N.B. looking to small modular reactors to help fulfill clean power needs but there are concerns

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N.B. hoping modular nuclear reactors will help province fulfill clean power needs
WATCH: New Brunswick is pinning more and more of its energy hopes on small modular nuclear reactors. – Aug 4, 2022

On Tuesday, the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station was taken offline for unscheduled repairs for the fifth time in the last four years.

The plant’s reliability has been an ongoing issue since coming back online after a costly refurbishment in 2012. Last year the plant had two unscheduled maintenance periods, part of the reason NB Power added $9 million to its net debt.

“In the year, Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station fell short of performance goals with two unbudgeted outages. The Station’s reliability performance needs improvement and we are taking steps to enhance performance of this valuable asset that contributes so significantly to our province’s energy supply, our reduction of carbon emissions and our provincial economy,” wrote board chair Charles Firlotte and then-CEO Keith Cronkhite, who was fired a few weeks after signing off on the utility’s financial results for last year.

As the province looks to add additional nuclear capacity to the electricity grid at the beginning of the next decade in the form of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) some worry that history could repeat itself and the new technology could be just as costly and unreliable as the CANDU-6 reactor at Point Lepreau has proven to be.

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“It’s astonishing that the utility wants to further the pain by spending more money on new nuclear reactors,” said Susan O’Donnell, an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick.

“Nuclear energy has been a financial disaster for not only NB Power but the province as a whole.”

O’Donnell is a member of the Coalition of Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick (CRED-NB), a group formed to oppose the development of nuclear energy in the province.

A recent report from the province’s auditor general showed that $3.6 billion of NB Power’s $4.9 billion in debt is from the building and refurbishment of Point Lepreau. And O’Donnell says that reliability issues have impacted NB Power’s ability to pay down its debt and meet profitability targets, which is backed up in many of the utility’s recent annual reports.

CRED-NB argues that the new generation of SMRs being pitched by two companies are based on unproven technology and are unlikely to be financially viable, according to some studies.

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Debate brews over small modular reactors in Canada

“There’s absolutely no evidence that these reactors will be more reliable and cost effective than the Lepreau reactor,” O’Donnell said.

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But Natural Resources minister Mike Holland says the new designs are significantly different than the pressurized heavy water design of Point Lepreau’s CANDU reactor.

“There’s a little bit of an apples and oranges comparison there,” he said.

Holland says he trusts the lengthy regulatory approval process will ensure that both reactors will be reliable by the time they’re built.

“I take comfort in the fact that before we ever go to first of a kind, or go online with this technology, they’ve met stringent requirements,” he said. “That’s what should give New Brunswickers comfort.”

The two companies looking to produce SMRs in the province are ARC Clean Energy and Moltex Energy, both of which have offices in Saint John and have received about $30 million in funding from the provincial government combined. ARC is planning to build a 100 mega-watt sodium-cooled reactor at Point Lepreau by 2029, while Moltex’s 300-megawatt molten salt design is hoped to be ready in the early 2030s.

The ARC-100 design is based on the EBR-I and EBR-II reactor developed at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States. Moltex’s reactor would recycle spent fuel from other reactors and is based on experimental designs from two other labs in the U.S.

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O’Donnell say both types of reactor have never been successfully commercialized and have reliability issues of their own.

“Both the ARC and Moltex designs are unproven designs based on older, experimental, nuclear reactors that were never commercially successful. Therefore, the costs of developing the designs into successful commercial nuclear power plants are highly unpredictable,” the group wrote in a briefing paper which was sent to Holland last year.

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But Moltex’s VP of communications says that the new generation of reactors is much more advanced than the reactors they take their inspiration from.

“This new generation of reactors, including ours, is fundamentally different than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Erin Polka. “They’re both nuclear so to speak, but the technology is different, the engineering is different, the safety features are different.”

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On top of that, Polka says it wouldn’t make much sense for the company to offer an unreliable product.

“If in doing all of our research and development we discover that that might not be the case, then we either have to fix it or we’re not going to get very far,” she said.

ACR did not make anyone available for an interview but cited a report from the Generation IV International Forum, a group of a few dozen countries that agreed to cooperate on the development of nuclear power in 2001.

“With more than 20 reactors built and in operation around the world and combining nearly 400 reactor years of operation, Sodium-cooled Fast Reactors benefit from extensive design and operating experience feedback,” the report says.

The attraction on the part of the province is clear: the government sees SMRs as a potential source of economic development for the province. But where Holland and premier Blaine Higgs see jobs and tax revenue, Green Party leader David Coon sees the making of another failed investment.

“It just comes down to dreams of big bucks in the future, but as we’ve seen in the past that’s not the case, we end up paying the big bucks,” Coon said, pointing to past forays into economic development in the Bricklin and JOI Scientific’s failed promise of creating hydrogen from seawater.

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Coon would rather see heavy investment in renewables than additional nuclear capacity.

“It’s an expensive distraction from the real job at hand, which is to build a sustainable renewable energy system,” he said.

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“We need to move beyond that, skip over the SMRs. We’ve got an abundance of renewable sources in the province from wind and solar, additional hydro capacity, the potential to produce renewable natural gas from organic waste.”

But according to Polka, Moltex sees itself as a crucial part of that power mix, as the company looks to create storage capacity in order to offer baseload power for when intermittent renewables aren’t producing.

“What we’re aiming for is for it to be an extremely reliable source of baseload energy,” she said.

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For now, the province is betting on SMRs forming the backbone of its efforts to decarbonize power generation, and the results of its modern foray into nuclear power won’t be known for another decade.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly described Point Lepreau as a light water reactor.

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