By: Nicholas Johnstone
In the summer of 2020, the province of Alberta joined with Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick in a commitment to research and eventually develop small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). These provinces did this amidst heightening social pressure to combat climate change and in light of the growing need to find energy solutions that meet Canada’s commitments to the Paris Agreement that are cost-effective. SMRs are increasingly being viewed as a potentially useful technology in Canada, with many hoping that they can help the provinces more easily transition away from fossil fuel production.
As their name suggests, SMRs are nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than traditional reactors, producing a maximum of 300 megawatts (MW) of energy; enough to power about 250,000 homes at once. Their small size and portability makes them advantageous for small or remote communities that have less energy demand than large urban centres. Like traditional reactors, SMRs produce no carbon emissions of their own at any stage of operation, thus offering a potential way for Canada to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. They are starting to gain popularity in various jurisdictions; in 2020, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an industry’s request to build one. In Canada, around ten vendors have submitted their various SMR design plans to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and one (Ultra Safe Nuclear corporation) has now initiated formal licence review. To some, they represent the technology of the future: efficient, productive, and emission-free.
However, there are others who disagree. Although they do not add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, SMRs and nuclear energy in general have received criticism from some environmentalists regarding the storage of toxic waste. In 2020, several Canadian chapters of well-known environmentalist organizations (including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club) signed an open letter denouncing SMR technology, and criticized the federal government for funding their development. The storage of toxic radioactive waste is indeed a legitimate concern, as is the fact that the federal government lacks a sufficiently coordinated policy on its disposal. It is a point of urgency that any further steps taken by the government to develop SMR technology are accompanied by improvements to the policy framework on environmental protection. If better policies and cleaner waste facilities can be successfully developed, then SMRs could prove to be a near-perfect technology.
It is also worth remembering that Canada already has an impressive history of nuclear energy development. As of now, about 15% of Canada’s domestic energy usage comes from nuclear power. By comparison, natural gas and coal together account for about 17% of usage. Canada is the second-largest global producer of uranium, with 8% of the world’s known uranium resources. 75% of our extraction is exported abroad. This suggests that there is far more room for nuclear energy expansion in this country. To compare to another wealthy country, France currently gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, and about 17% is from recycled nuclear fuel. One reason for this difference in usage is that, unlike Canada, France has decided that energy sources such as natural gas have no economic advantage over nuclear power. The success of nuclear power in France combined with the fact that we have large resource reserves here suggests that Canada could afford to use a lot more uranium for domestic consumption.
Many countries regard Canada as a global leader in nuclear power, especially those that have imported the uniquely-designed Canada Deuterium Uranium reactor (CANDU), such as India, China, and Argentina. Thanks to CANDU technology, 75% of the world’s cobalt-60 now comes from our reactors. Canada has become a force to be reckoned with in the production of isotopes (like cobalt-60) which, among other things, are used to sterilize 45% of the world’s single-use medical supplies. The CANDU technology was successfully created largely due to the fact that there has been sustained federal funding for research and development which has been virtually uninterrupted for the past fifty years.
With the right amount of political will and government funding, Canada became a nuclear leader on the global stage over the past few generations. Despite this, there is a difficult path ahead to getting SMRs implemented. It will require much more focus on the legitimate problems with toxic waste, and better communication to the public about the level of risk associated with SMR adoption.
SMR technology is a very promising means of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, if we are serious about getting there. From policymakers to private industry to political leaders, this project will require our hard work and can-do attitude.
Nicholas Johnstone is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. His areas of interest include energy policy specifically, Canadian politics generally, and international relations.