NEWS Can small nuclear reactors help Canada reach its net-​​zero 2050 goals? Some experts are skeptical

Novem­ber 9, 2020: Canada has expressed inter­est in a new, smaller type of nuclear reac­tor that pro­po­nents say will be crit­i­cal to help the coun­try reach its tar­get of net-​​zero car­bon emis­sions by 2050.

But there is debate among researchers, advo­cates and other experts on whether these new reac­tors are nec­es­sary to reach net-​​zero — or whether it’s bet­ter accom­plished by focus­ing efforts elsewhere.

Daniel Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, cau­tions that any stance on the role small mod­u­lar reac­tors will play in Canada’s energy future depends on research and data that could still be years away.

We have a data set, cur­rently, of zero,” he told What on Earth.

Screen Shot 2020-11-09 at 12.14.52 PM

You can fore­cast what they might be based on tech­ni­cal assess­ments … but it’s based on no real data. It’s based just on what we hope will come out of dif­fer­ent plans.”

Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. (Elena Zhukova/​Submitted by Daniel Kammen)

Small mod­u­lar reac­tors, or SMRs for short, are smaller than a con­ven­tional nuclear power plant and can be man­u­fac­tured in a fac­tory before being trans­ported and assem­bled else­where — some­thing pro­po­nents say will lower costs.

The Inter­na­tional Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN orga­ni­za­tion for nuclear coop­er­a­tion, con­sid­ers an SMR to be “small” if it gen­er­ates under 300 megawatts of elec­tric­ity, com­pared to tra­di­tional nuclear reac­tors that typ­i­cally gen­er­ate about 800 megawatts, or about enough to power about 600,000 homes at once (assum­ing that 1 megawatt can power about 750 homes).

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment called it the “next wave of inno­va­tion” in nuclear energy tech­nol­ogy and an “impor­tant tech­nol­ogy oppor­tu­nity for Canada.”

In Octo­ber, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment announced it was invest­ing $20 mil­lion into Ter­res­trial Energy to help the Oakville, Ont., com­pany develop its design of a small mod­u­lar reactor.

Last Decem­ber, Ontario Pre­mier Doug Ford, New Brunswick Pre­mier Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan Pre­mier Scott Moe released a joint state­ment com­mit­ting to devel­op­ing SMRs in Canada. Alberta joined that agree­ment in August. While the Cana­dian Nuclear Safety Com­mis­sion is cur­rently con­duct­ing pre-​​licensing reviews on sev­eral designs, fore­casts sug­gest it could be years, per­haps 2030, before SMRs would be oper­at­ing in Canada.

(CBC News)

Accord­ing to the Cana­dian Nuclear Association’s SMR roadmap, the small reac­tors would help replace energy capac­ity lost by clos­ing coal plants, help power off-​​grid projects like mines and oil­sands sites, and replace diesel fuel in remote communities.

We have not seen a model where we can get to net-​​zero emis­sions by 2050 with­out nuclear,” Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter Sea­mus O’Regan told The House in Sep­tem­ber.

This is a zero-​​emission energy source.”

Nuclear energy is actu­ally con­sid­ered a low-​​emission — not zero-​​emission — energy source by the Inter­na­tional Energy Agency (IEA), Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) and oth­ers.

While the nuclear fis­sion that takes place inside a reac­tor doesn’t emit car­bon, green­house gas emis­sions result from the sur­round­ing processes and oper­a­tions: min­ing the ura­nium, build­ing the reac­tor and its even­tual decommission.

Ben­jamin Sova­cool is the direc­tor of the energy group at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex, and a lead author for the IPCC on how to mit­i­gate cli­mate change between now and 2050. (Uni­ver­sity of Sussex/​Submitted by Ben­jamin Sovacool)

When you look at the entire fuel cycle and you broaden the lens across it, you start to cap­ture a whole host of emis­sions that are often excluded,” said Ben­jamin Sova­cool, direc­tor of the energy group at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex, and a lead author for the IPCC on how to mit­i­gate cli­mate change between now and 2050.

Sova­cool said that renew­ables like solar and wind pro­vide a big­ger bang for the buck to lower emis­sions, and are widely avail­able now, unlike SMRs.

Nuclear power is like fight­ing world hunger with caviar, it’s like using the most expen­sive option when there are far more plen­ti­ful and nutri­tious options avail­able when you account for the costs,” he told What on Earth.

John Gor­man, how­ever, is con­vinced nuclear power is the way for­ward — and that SMRs are a cru­cial part of the plan.

He’s the pres­i­dent and CEO of the Cana­dian Nuclear Asso­ci­a­tion — but before that, he was head of the Cana­dian Solar Indus­tries Association.

When I moved over from the renew­able side, I had to do a lot of home­work to really look into the tech­nol­ogy, its track record, the way that it deals with some of the issues that are of most con­cern to peo­ple,” he told Lynch.

I’ve come to the real­iza­tion after all of that that really there is no way to net zero with­out nuclear. And sec­ondly, it just is a really safe, remark­able technology.”

Gor­man pointed to decades of North Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence work­ing with nuclear energy, and affirmed the impor­tance of going through the reg­u­la­tory process through­out devel­op­ment to ensure SMRs are as safe and effi­cient as possible.

He said the seven-​​to-​​10-​​year esti­mates for SMRs to become a real­ity in Canada are “a blink of an eye in terms of energy plan­ning,” and that they will become “a real, nec­es­sary tool” for Canada’s net-​​zero targets.

Kam­men isn’t con­vinced that SMRs have quite yet earned a green light.

You … have to worry about the end of life and the risk issues that are not a fea­ture of wind or solar,” he said.,

A bad batch of solar pan­els is actu­ally a learn­ing event, whereas a bad batch of com­po­nents for a nuclear plant can be catastrophic.”

Kerry Blaise, staff lawyer at the Cana­dian Envi­ron­men­tal Law Asso­ci­a­tion, said SMRs and nuclear energy present “a dan­ger­ous dis­trac­tion from real cli­mate action.”

Her stance is echoed by more than 25 envi­ron­ment and cit­i­zens’ groups, includ­ing Green­peace, the Sierra Club and Equi­terre, which released a state­ment in Octo­ber.

Blaise said the mod­u­lar nature of SMRs means that fuel for the reac­tors — and, even­tu­ally, the radioac­tive waste they pro­duce — will have to be trans­ported more fre­quently, espe­cially if they are deployed in remote loca­tions like mines and Indige­nous communities.

She added that “the eco­nom­ics don’t add up” regard­ing argu­ments that nuclear energy should be “part of the mix” along with renew­able energy.

The cost of renew­ables con­tin­ues to go down due to incre­men­tal man­u­fac­tur­ing and instal­la­tion improve­ments, while nuclear, despite hav­ing had half a cen­tury of indus­trial expe­ri­ence, con­tin­ues to have costs that are ris­ing,” she said.

Nuclear power has been declin­ing world­wide for decades, and cost has been one chal­lenge, accord­ing to a 2019 report from the IEA, which said “new projects have been plagued by cost over­runs and delays.”

Kam­men said he’s seen a large amount of pri­vate sec­tor invest­ment in SMRs, which could help accel­er­ate devel­op­ment to make it com­pet­i­tive along­side renew­ables like solar and wind.

But it will be some time, he said, before any­one can guess what “mix of tech­nolo­gies” will be best.

These new nuclear plants need to per­form at a cost level that we have not seen. They need to per­form at a reli­a­bil­ity level we haven’t seen.… And then finally, the most crit­i­cally, these plants have to be demon­strated to be oper­ated safely dur­ing their life­time and for the fuel man­age­ment at the end of life cycle,” he said.

That’s a big list of ifs. So I’m root­ing for nuclear, but I think that list of chal­lenges is exceed­ingly long.”


For the orig­i­nal CBC source: click here.

Link: https://​www​.cbc​.ca/​r​a​d​i​o​/​w​h​a​t​o​n​e​a​r​t​h​/​c​a​n​-​s​m​a​l​l​-​n​u​c​l​e​a​r​-​r​e​a​c​t​o​r​s​-​h​e​l​p​-​c​a​n​a​d​a​-​r​e​a​c​h​-​i​t​s​-​n​e​t​-​z​e​r​o​-​2​0​5​0​-​g​o​a​l​s​-​s​o​m​e​-​e​x​p​e​r​t​s​-​a​r​e​-​s​k​e​p​t​i​c​a​l​-​1​.​5​7​9​2​823

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