“What do a polar bear, an opera singer, and small modular reactors have in common?” Panel chair Rita Baranwal asked the audience, then warned that she’d come back at the end of the session for their reply to her riddle. Dr. Baranwal was speaking in November to the sold-out audience of a conference to promote small modular reactors (SMRs).
And come back she did after an hour and a half, but the audience had no answer. The “connection,” it turned out, was her invitation to join “opera-singing nuclear activist” Eric Meyer just outside the conference hotel on the Sparks Street mall. There we found Meyer, accompanied by a blow-up dancing polar bear, serenading the crowd karaoke style, not with opera but with pop songs. The lyrics had been rewritten to express support for nuclear power.
Despite Baranwal’s urging that conference participants get out and show their support, the conference attendees were more than outnumbered by the small group of anti-nuclear activists who had heard about the nuclear industry-sponsored street theatre and had come to check it out.
Rita Baranwal was fairly typical of the speakers and participants at the “first annual” International Conference on Generation IV and Small Reactors held in Ottawa November 4 to 6—confident, highly educated, and deeply committed to promoting nuclear technologies, including the variously described “small modular reactors”, “advanced reactors” and “novel” nuclear reactor designs that were the conference focus. A Trump nominee to become the next Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy, Baranwal was playing to the crowd and showing her enthusiasm for what might (or might not) become the next generation of nuclear reactors.
Conference sponsors were a Who’s Who of the big players in the Canadian nuclear industry, including Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, and they were all given their times to shine at the microphone. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s vice-president Peter Elder shared that stage, but protested that the CNSC was “not really part of the team” when speaking as part of a panel discussing Canada’s “nuclear advantage” in deploying “next generation” and small modular reactors.
To his credit, Elder did his best to describe the CNSC’s behind-closed-doors advance reviewing of SMR vendor designs as something other than a smoothing of the approvals process. He conceded that there are higher levels of uncertainties associated with small modular reactors, and offered the CNSC’s “graded approach” to regulation and licensing as a response, implying that small modular reactors would be subject to greater scrutiny because of their experimental nature.
Au contraire. The CNSC usually describes its graded approach as allowing potential licensees to “propose alternative methods to meet regulatory requirements.” They say that “the level of analysis, the depth of documentation and the scope of actions necessary to comply with requirements are commensurate with the relative risks to health, safety, security, the environment—and the characteristics of a facility or activity.”1 (Enter the ambiguous world of nuclear regulation in Canada.)
On one hand, Elder purported that the design previews offered to would-be vendors of new reactor designs is not part of licensing. On the other hand, he also said that CNSC can use them to support licencing decisions. Outsiders criticize the arrangement between CNSC’s vendor design review services and their nuclear industry clients for lacking transparency. It lets a proponent or licensee work through any issues raised by CNSC staff long before anyone can see them except the CNSC staff and the reactor vendor or licensee themselves.
The conference also attracted big players who are nominally outside the nuclear industry—the federal Minister of Natural Resources, and senior bureaucrats in both provincial and federal departments of energy. Minister Sohi was late for his appearance as opening speaker because his breakfast meeting with the nuclear industry ran overtime. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories President and CEO Mark Lesinski launched his speech by mentioning his previous day: lobbying on Parliament Hill. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission billed its workshop as a “CNSC Regulatory Information Session,” but it was a brainstorming session on how to get the (good) news out about small modular reactors.
The conference launched the Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors, a fifty page promotional piece that sets out what the nuclear industry would like Canadians to do for them to keep the nuclear dream alive.
Developed over several months, funded by federal taxpayers, and led by the Canadian Nuclear Association, the Roadmap recommends ways for “essential enablers” to help make SMRs happen. (The rhetoric makes heavy use of the term “enable.”)
Pillar #1 of the recommendations is the key theme: the federal government should share both the costs and the risks of deploying demonstration SMRs and first commercial operation. This will “incentivize” private sector commitments. Pillar #2 is the other side of the same coin, asking that “efforts to deploy SMRs are not inadvertently inhibited” by laws or regulations, including environmental assessment legislation and nuclear regulations. And so on.
So what are these risks that the SMR proponents and boosters are so willing to make but not so willing to take?
The first, of course, is financial. The industry line is that—unlike any reactor designs to date—SMRs will be economical, since their design will allow mass, low-cost production. These designs are still conceptual, so this is theory, not fact. And with an estimated 150 different designs flooding the theoretical market at the moment, market forces are unlikely to narrow the numbers enough to achieve that “factory line production” scenario.
If, however, the nuclear industry could find enough taxpayers’ money to fund their next adventure (and they have had some early success, with the federal government funding the SMR Roadmap project) then the real-world risks would start to kick in.
Risks associated with small modular reactors include all those of the existing nuclear reactors and nuclear generating stations in Canada and elsewhere. They include the risks of on-site accidents (think Chernobyl or Fukushima); the risks of low-level radionuclide emissions to air, ground and water; and the risks of having to keep the radioactive separate from the environment into perpetuity.
So-called small modular reactors carry all those risks, and then some. One of the purported markets for them is “remote” locations, including small northern and/or Indigenous communities, or resource extraction operations, such as large mines or the tar sands. Some proponents even suggest that reactors could be operated remotely, with no operators actually on site, comparing it to hydro-electric projects which are monitored from afar with only occasional on-site inspections. Moreover, some designs would use reprocessed irradiated fuel or enriched uranium, both adding to proliferation risks and potentially moving Canada into a plutonium economy. (Plutonium is used in nuclear weapons and becomes available through reprocessing of irradiated fuel waste.) To top it off, some industry supporters argue that because of their reduced size the emergency planning zone would be reduced to the fence line for SMRs.
The industry has unnecessarily handicapped themselves by excluding potential dissenters from the development discussions. The Roadmap planning was done internally, with all the seats at the table assigned to nuclear industry players or fellow travellers. Even outreach to Indigenous peoples appears to have been late, limited, and—not surprisingly—largely unsuccessful.
Civil society organizations—peace groups, environmental non-profits, health advocates—are grappling with practical questions about how much precious time and limited resources to devote to following this mainly theoretical threat. In this latest wave of enthusiasm, the nuclear industry is packaging a bright new nuclear future, based on ideas that are decades old but still not demonstrably viable. Yet the industry is attracting government favour and funds, and the nuclear regulatory body is drafting a tailor-made regulatory document for potential vendors as a first step towards a license approval.
There’s an urgent need to avert climate disaster, but anyway engaged citizens need learn the basics about small modular reactors, lest they unnecessarily divert resources and attention away from real action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we have twelve years (and counting) to act. Even if SMRs could be made safe and affordable and didn’t generate the same nasty radioactive wastes as the current reactors, they would just be a slightly different kind of nasty. SMRs will come too late to be part of the action plan on climate change.
Brennain Lloyd is a researcher and writer based in northern Ontario. A founding member of the North Bay Peace Alliance in 1985, Brennain has worked as a community organizer with peace, environment and social justice groups for 35 years.
2 For more information, visit the campaign website at stop-smrs.weebly.com.