In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, experts wrote that they understood the government’s motivation to support nuclear power and reduce the use of fossil fuels, “but saving the world from disaster climate must not conflict with saving it from nuclear weapons. “
The warning comes after New Brunswick start-up Moltex Clean Energy received $ 50.5 million from the Government of Canada to advance plans for a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) – reactors of 300 megawatts or less – which would also serve as the reprocessing of spent fuel. establishment. (Spent fuel are the fuel bundles that can no longer support fission in a nuclear reactor.)
Frank H. von Hippel, senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, told Glacier Media that the government’s decision to support SMR goes against its commitments not to proliferation.
These commitments date back to the 1970s, when a joint nuclear technology agreement between Canada, the United States and India inadvertently revived the subcontinent’s nuclear weapons program.
The problem, von Hippel said, is that other countries will see Canada reprocessing used nuclear fuel and see the green light there to follow suit. This could lay the groundwork for a new nuclear arms race.
“People have forgotten after all these years,” said von Hippel, pointing to similar projects underway in the United States. “For these two countries, demolishing it for no good reason would be really heartbreaking. “
In their letter, the US experts refute Moltex’s claim that removing plutonium and other elements from spent nuclear fuel “reduces the long-term risk” of burying radioactive material deep underground.
“This claim has been repeatedly discredited,” they write, adding that radioisotopes with a half-life of 17 million years, like iodine-129, would remain in radioactive waste “if they were not are not released into the environment during reprocessing ”.
In an email to Glacier Media, a spokesperson for Moltex Clean Energy said the company is “open and transparent” and will take expert reviews on safeguards and safety seriously as it moves towards testing and deployment of its nuclear reactor.
“We do not agree that Canada should be pushed in a certain direction by foreign nations or foreign individuals,” the spokesperson wrote. “The current proposals comply with all international protocols. Civilian reprocessing is up to each country to assess and continue if it wishes, as long as it is under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The spokesperson added that anti-proliferation experts are not aware of the company’s WAste To Stable Salt process because few details have been released. “It was designed without the ability to produce military grade material,” she wrote.
This process would convert the highly radioactive waste into carbon-free energy instead of throwing it into the ground, the spokesperson said.
Ultimately, she noted, if the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission “agrees that it is safe and grants us a license, we will provide a means of dramatically reducing the volume and radioactivity of high-level nuclear waste.” in Canada. We will also help mitigate the impacts of climate change and support the net zero trend by generating energy at low cost and without emissions. “
THE RISE OF SMALL NUCLEAR REACTORS
The push to develop small modular nuclear reactors has gained momentum in recent years.
Von Hippel, who also worked as director of U.S. National Security Assistance under the Clinton administration, said he was born out of two waves of industry pressure on the government for a revival of the nuclear. The first, from people looking to increase sales for companies that build reactors for submarines and aircraft carriers; the second, from companies like Moltex, which have promised to solve the problem of removing plutonium from governments.
In Canada, about 15 percent of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear power. This is a decrease of about 14% from the peak reached in 1993.
When Ontario’s Bruce and Darlington nuclear power plants submitted proposals to extend the life of several of their traditional reactors, the price tag was $ 26 billion. In the meantime, plans to build several new reactors in Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta have either been postponed or canceled.
“The R&D community looked around and said, ‘The reactors currently available for sale are not selling,’” said von Hippel.
At the current rate of closure, the world would lose nearly a quarter of its nuclear capacity by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Most of these shutdowns are planned in the G-20 countries, where the exorbitant upfront costs are largely absorbed by countries like China and India desperate to increase their energy capacity and reduce air pollution.
In countries like Canada and the United States, these prohibitive upfront costs have prompted the industry to launch small reactors, von Hippel said.
As MV Ramana, nuclear energy expert and professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of British Columbia, said: “This is the only type of nuclear reactor that could actually be built. They will have no hope in hell in building a bigger reactor.
IS NUCLEAR AN ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE?
Companies like Moltex have made other interesting promises.
When the government announced that it would support Moltex’s plan, Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the small nuclear reactor “will play a critical role in the fight against climate change and will stimulate economic stabilization in Canada after the pandemic ”.
It’s a vision that connects with some of the world’s most influential voices when it comes to energy.
Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency released the landmark Net Zero by 2050 report, which charts the course for a net carbon-free future.
According to the report, within 30 years, most of the world’s energy would have to come from renewable sources like wind and sun if the planet had any hope of avoiding a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius – the threshold according to scientists would lead to an irreversible change in the climate of the word.
But the agency, which has advised governments around the world since its inception in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, also said nuclear power would play an important role, nearly doubling its energy production between 2020 and 2050.
This kind of thinking led Alberta to join Ontario, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan as signatories to a MOU on PMS in April.
“Alberta has always been committed to providing clean, affordable energy,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement written at the time. “Small modular reactors are an exciting new technology that could be used in the future to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example. example by producing electricity for Canadian oil sands producers.
SMALL NUCLEAR A PATH TO DIRTY “GREENWASH” OIL?
Not everyone agrees with Kenney’s vision for a nuclear future.
“The claim is that they are going to power these SMRs to power the oil sands mining,” said Ramana, the nuclear energy expert at UBC.
“It’s just a way to make what they’re doing in the oil sands green. ”
Ramana said the rise of nuclear power does not make sense as a viable route to reduce emissions. The IEA’s predictions on the future cost of energy, he said, have previously failed.
“In the early years of the nuclear age, energy was expected to decline in the future,” he said. “It has become clear that the cost (of nuclear electricity) is going to be high. ”
“Small nuclear reactors won’t change that,” he added.
It is not only the increase in the unit energy cost of nuclear power that worries experts like Ramana.
Planning, approving and building a nuclear power plant can take decades; a small nuclear reactor proposed for Idaho in 2003 is not expected to be commissioned until at least 2030.
Simply put, critics say, tackling the worst effects of climate change cannot wait that long ‚and that doesn’t even take into account the ecological and human fallout if a fire or earthquake hits a nuclear facility.
“A nuclear reactor is just a very complicated way to boil water,” Ramana said. “Solar and wind just make a lot of sense. Economically, this is the most justifiable thing.
Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means it explains how people are responding to issues related to climate change -om housing to energy and everywhere in between. Do you have a story idea? Get in touch. Send an email to [email protected]