SMRs not worth the cost for New Brunswick

Commentary published in the Telegraph Journal, Moncton Times & Transcript and Fredericton Daily Gleaner on January 20, 2022

SMRs not worth the cost for our province

by Kim Reeder

In a recent op-ed contribution (“Progress at last on nuclear power,” Dec. 29), Norman J.D. Sawyer argued that 2021 was a year of overdue progress for the adoption of nuclear power in Canada. I must admit, I found this headline ironic, given how little real progress there has been on the nuclear front for many decades.

North America’s nuclear power industry has stalled. Two relatively recent projects initiated in Georgia and South Carolina, for instance, ended up costing many billions of dollars more than promised. The South Carolina project has been abandoned, leaving ratepayers with a US $9 billion debt, much of which will likely be included in their power bills. The former project has doubled in cost and in its construction timeline, and is still not complete.

Meanwhile, in Canada we are flooding taxpayer funds into the newest nuclear dream: Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). However, SMRs are not new, and commercially viable units are not in operation. SMRs date back to the 1950s, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission funded the construction of several reactors declared to be “suitable both for use in rural areas and for foreign export.”

Just as in 1977, Sawyer’s commentary offers messaging which would have readers believe SMRs exist on a commercially viable level. Yet a 2015 report by University of British Columbia Professor M.V. Ramana revealed these U.S. reactors ended up shutting down early because they were not economically competitive. This hurdle has yet to be overcome.

Nuclear advocates have claimed this technology can provide safe energy supplies that are virtually emissions-free. This may be true: First, if economically viable SMR technology actually existed, and second, if the supply chain, fuel source and toxic waste concerns related to these technologies are completely ignored.

Sawyer argues SMRs can be designed to solve energy issues where no grid exists or be used for small grid systems. This again reinforces the practice of portraying SMRs as a fix-all for energy challenges – a practice made much simpler because, once again, the technology simply isn’t viable.

In the U.S., the SMR model considered to be the most commercially advanced is referred to as “NuScale” – and the estimated costs of its reactor design have consistently increased. Just in the last five years, the estimated construction cost has risen from around US $3 billion in 2015 to US $6.1 billion in 2020, plus the initial investment of US $1.5 billion for the development of the ever-changing NuScale design. The most recent guess for NuScale’s operating date is 2029 – and all signs suggest it will not be commercially viable.

Sawyer proposes that SMRs will enable a just transition for fossil fuel workers. This inference is borne of unjustified speculation – although he prefers the term “visionary.”

A far more valid and defensible approach would instead turn to the existing opportunities in renewables. As Clean Energy Canada has made clear, in 2020, during the COVID pandemic, while the globe experienced the largest collapse in energy demand since World War II, renewable energy grew worldwide at its fastest pace in almost two decades. In Canada, between 2010 and 2017 the sector grew one-third faster than the Canadian economy as a whole.

The nuclear dream in all its forms has proven to be a financial boondoggle from day one. As a home-grown example: Last year, New Brunswick’s auditor general reported $3.6 billion of NB Power’s $4.9 billion debt is directly attributed to the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station. This amounts to a staggering debt load of more than $4,500 for every adult and child in New Brunswick.

Yet since 2018, the federal and provincial governments have promoted and continue to support new nuclear development in New Brunswick. So far, taxpayers have “only” invested approximately $86 million into SMRs. Based on the evidence provided by Nu-Scale, perhaps we should cut our losses now, while we still can.

The catchphrase for nuclear proponents seems to be that the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. However, we know for certain the sun will travel across the sky each day, wind patterns will persist over time, water will always flow downhill and geothermal heat will always dissipate.

We also know from long experience that the costs associated with nuclear power are always higher than expected, the performance is always poorer than expected, and expensive, unexpected repairs crop up. That’s the story of nuclear power. 

Kim Reeder is a senior policy advisor for the Rural Action and Voices for the Environment (RAVEN) project at the University of New Brunswick-Fredericton.

Author: CRED-NB

Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick