigation

Attractive rhetoric around SMRs does not equate to viability upon close examination

Nuclear power plant.

On December 18, the Government of Canada launched its Small Modular Reactor Action Plan, ramping up its support for a new generation of nuclear reactors that will be smaller than the existing fleet, and designed for assembly-line production. 

“Canada can be a world leader in this promising, innovative, zero-emissions energy technology, and this is our plan to position ourselves in an emerging global market,” Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said in a statement.

The governments of New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, together with the federal government, advocate that small modular reactors (SMRs) are essential if Canada is to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050. According to the feds’ 2018 Call to Action report on the mini nuclear reactors, “SMRs are a reliable, clean, non-emitting source of energy, with costs that are predictable and competitive with other alternatives.” 

The first problem with these claims is that SMRs don’t yet exist and aren’t expected to exist for a decade, making these claims dubious. It’s not the only questionable claim made by proponents.

Are SMRs a clean, zero-emission source of power? 

Nuclear reactors emit much lower concentrations of carbon than fossil fuels, so one could claim they are zero-emission. But they have their own, uniquely harmful, emissions. From thousands of tonnes of spent fuel to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of mine tailings, nuclear power leaves a radioactive trail that is an immediate threat to waterways and water tables and is lethal for hundreds of thousands of years. SMRs will only add to that.

In 2010, Ad Standards Canada ruled that an ad claiming CANDU reactors were emission-free was “inaccurate and unsupported.” The Power Workers’ Union was expected to remove all ads containing the “emission-free” statement and to qualify any future claims. 

In response to concerns raised about SMR waste, Minister O’Regan said the federal government is working to ensure that Canada has “a clear plan in place for the safe, long-term management of all of our nuclear waste, including any future waste from SMRs. At the same time, we’ll continue to look at new and innovative technologies that can reduce or eliminate waste.”

After 70 years, the nuclear industry still hasn’t found a way to keep habitable environments safe from spent fuel for anything close to the time frames required for it to be harmless. There have been many plans in the past and there are current plans but all have one thing in common: they are unfit for purpose.

Some SMR technologies promise to use CANDU spent fuel in the SMR, claiming this will reduce both the radioactivity and quantity of the spent fuel. This claim is theoretical, based on proprietary data, and a report published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said doing so would be “playing with fire,” noting that the process, called pyroprocessing, will exacerbate the spent fuel storage and disposal challenges, not mitigate them. 

Will SMRs be safe?

Canadians have been lulled into a sense of security about nuclear reactors, and for good reason: the Canadian CANDU reactor design is hands-down the safest in the world. However, fissionable material in a self-sustaining chain reaction is never entirely safe. Though a nuclear reactor has layers of controls, the control must be continuous and flawless. Accidents happen – equipment failure and human error have been the causes of all nuclear accidents. And, as Fukushima demonstrated, natural disasters can precipitate both.

Unlike CANDU reactors that use natural uranium as fuel, SMRs will require fuel that has been “enriched,” increasing the concentration of plutonium. Since plutonium is the “active ingredient” in nuclear weapons, the potential for nuclear proliferation increases, and SMR fuel production and transportation will require increased security. Concerns over safety are not limited to the actual fuel and its reactions. Many of the SMR designs being considered in Canada have a much higher operating temperature than existing reactors, and some have a much more corrosive environment. The materials required to house the reaction, the reactor itself, do not exist yet and their development is in its infancy

Will SMRs be a cost-effective source of power?

Projects for constructing and refurbishing nuclear power stations have a solid track record for coming in years behind schedule and billions over budget. It appears that SMRs are following the same trajectory: NuScale Power, an SMR development firm based in Portland, Oregon, may be the closest to having a functioning, approved SMR. To date, the U.S. government has invested $1.6 billion. In 2015, the estimated total development cost was $3 billion; today it is $6.1 billion. In 2008, NuScale predicted that its SMR would be online in 2016; today, it predicts that it will be 2029.

Nonetheless, SMR proponents have suggested that the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for SMRs will be on par with renewables. However, there is a plethora of independent, peer-reviewed papers that indicate much higher costs, including a recent Canadian report that concludes the LCOE of an SMR could be 10 times the cost of wind, solar or diesel. With the costs of renewable energy quickly plummeting, and given the rapid evolution of renewable generation and storage technologies, it’s unlikely SMRs will be competitive. 

A range of power-generation and storage technologies that are clean, emissions-free, safe and low cost, is imminent. Within 10 years, these technologies will be widespread, fully incorporated into all levels of society, and deployed to all regions – all before the first SMR comes online. In all likelihood, by the time an SMR comes to market, there will be a more economical and environmentally responsible alternative in place.

While the rhetoric is persuasive, the case for SMRs doesn’t stand up to objective scrutiny. Allocating climate-change funds to them is a travesty. 

 

Rick Cheeseman is author of SMR Facts & Fictions / PRM Faits et Fictions. He has degrees in Physics and Education and has worked in the nuclear industry.

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