by Jim Harding
Premier Moe has announced he will work with Ontario and New Brunswick to bring small nuclear reactors into their energy mix. They claim this is “to mitigate the effects of climate change”. This is not only wishful thinking but very flawed and hypocritical. The premiers fiddle away, while the UN conference in Madrid confronts a planet already starting to burn.
There is no demand or market for these “small” reactors; it is the industry and those who directly benefit that are promoting them. To become a viable industry these “modular” reactors would have to be mass produced and then transported elsewhere. Otherwise they would be uncompetative. And there would have to be some agreement on design, whereas at present, there are over 100 designs circulating.
Meanwhile the role of nuclear power is shrinking globally and there is no secure capital for such a high-risk industry. So, once again, the industry is trying to get government financial and ideological backing. Unfortunately, there will always be naïve politicians who want to appear forward thinking, and opportunistic academics who will gladly take from the public purse.
These small reactors will never be cost-effective. They would be far less cost-effective than larger reactors that have the advantage of economies of scale, but face long-licensing periods, have continually overshot construction timelines and had massive cost overruns.
Proponents will cloud these problems by exploiting the climate emergency with more greenwashing. The fatal flaw of nuclear reactors, whether large or small, is, however, that they couldn’t contribute to carbon reduction for decades, and we must reduce emissions before 2030. Meanwhile there are much cheaper and faster ways to produce electricity that can quickly reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) by replacing coal plants and electrifying transportation. The mainstream International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that offshore wind turbines could produce eleven times the electricity that the world presently uses globally each year. Yes 11 times!
Wind and solar energy are both growing globally. Meanwhile, while promoting these “small” reactors, Ontario’s Ford Government has scrapped all investments in renewables, while putting billions into refurbish old reactors. And the Sask Party is deliberately undermining the solar industry. It should be supporting the growing number of small solar businesses, as one way to lower carbon and create green jobs. Instead, it recently undercut the Net-Metering Program.
SaskPower should also be creating Feed-In Tariffs. With advances in battery and other renewable storage it should be promoting Microgrids, which would reduce transmission costs and create a more reliable, resilient, decentralized electrical system. This will be needed as we face more extreme weather. And, the fastest and cheapest way to reduce GHGs remains investments in energy efficiency.
We shouldn’t be surprised, though, since the Sask Party has a terrible track record on climate. It invested nearly two billion dollars in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to try to save coal plants. It never met its targets and the carbon is used to extract more oil, which in turn just adds more carbon to the atmosphere. If the government had directly invested this money in renewables it could have shut down a polluting coal plant. Investing in small nuclear reactors would just be another financial boondoggle that postpones serious climate action.
Small reactors are another distraction from Saskatchewan having the highest levels of GHGs on the planet (nearly 70 metric tonnes per capita). While the rest of Canada has been lowering emissions, those here, along with Alberta, with its high-carbon tar sands, have continued to rise. Saskatchewan and Alberta’s emissions are now almost equal to all the rest of Canada. Shame on us!
Meanwhile, the Sask Party vehemently opposes carbon pricing, one way to lower carbon. The Sask Party has done little concretely to show it truly cares about the climate emergency and promoting these small nuclear reactors is just another ill-informed diversion. Premier Moe is squandering precious time, when we must act now to prevent irreversible climate change from undermining our grandchildren’s future.
Other motives are probably at play. These small reactors can be a back-door for bringing nuclear wastes to Saskatchewan. They will not require more uranium mining, which is already in economic trouble here, since Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. They would initially use enriched uranium which presents its own proliferation risks, and could end up using unused uranium in spent fuel and/or reprocessed spent fuel from existing reactors, such as the CANDU reactors in Ontario and New Brunswick. The nuclear industry clearly has a “radioactive waste problem”, which it doesn’t know how to solve, and so it would love to have the government offer us up as guinea pigs. Other Canadians may rightly be asking what is going on here that we are seemingly so gullible.
Finally, these reactors are not really small. This is just another marketing strategy (“small is beautiful”) to try to make nuclear power more palatable. It is most notable that they are referred to as SMR’s or Small Modular Reactors, with the “nuclear” taken out. These proposed “small” reactors would likely be around 300 Megawatts, not much below those that Grant Devine and Brad Wall promoted. And the smaller they get the more cost-ineffective they would become.
Premier Moe has no mandate to risk public money on this high-risk industry, when there are cheaper, and faster ways to reduce our extremely high carbon. After his election in 2007, Sask Party Premier Wall launched his pro-industry Uranium Development Partnership, to try to steamroll us to build nuclear power plants and take nuclear wastes from abroad. Public consultations showed deep and broad opposition. So why is Premier Moe such a nuclear promoter? No means “no”, Moe!
This will become a major issue in the 2020 provincial election. Concerned citizens should raise this matter with their MLAs, with the NDP Opposition and in their networks. We don’t want Saskatchewan to become a sucker province regarding this sham. Nor should the Sask Party government be left off the hook for its atrocious record of growing emissions and ignoring the climate emergency. Saskatchewan people will have to stand up once again and protect our province from the nuclear charlatans.
Dr. Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies and a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (QVEA.CA).
Contact at: 306-332-4492 or