Not only is this form of power expensive compared to the alternatives, we still haven’t resolved issues around radioactive contamination and hazardous waste streams.
Author of the article:M.V. Ramana, Eva Schacherl
On Nov. 18, Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan will announce the federal government’s action plan for small modular nuclear reactors, the nuclear industry’s latest pipe dream.
The Liberal government says it supports small modular reactors to help Canada mitigate climate change. The government is simply barking up the wrong tree, for several reasons: cost, cost and cost, as well as renewables, safety and radioactive waste.
Nuclear power is very expensive compared to other low-carbon options, and the difference keeps growing because the cost of renewables and energy storage is going down rapidly. Peter Bradford, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official, likened the use of nuclear power to mitigate climate change to fighting world hunger “with caviar.”
O’Regan has said he doesn’t know any way to get to net zero-carbon emissions by 2050 without nuclear power, but this is refuted by many studies. Ontario can meet its electricity demand using only renewables and hydro power backed up by storage technologies. A recent study using data from 123 countries shows that renewable energy outperforms nuclear power in reducing emissions. It concludes that nuclear investments just get in the way of building up renewable energy.
Advocates claim that we need nuclear energy to back up solar and wind power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. However, nuclear reactors cannot be powered up and down rapidly and safely. If they are, their cost of generating electricity increases further. Nor do nuclear plants run reliably all the time. In France, which generates 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, each reactor was shut down for an average of 96.2 days in 2019.
There is also strong opposition to SMRs from First Nations communities, who say these represent an unacceptable risk.
The risk from nuclear power comes in multiple forms. There is the potential for accidents leading to widespread radioactive contamination. Because reactors involve parts that interact rapidly in complex ways, no nuclear reactor is immune to accidents. And they all produce radioactive nuclear waste streams that remain hazardous for up to one million years. Dealing with these is a major challenge, and there is no demonstrated solution to date.
Canada has a big challenge ahead: to decarbonize by 2050. Let’s get on with it, in the quickest and most cost-effective way: by improving the efficiency of our energy use, and building out solar, wind and storage technologies. The federal Green Party is correct in stating that nuclear reactors “have no place in any plan to mitigate climate change when cleaner and cheaper alternatives exist.” Let’s forget the dirty, dangerous distraction of small nuclear reactors.