Sask. expert opinion mixed on small nuclear reactors

Expert opinion is mixed on Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe's claim that small nuclear reactors can help the province meet its carbon emission goals.

Moe, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs signed a memorandum of understanding Sunday to research and develop "small modular reactors" to produce nuclear power.

Moe says the reactors could help Saskatchewan hit its carbon target, which would require a 40 per cent reduction in 2005 emission levels in the next decade.

"I think it's worth pursuing," said John Root, executive director of the University of Saskatchewan's Fedoruk Centre for Nuclear Innovation.

Root said there would also be economic benefits, as Saskatchewan produces much of the world's uranium.

"Why don't we get some value out of the resources we produce right here in the province?" he said.

NuScale Power

Nearly half of Saskatchewan's electricity is produced by coal — a cheap but high-emission fuel source. Root said nuclear power is necessary if and when coal is phased out.

He said natural gas is plentiful and cleaner, but still produces carbon and won't go far enough to meet targets. Renewable sources such as wind or solar do not produce emissions and should be part of the mix, but are not reliable as large scale "base" sources of power.

"So what have you got? There's nuclear," Root said.

Nuclear chemist and Saskatchewan Environmental Society board member Ann Coxworth disagrees.

She said it would take several decades for these nuclear reactors to be operational in Saskatchewan.

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No one has even settled on a proper design for such a reactor, with more than 100 possible models under debate, she said. That would require years of testing and regulatory approvals, and then years more to build. The earliest prototype would be tested in Ontario in the year 2030, she said.

The timeline alone will prevent any meaningful contribution to Saskatchewan's climate change and emissions goals.

"We have much cheaper, safer, faster-to-put-in-place options that would be much wiser to invest in," Coxworth said.

That time and money would be far better spent on energy efficiency measures and renewable energy. She said improvements in power storage capacity are shifting the equation even more toward renewable sources of energy.