Small modular nuclear reactors could become a bigger part Canada’s energy plans if recommendations from a new Natural Resources Canada report are adopted.
NRCan released its “roadmap” for the adoption of small modular reactors (SMR) on Wednesday, to help bring SMR technology to remote communities. While the report was cheered by the Canadian nuclear industry, critics say the small reactors may get to skirt oversight rules.
The report, conducted by several independent nuclear stakeholders such as Alberta Innovates, SaskPower and more, provides 53 recommendations to “essential enablers” – public and private organizations that would be affected by the introduction of SMR technologies in Canada. While NRCan chaired the steering committee responsible for dictating these recommendations, it had no say into which provisions were included in the final report.
“[The report] sets out a vision for the actions key enablers would have to take to move forward in this area if Canada wants to seize this opportunity,” NRCan director of nuclear energy Diane Cameron said in an interview.
SMRs are small nuclear reactors that generate less power than the more traditional reactors, but their size makes them much easier to install and they are powered by low-enriched uranium, as opposed to the natural uranium that powers most full-sized reactors. SMRs have been hailed by some as an inexpensive and eco-friendly solution to bringing energy to remote regions, such as the northern territories and mining operations located away from nearby power grids.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) praised the SMR roadmap. In a statement, CNA president and CEO Dr. John Barrett said “SMRs are an exciting innovation story in the nuclear and natural resources sector. But more than that, they can help bring Canada and other countries closer and faster to their GHG reduction targets.”
Additionally, on Monday an open letter promoting the idea of nuclear energy was published by David Schumacher, a documentary filmmaker whose upcoming film “The New Fire” proposes nuclear power as the solution to humanity’s fight against climate change. The letter was signed by several university professors, former premier of New Brunswick Frank McKenna, Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern, and many others.
Related: Diane Cameron of Natural Resources Canada discusses the potential of small modular nuclear reactors in Canada
However, the support for SMRs in Canada is not unanimous. Critics argue that rolling out SMRs across the country could bypass important public and environmental oversight.
An Ontario group against radioactive pollution, the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, called SMRs a “detour” from dealing with climate change at a press conference on Tuesday. The group was joined by federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.
Kerrie Blaise works as counsel at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), a non-profit, public interest organization that pushes for environmental law reforms. The association was a founding member of the Coalition for Nuclear Phase-Out. According to Blaise, with the introduction of Bill C-69 – the impact assessment act that would replace Canada’s current environmental assessment laws – SMRs could be exempted from the “project list,” a list of projects that require impact assessment from the government. Instead, SMR regulation would be overseen by the life-cycle regulator, in this case the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).
“If we look at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's governing statute, it's called the Nuclear Safety and Control Act,” Blaise said. “There's just one provision that, in conducting their licensing process, they have to make adequate provisions to the protection of the environment, health and safety of persons. So it's just a one-liner in the act. Whereas our federal environmental assessment law is more than one line, it's a full statute.”
Under the regulatory statute, the CNSC would not have to consider socio-economic factors that a full impact assessment would, and the process would be subject to considerably less public oversight.
“What can increase the integrity and the credibility of a decision is public participation in that process,” Blaise said. “If SMRs were subject to the full federal impact assessment act, there would be greater public participation.”
CELA also says that the CNSC is encouraging the government to exempt SMRs from the Impact Assessment Act’s oversight. A presentation on SMRs given in Ottawa on Wednesday by CNSC vice-president of technical support and chief science officer Peter Elder pointed to that as well. The presentation said the “current regulatory framework is fit for reviewing advanced reactors,” the framework in this case referring to the Nuclear Safety and Control Act.
According to Cameron, even if the SMRs are left off the project list, there will still be oversight.
“There is no circumstance contemplated under which any nuclear energy project, including an SMR, would be exempt from oversight and from environmental assessment,” Cameron said.
According to Cameron, the Environmental Assessment Agency will be the ones making the final decisions on what is and is not included on the list.
While the roadmap isn’t government policy, some of the provisions are already underway. The CNSC is in talks with several SMR vendors about the regulatory system in the country and nuclear laboratories in Canada have requested demonstration reactors.
“The next step is for the groups and organizations referenced in the report to consider its key findings and recommendations, then decide on turning it into action,” Cameron said. “But ...there's already some momentum in this area. There's a sense that this is a framework that could bring additional focus and sort of get everybody pulling in the same direction if that's what the country chooses to do.”