This week, we have a story where Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) proposes Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) as the cornerstone of long-term Arctic development.
Arguing Canada needs to get on board with development of this technology, CNL president Joe McBrearty says the reactors could be used remotely in the Arctic to heat buildings, power electrical grids, desalinate water, even produce breathable air — and he should know. He was a captain of a nuclear submarine in the U.S. Navy.
Currently, there are three models of SMRs in use, all in Russia. Many more are in development, including the CANDU SMR by SNC-Lavalin and the Global First Power-designed one McBrearty which CNL hopes to have a prototype of ready by 2026. Their pitch is SMRs could be a viable replacement for fossil fuels in the post carbon economy.
Some points to consider. Fully electric vehicles now coming onto the market and the world’s major economies are pledging to move quickly towards decarbonization. Usage of air conditioning is skyrocketing during heat waves like the one experienced by much of Canada this year — in homes, industrial facilities, shopping malls, hospitals and other public facilities. Then we still have the electrical load produced from the computers and other machines in these buildings.
That’s a lot of power and the nuclear industry is correct that a comparatively few reactors could pretty much handle all of that. It certainly would provide enough power to keep a remote mine or community in operation, or fuel a developing industrial centre. And SMRs do address some of the bigger problems with nuclear reactors — they can be moved and consume significantly less water.
However, nuclear power ultimately comes back to the same two questions — what happens when you lose control of something that only naturally occurs on the surface of the sun and what do you do with the waste products? SMRs attempt to address the latter with smaller capacity, producing less waste. The former they address with more automation, which proponents say will eliminate the chance of human error.
Unfortunately, while possibly steps in the right direction, these aren’t enough. Shipping nuclear waste out of Inuvik or Ulukhaktok would require a lot of trucks and/or barges, which would have very limited mobility. The waste itself would likely end up in near Lake Huron in storage. Plans are ongoing to dig two ultra-deep caverns to house the waste for the next couple million years, the cost of one estimated at least $32 billion. In the event of a blowout, getting a nuclear technician out here on a few hours notice seems highly optimistic.
This technology does have a future and Canada absolutely should continue to develop this technology and have a seat at the table, but it’s not the solution to the north’s immediate problems. Our civilization is already dealing with multiple existential threats from our waste products, including accumulation of microplastics, carbon dioxide, oil spills, underwater fires and radioactive isotopes from the 2,121 nuclear weapons tests conducted over the last century. We really don’t need to add any more stress to the system until we can be sure there is no waste.