Some MPs raise concerns over feds' investment in new nuclear tech to fight climate change

·5 min read

Next-generation nuclear technology “has no part in fighting the climate emergency,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Tuesday as a handful of MPs joined anti-nuclear activists to voice concern about the federal government’s intention to expand nuclear power.

“It, in fact, takes valuable dollars away from things that we know work, that can be implemented immediately, in favour of untested and dangerous technologies that will not be able to generate a single kilowatt of electricity for a decade or more,” the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP said at a cross-party press conference.

The comments came one day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada must produce more nuclear power in the years to come. The federal government is funding the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) with a stated aim of replacing coal plants, powering heavy industry operations such as the oilsands and providing electricity for remote, diesel-reliant communities.

Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta have agreed to a joint strategic plan for deploying SMRs to “provide safe, reliable and zero-emissions energy to power our growing economy and population.” In 2019, approximately 38 per cent of New Brunswick's electricity generation was from nuclear, and Ontario is sitting at roughly 60 per cent.

Nuclear power is an energy source that doesn’t directly produce greenhouse gas emissions and provides a constant supply of power without fluctuations, making it an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. Still, critics argue the timelines, cost overruns and delays associated with building nuclear power generation facilities contrast with the need to immediately scale up fossil fuel-free energy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The longevity of radioactive waste, which is hazardous to human health and the environment, also raises questions among critics, as do concerns about nuclear proliferation.

Susan O'Donnell, a member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick, warned: “SMRs create new types of toxic radioactive waste that would be very costly and difficult to isolate from the environment for millions of years.”

Some SMRs would extract plutonium — a radioactive, silvery metal used in nuclear weapons and power plants — mixed with other substances from nuclear fuel waste. But to do so undermines global nuclear weapons non-proliferation agreements, said O’Donnell, who is also an adjunct research professor in the environment and society program at St. Thomas University.

May, Liberal MP Jenica Atwin, Bloc Québécois MP Mario Simard and NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice attended the cross-party press conference on April 25.

Atwin’s constituents in Fredericton, N.B., have lots of different perspectives on whether SMRs are the right choice, she said.

“I don't believe that all those voices are being heard, and some are louder than others,” said Atwin, speaking as “a concerned individual and a mother.”

May and Boulerice pointed to the influence of the nuclear industry on Parliament Hill and the close relationship between Natural Resources Canada and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a federal Crown corporation and the largest nuclear science and technology laboratory in the country.

"They don't have to knock on the door to get into the house because they own the house," said Boulerice of industry lobbyists.

“There's no question that the nuclear industry has far more access to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in terms of raising different concerns about SMRs” compared to the anti-nuclear camp, said O'Donnell.

The Canadian Nuclear Association issued a news release after the press conference saying it is “discouraging to see elected officials spread fear and misinformation, particularly on issues related to safety, regulatory oversight, and Indigenous engagement.”

“It is disingenuous to suggest that we can easily decarbonize through wind and solar alone, while at the same time doubling or tripling our total electricity demand to 2050,” John Gorman, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, said in the release.

On Monday, Trudeau said Canada is going to have to produce “much more nuclear over the coming decades” to keep up with increased energy demand.

The expansion and maintenance of nuclear power in Canada will have to deal with its significant waste problem. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is currently in the process of selecting a site for an underground waste facility that will house all of Canada's nuclear waste. The two possible sites are in Ignace, in northwestern Ontario, 250 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay; or South Bruce, in southwestern Ontario, around 180 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

The deep geological repository will house used radioactive fuel rods and other nuclear waste through a worsening climate and even future ice ages. Currently, there are two waste facilities in development in the world, one each in Finland and Switzerland. France has also completed its site selection and will begin construction in 2027.

The NWMO recently signed a five-year extension of its current multi-year co-operation agreement with its French counterpart, Andra. The agreement allows for information- and knowledge-sharing around public outreach and communication, technological innovation and safety approaches.

In the press release for the signing, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called Canada a "Tier-1 nuclear nation" whose top priority is safety.

But not all agree Canada should remain a nuclear-dependent nation.

“I think the prime minister needs better advisers,” said O'Donnell, in reference to Trudeau's recent comments that an expansion of nuclear energy will be necessary going forward.

When asked if any Conservative MPs were invited to participate in the press conference, O’Donnell said an invitation was extended to one MP who was unable to come.

Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer