Alberta joins Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick in nuclear reactor partnership

Study highlights new technology amid growing interest and debate on small nuclear reactors

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe sign an MOU on regulations for oil well service rigs in 2019. (Photo courtesy Government of Alberta)

Alberta premier Jason Kenney added his name to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) previously signed between the premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick to develop small modular reactor (SMR) technology. 

The provinces are working to advance SMRs as “a clean energy option to address climate change and regional energy demands, while supporting economic growth and innovation.”

“Alberta has always been committed to clean, affordable energy,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said.  

“SMRs are an exciting step forward in ensuing that Albertans and Canadians across our country continue to have reliable access to the energy we need to power our homes and our economy.  SMRs also allow our province to continue to create new jobs through diversifying our economy by utilizing new and cutting edge technologies.”

The premiers released a study by power utilities in Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick saying the development of SMRs would “support domestic energy needs, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and position Canada as a global leader in this emerging technology.”  

“Today’s announcement confirms the commitment of our provinces to advancing SMRs as a clean energy option, leveraging the strength and knowledge of each of our jurisdictions,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said.

“This study confirms the feasibility of small modular reactors in Canada and outlines a path forward to deploy this new clean, safe, reliable and competitively priced power.  This new technology will help attract investment, create high-skilled jobs and contribute to our growing economy.”

SMRs are nuclear reactors that produce 300 megawatts of electricity or less and can operate connected to the grid or independently. The reactors could help smaller and remote off-grid communities as an alternative energy source to lower the cost of operating solely on diesel fuel. 

An SMR grounded to a small grid could power facilities such as hospitals, data centers and military bases. Mobile ones could power resource projects like mining and oil sands operations. 

The industry study finds that SMR development would “create employment and economic growth benefits for Canada” with further “opportunities to export technology and expertise to address global issues such as climate change and energy reliability.” 

Brooke Dobni, professor of strategy at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business said that any development of small reactors would take a long time.

“It could be a good thing, but on the other hand, it might have some pitfalls. Those talks take years,” Dobni said.

He said nuclear reactors face bigger challenges because of public concerns about the environment and that the high cost of building infrastructure and then containing nuclear fallout and radiation are all concerns before they can go ahead.

“That technology is a long ways away and a lot of it’s going to depend on public opinion.

The court for that is the court of public opinion, whether or not people want that in their own backyard, and that’s the whole issue anywhere in the world.”

As Dobni predicted, not everyone is onboard with SMRs. Saskatchewan Green Party Leader Naomi Hunter wants the province to “immediately backtrack and start fair consultations with the public.”  

“We have immediate, cheaper and much less dangerous solutions to the climate crisis that can be put to work immediately,” Hunter said.

“Small Modular Reactors are a theoretical product that don’t yet exist. Nuclear will take at least seven to ten years to set up. The actions we need to take are today.”

Hunter called for “immediate massive expansion of conservation, energy-efficient retrofits, wind and solar and geothermal,” she said abandoned oil and gas wells also need to be “cleaned up and capped for renegade methane.”

Some in northern Saskatchewan worry that waste from the small reactors could contaminate groundwater or that an accident involving an SMR could have devastating consequences for a region where waterways are interconnected. 

Committee for Future Generations outreach co-ordinator Candyce Paul of La Plonge at the English River First Nation said they haven’t been consulted on any aspects of the plan, but all signs point to the north as a site for the reactors. Paul said the intent behind installing SMRs is to prop up Saskatchewan’s uranium industry and develop oil sands in the northwest.

Paul’s group fights nuclear waste storage in Saskatchewan and was instrumental in stopping a proposal that considered Beauval, Pinehouse and Creighton as storage locations in 2011.

She said she sees small modular nuclear reactors as another threat to the environment and to human safety in the region. 

Even with SMRs under 300 megawatts, nuclear waste is a byproduct, and waste generated from SMRs could become a dangerous part of the transportation system “even if they do remove it,” Paul said.

“Even if they’re not burying nuclear waste here, they could be leaving it on site or hauling it through our northern regions and across our waterways.

“It will be big, big transports of highly radioactive stuff, driving down the roads as an easy dirty bomb. You’d be driving down the road (behind a nuclear waste transport vehicle) and not know you’re following it.”

Paul said that communities around Canada, and especially in the Far North, have long been pitched as sites for SMR development and have refused.

A 2018 brief from Pangnirtung Hamlet Council in Nunavut concluded “any Arctic-based nuclear power source should be an alternative energy choice of last resort.”

“None of our people are going to get trained for operating these. It supports people from other places. It doesn’t really support us,” Paul said.

SMRs have been pitched in the north as a way to move away from reliance on diesel fuel, which can be costly. Paul said any benefits of that remain to be seen.

She said companies would need to do environmental impact assessments for smaller reactors even though the exclusion zone around SMR sites is smaller.

“Even if the exclusion zone is only a few kilometres, a few kilometres affects a lot in an ecosystem and especially in an ecosystem that is wild,” Paul said.

Another study published last year in Energy Policy found that the potential market for small modular reactors in mining and remote communities in Canada is too small to be worth the investment. 

The authors argue in Policy Options that electricity produced by SMRs is much more costly than diesel. The “demand for electricity at these proposed markets” they argue is “insufficient to justify investing in a factory to manufacture the SMRs.”

The study conducted by SaskPower, Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power and NB Power points to three streams of projects for Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan.

The first stream proposes a first grid-scale SMR project of 300 megawatts at the Darlington nuclear site in Ontario by 2028.  Subsequent units in Saskatchewan would follow, with the first SMR projected to be in service for 2032.

The second stream involves two fourth generation, advanced small modular reactors that would be developed in New Brunswick through the construction of demonstration units at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station.  An initial demonstration unit is planned for 2030. 

New Brunswick-based Moltex Energy Inc.’s waste recycling facility and reactor is preparing to be ready by the early 2030s.  These technologies could then start being deployed as early as 2030 in Saskatchewan, Alberta and globally. 

The third stream proposes a new class of micro-SMRs designed to replace the use of diesel in remote communities and mines.  A demonstration project is under way at Chalk River, Ontario, with plans to be in service by 2026.

The governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick are hoping to come up with a joint strategic plan for SMRs by this spring.

The provinces said they will continue to work together with the nuclear industry to help “ensure Canada remains at the forefront of nuclear innovation, while creating new opportunities for jobs, economic growth, innovation and a lower-carbon future.”