FAQs about Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs):
Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) remain an experimental technology that has a significant amount of financial and environmental risk. There currently is only one operational SMR worldwide. This reactor, which is described as a “working prototype”, is located on a barge in Russia. This prototype took over a decade longer to commission than was initially estimated and similar delays have been observed in experimental projects being developed in Argentina and the UK.
NuScale Power, a US firm based in Portland, Oregon that wants to build a 12- reactor Carbon Free Power project in Idaho Falls shows a pattern consistent with nuclear projects: a doubling of cost projections from $3-billion to $6 billion and completion date moving from 2026 to 2030. Regulatory agencies have also identified safety concerns.
The ongoing development of this experimental technology would require millions of dollars in additional government handouts and subsidies. In other words, new nuclear reactors are unlikely to compete with more cost-effective technologies like wind and solar and sources of firm power like existing hydro dams in the Atlantic region.
SMRs are unlikely to accelerate the phase-out of coal in New Brunswick, and depending on SMR technology risks, they could actually delay the phase-out of coal generation further.
According to Natural Resource Canada’s Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Roadmap, if New Brunswick moves forward with SMRs, we could wait until 2030 or later to see electricity on the grid from these experimental projects. To act on climate change, and to reach the global target of reducing warming below 1.5°C, New Brunswick needs to act quickly to phase out coal electricity by 2030 or sooner.
One proponent for this experimental project in New Brunswick, ARC Canada, aims to have a 100 MW reactor operational by the end of 2028, less than two years before New Brunswick is scheduled to phase-out coal electricity. However, given the experimental nature of the project, and the delays that have already been seen in Russia, the UK, Argentina and just south of the border in Idaho, New Brunswick is taking a significant risk in assuming it would be completed on schedule. We cannot afford to delay the transition to affordable, reliable, sustainable energy, and we cannot afford to take the risks of further delays with unproven technologies.
Technologies like wind, solar and energy efficiency are all proven technologies with hundreds of projects across scales, applications and geographies in Canada.
The cost of wind energy in Canada has decreased by more than 70 per cent since 2009, and the costs solar energy and battery storage have decreased by about 90 per cent over the same period. In fact, wind and solar are the most affordable form of electricity on Earth. Five times cheaper than coal, five times cheaper than traditional nuclear, and three times cheaper than natural gas. Meanwhile, the cost of building a large nuclear reactor has increased by about 40 per cent since only 2013, and the suggested lower costs of SMRs remain unproven.
There has been one consistent theme with experimental SMRs, and with nuclear power in general, and that is cost overruns. The cost of the Russian floating small modular reactor more than quintupled from its initial estimate, from $140 million to over $740 million. China’s SMRs which are currently under construction, have already seen its cost doubled. Furthermore, in only a 2-year span, NuScale’s SMR project in Idaho has also seen its projected costs double from $3 billion to $6.1 billion. The claim that SMRs are cheaper is speculative and not based on current experience. Let’s not forget that half of NB Power’s debt load is from the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant refurbishment.
While SMRs are theoretically safer than traditional large-scale nuclear plants due to their modularity (built in factories and shipped), inherently safer design (fewer moving parts) and smaller size, they still carry significant safety risks relating to the transport, use and storage of nuclear waste and safety questions must be resolved for the NuScale design. While the worst-case scenario for failures of wind, solar or energy storage projects are negligible by comparison. As the saying goes, a ‘solar energy spill’ is just a nice day.
Although SMRs are being marketed as an alternative to larger nuclear generation facilities, they still produce significant amounts of dangerous radioactive waste. Waste that we would need to continue to pay for, and ensure the safe storage of in many more locations than is the case today, for thousands of years. In addition, by adding new nuclear reactors in New Brunswick, and around the world, Canada increases concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation by distributing nuclear waste and plutonium at home and around the world.
- Read our op-ed: We Risk False Solutions and Delayed Action on Climate Change with Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (Published Feb. 25, 2021 in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal)
- Read our briefing paper: The proposed nuclear reactors (SMRs) for New Brunswick (co-authored by Dr. Louise Comeau and submitted to N.B.’s Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development on March 1, 2021)