Both PC Premier Blaine Higgs and New Brunswick Liberal leader Kevin Vickers are touting the benefits of small modular nuclear reactors as they stump the province during the 2020 election campaign.
The leaders of the province’s big political parties see the potential for tens of thousands of jobs in the development of an electricity-producing technology that does not generate the greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels.
In sharp contrast, Green leader David Coon warns that developing smaller nuclear reactors would cost buckets of taxpayers’ money, threaten public safety and divert resources away from the immediate investments in renewable energy that are needed to avert the worst effects of climate change.
So, what’s behind this issue and how are the party leaders arguing their positions?
Higgs builds on Liberal investment
Last December, Premier Higgs signed a memorandum of understanding with the premiers of Ontario and Saskatchewan pledging to collaborate on the development of small modular nuclear reactors.
During a year-end interview with the Canadian Press news agency, Higgs was quoted as saying that the smaller reactors could solve the problem of generating electricity without contributing to climate change.
“This can be an absolute solution for the massive amount of energy that is needed, with zero emissions,” CP reported him as saying.
A couple of months earlier, PC Energy Minister Mike Holland was quoted in the Irving papers as saying that the development of smaller nuclear reactors could lead to the creation of an industry employing more people in New Brunswick than forestry.
And, in the current election campaign, the PCs are promising to continue developing smaller nuclear technologies.
Higgs is following in the footsteps of the former Liberal government which invested $10 million in 2018 to help the New Brunswick Energy Solutions Corporation develop a “nuclear research cluster” in the province.
As the CBC’s Jacques Poitras reported, the New Brunswick Energy Solutions Corporation “has no website, no legislation to authorize its creation and no dedicated employees.” But it did invest the $10 million it got from the Gallant Liberals in two companies, ARC Nuclear and Moltex Energy, which set up offices in Saint John.
Vickers: small nuclear can save the world
During his two campaign visits to Sackville, Liberal leader Kevin Vickers spoke enthusiastically about the potential for smaller nuclear reactors to generate thousands of jobs while saving the planet from catastrophic climate change.
“There’s a new opportunity here in New Brunswick, a once-in-a-generation opportunity, an opportunity where New Brunswick could save the world from climate change,” Vickers told a group of supporters gathered on August 27 near the Sackville Memorial Hospital.
The Liberal leader referred to the companies in Saint John that are developing smaller nuclear reactors.
“These are safe reactors that are sodium cooled, they can sit on the back of a tractor trailer and one can keep a major city going for five years,” Vickers said, adding that the reactors produce very little waste and the waste that they do produce can be reused to feed them.
“This could bring 10,000 direct jobs to our province and 40,000 indirect jobs,” he said. “We’ve got to harness this and again, believe in ourselves and it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity and an opportunity for New Brunswick to save the world from climate change.”
Vickers was equally enthusiastic about the potential for smaller nuclear reactors to replace electricity generated by burning fossil fuels when he visited Sackville again last Friday.
“Right now, every month in countries like India and China, there are coal-fired generation stations coming on board,” he said. “If this doesn’t stop, the future of our children for this climate is really in danger.”
Invest in renewables Coon urges
But New Brunswick’s Green Party leader strongly disagrees with his Liberal and PC opponents.
“We’ve had experience with nuclear power in this province [and] it didn’t work out so well,” David Coon told reporters in Memramcook on Friday.
“We’ve got a huge reservoir of highly radioactive toxic waste down on the shores of the Bay of Fundy,” he said referring to the wastes produced by the Point Lepreau nuclear station.
“NB Power is carrying a massive debt which is driving our power costs up every year,” he added, “because of the incredible cost of repairing and renovating Point Lepreau and managing the waste.”
The Green leader pointed out that so far, smaller modular nuclear reactors are just design drawings on a computer.
“To go farther, they’re going to require buckets of taxpayer’s money,” Coon said.
“It’s going to cost us a fortune to to move the idea from the laptops onto a workbench and a lab,” he said, “for a technology that is going to take years to develop, that is not clean, that produces highly radioactive waste that is fuelled by plutonium creating huge security concerns.”
Coon said that the further development of renewable sources of energy should be a priority because of the climate emergency we’re facing.
“Wind energy is the cheapest form of new electricity that’s available now and New Brunswick is blessed with tremendous resources of wind, of solar energy, of materials from our fish plants, from our mills and from our food plants that, like in the Nordic countries, can be used to produce renewable natural gas…and biodiesel,” he said.
“We’re committed to making the same thing happen here over the next 15 years,” Coon said.
“We’ve got the resources, we’ve got the creativity, we’ve got the people, we’ve got businesses around this province who are ready to grow dramatically as soon as there are supportive policies in place that knock down the barriers in legislation that prevent them from delivering that electricity and that fuel to New Brunswick,” Coon concluded.
For a comprehensive report on smaller modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) published on the British Broadcasting Corporation website, click here.
To read about the federal government’s action plan for the development of SMR technology, click here.
To read counter-arguments from the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick, click here.