Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2019
By Gordon Edwards
In November 2018, Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources (NRCan) released a “Road Map” signaling its support for a group of multinational corporations, headed by SNC-Lavalin Corporation, to build, test, and deploy a new generation of nuclear reactors. [SNC-Lavalin is a $10 billion engineering, mining and nuclear conglomerate based in Montreal.]
There are no customers yet for these “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors” (SMRs), and the Union of Ontario Indians opposes them altogether. But NRCan wants them installed widely, mainly in the north, to accelerate resource extraction … and to replace diesel in isolated settlements including indigenous communities.
This is the brainchild of SNC-Lavalin and its partners, Fluor, Inc. and Jacobs Corp.
In 2015, Canada’s government under Joseph Harper put the consortium of the three corporations in charge of federally-owned nuclear facilities and Canada’s $8 billion radioactive waste liability. Billions of tax dollars have been pouring into its coffers via Atomic Energy of Canada, Limited, a government corporation…. Tasked with reducing Ottawa’s radioactive liability quickly and cheaply, the consortium—operating as Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL)—launched a series of alarming initiatives:
- CNL proposes to pile on the surface one million cubic meters of mixed radioactive waste in a huge earthen mound 5 to 7 stories high, covering 11 hectares [27+ acres] at Chalk River, less than a kilometer from the Ottawa River. This scheme, a drastic departure from previous plans, flies in the face of international guidelines. It is opposed by 140 municipal resolutions including 82 from the Montreal region.
- CNL plans to “entomb” the radioactive remains of two reactors beside the Ottawa and Winnipeg Rivers—dumping the reactors’ contaminated insides into the sub-basement, then flooding it with grout, creating permanent radioactive waste “mausoleums.” This approach violates promises that decommissioned reactor sites would be returned to “green field” status, and defies warnings against “entombment” by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
- CNL is moving federally owned radioactive waste from Pinawa (Manitoba), Douglas Point (Ontario), Bécancour (Quebec), and Port Hope (Ontario) to Chalk River. Of the 2000 planned shipments, 500 are so radioactive that shipping containers must be shielded to protect drivers and the public from excess gamma radiation exposure. Fifty truckloads will carry the most highly radioactive material on Earth, irradiated nuclear fuel, from Pinawa, Douglas Point and Bécancour.
- CNL is putting Canada’s federal nuclear sites at the disposal of the global nuclear industry, as testing grounds for an experimental Small Modular Reactor.
In effect, Canadian nuclear policy is being written by these private multinational corporations as a fait accompli, and Ottawa is complaisant.
“Canada does not yet have a federal policy for the long-term management of non-fuel radioactive wastes,” said Jim Carr, then NRCan Minister, in July 2018. We need one. Future generations require our diligence; other countries look to Canada for examples of responsible radioactive waste handling, transport, and long-term management. Government needs to take charge. Such decisions should not be left to corporate contractors.
The era of large nuclear reactors is over. Fewer reactors are operating today than 10 years ago. Projects for new reactors have ruined giant companies like Areva and Westinghouse. Nuclear energy’s share of global electricity production has plummeted from 17 percent in 1997 to 10 percent today. The “Nuclear Renaissance,” ballyhooed since 2001, is a flop.
So how to keep the industry afloat? Maybe try manufacturing smaller reactors? But small reactors are more expensive per unit of energy; one has to sell hundreds or thousands of them to break even. Mass-production may partly overcome bad economics—but this brings its own difficulties. There are over 150 different designs for SMRs, each utilizing different fuels, different coolants, different moderators. The chance that any one design will corner the market and secure the sales volume needed to turn a profit is almost nil.
In July 2019, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commissions invited public comments on the first of several SMRs to be built at Chalk River—a high-temperature gas-cooled molten salt reactor with a graphite moderator, and pebble-like enriched fuel.
The age of nuclear power is winding down, but the age of nuclear waste is just beginning. Public consultations with First Nations and other Canadians are needed to formulate acceptable policies regarding the characterization, segregation, packaging, labelling, transport and long-term management of radioactive wastes. Meanwhile, CNL’s plans and SMRs should be put on hold, and the consortium’s contract should be cancelled.
— Gordon Edwards, PhD, is a Canadian scientist, nuclear consultant, and co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.