In early December, 2022, the Ford government broke ground for the construction of the GE-Hitachi, Small Modular Reactor (SMR) at the Darlington nuclear site. The time between shovels in the ground and the production of energy is expected to be about 6 years. But only if everything goes according to plan and if the projected costs are even within the margin of probability. Neither of which is likely.

In its press release, the government gushed its enthusiasm for a technology that should be approached with a good deal of caution: “This work marks another milestone in the province’s plan to build the reliable, affordable and clean electricity grid needed to enable electrification and attract more investment in the province’s economy.”

It is amazing how rapidly and completely the renascent nuclear industry has managed to capture the energy policy of Canadian governments. In the process, the industry has also grabbed the keys to the public treasury. SMR’s are a risk and a gamble but one wouldn’t know that from the chorus of exuberant cheerleaders in government.

SMRs are reactors that are significantly smaller than conventional nuclear reactors. A SMR is small scale, and modular which means it can be built in a factory and assembled at site. Theoretically, they can be used in a wide range of applications, from grid-scale electricity generation to replacing diesel generators in heavy industry, mines and remote communities. The Darlington project is grid scale and is expected to deliver 300 MW of electricity, which according to the government, is enough to power 300,000 homes. (That is the top end of the energy output of a SMR)

Government as Cheerleaders

Back in 2018 the federal government sponsored a SMR strategy paper. It concluded with what was required to launch a new nuclear power offensive. The strategy came down to three major ingredients: Open the public purse to the nuclear industry, relax the rules that might impede the private sector and kick the issue of mounting nuclear waste down the road.

The Roadmap report acknowledged the high costs associated with SMRs but concluded that the problem could be overcome with significant taxpayer support:

“Federal and provincial governments have a role to play in sharing the risk and reducing the cost of capital. Without government support, the private sector may not make the necessary investments to set the stage for an SMR industry in Canada.”

As noted in the Roadmap Report, the industry wants a package of public financial supports which include “cost sharing” at the development stage, “loan guarantees” at the construction stage, and “power purchase agreements”, “tax incentives” and “long term agreements” at the operating stage.

The report further notes the importance of ensuring, “the viability of SMR …is not overwhelmed by disproportionate legislative or regulatory requirements.”

On the issue of nuclear waste, the Roadmap report admits that “the ultimate solution is long- term disposal in a safe repository.” A solution that still does not exist.

Ontario quick to back SMRs

Ontario was quick to follow the federal lead. It has released its own nuclear game plan in partnership with New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and now Alberta as well. The game plan is the same as that of the federal government. Relax regulations, provide taxpayer monies (preferably federal), and ignore the issue of nuclear waste.

 As the provincial strategy notes:

“Further, regulatory changes and clarity will be required to ensure reasonable costs and timelines for approvals for investors and operators.” And this;

“Federal and provincial governments have a key role to play in sharing the financial risk in order to lay the foundation for SMR development in Canada and the world.”

The Memorandum of Understanding between the four provinces plans a series of SMR’s in Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan at what will obviously be a huge, but undisclosed public expense.  Darlington is the first of these and it has already secured a $1 billion low-cost loan from the federal government.

In the press release announcing what amounts to ‘the start of the start’ of construction the Ford government claimed that Ontario is on the leading edge of the nuclear resurgence. “Ontario is clearly leading the world when it comes to new nuclear technologies,” boasted Todd Smith, Minister of Energy. This is a classic Ford government exaggeration.

Hard lessons along the SMR learning curve

In fact, while the Ford government is breaking ground in Darlington the states of Utah and Oregon in the US are much further along the learning curve of small modular reactors.  While there still isn’t a functioning SMR, while construction is still pending, the lessons are already sobering, even alarming.

In Oregon for example, there is a history of cost increases even before construction has started. In the five years from  2015 to 2020 the estimated construction cost of the project more than doubled from around $3 billion to $6.1 billion. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) described the project as, “too late, too expensive, too risky and too uncertain.” When the project was first conceived the plan was to have the SMR producing power by 2016. Now it’s estimated that the project’s first module, won’t be online until 2029.

In Utah, the news of cost increases is causing alarm. The small modular nuclear reactor project, the same technology as the Oregon project, recently reported a cost increase from US $58 to $90 or $100 per megawatt-hour for the electricity it’s meant to produce. Municipal utilities which have contracted with the project are quite alarmed and are considering opting out.  One municipal utility official called the price increase a “big red flag in our face.”

Huge cost overruns, construction setbacks, and electricity that is too expensive to use. Add to that list the issue of nuclear waste. While proponents argue that SMRs produce smaller amounts of nuclear waste there is mounting evidence to the contrary. A recent study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), assessed the probable waste streams of three SMR designs, (one of which is similar to the Darlington project). The authors conclude “that SMRs will produce more voluminous and chemically/physically reactive waste” than conventional nuclear reactors. They also argue that SMR nuclear waste streams are going to be harder to manage than those produced by the current generation of nuclear plants.

The wrong energy pathway

The Ford government, aided and abetted by the federal government, is committed to the wrong energy pathway. The cost of renewable energy such as wind and solar is already low and set to decline even more. Renewable energy is much cheaper and much safer than energy produced by SMRs. In fact, SMRs will be more expensive than conventional nuclear on an energy unit basis and will be one of the most expensive ways to heat water to produce the steam to turn a turbine.

But that doesn’t matter to the Ford government. Instead, according to its nuclear strategy, the government intends to “build trust and dialogue with the public related to SMRs.” In a world faced with climate breakdown Ford’s bad energy choices are criminal. Decisive action on renewable power, conservation and a massive program of building retrofits would be a far better option.

David Robertson is a member of the Education Committee as well as the Ontario Project Group and the Campaign and Platform Committee of SCAN!.

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