OTTAWA — The Ontario election could blow up Canada’s plan to develop small modular nuclear reactor technology, with the New Democratic Party promising a freeze on new nuclear development.
In Canada, only Ontario and New Brunswick have nuclear power stations—Ontario has three, New Brunswick one—making them the provinces best equipped to try out new nuclear technologies. Ontario is supposed to take the lead in a four-province deal to test the feasibility of small reactors.
Ontario is at the core of experiments with small nuclear reactors, which could be a major clean-energy export. But there’s an election underway, and the opposition NDP are skeptical of nuclear power and promise to review the streams of SMR development on which Ontario has taken the lead.
The New Democrats went into the campaign toward the June 2 election as the Official Opposition in the Ontario legislature, their best showing since they ran the province under Bob Rae in the early 1990s.
“We won’t expand Ontario’s nuclear capacity unless cost and waste-storage issues are resolved,” says the party’s climate and energy policy book.
On SMRs in particular, the party hedged.
“An Ontario NDP government will honour existing electricity contracts, including nuclear power contracts,” party spokesperson Sam Pane told The Logic by email. “An Ontario NDP government will review the SMR project, and base its decision on the best interests of Ontarians and electricity consumers.”
A small modular reactor is about the size of a tractor-trailer. It can be put together in a factory and transported to where it’s needed, instead of being built to order on site.
If they become popular, there will be SMR factories instead of the giant bespoke construction projects typical for nuclear power plants. Canada has exported its CANDU reactor technology, and if it develops small reactors, it could export the units themselves.
There’s a federal action plan. “Canada is really good at this,” federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan wrote in an introduction. “And small modular reactors (SMRs) represent the next great opportunity for Canada—helping us to phase out coal and electrify carbon-intensive industries such as mining and petroleum extraction.”
Anticipating that SMRs could be the Next Big Thing in nuclear power, the last federal budget promised $120.6 million over five years to support their development in Canada.
Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick put together their own plan for developing SMRs, just published in March. Ontario’s role is to build the first two in the country: one at the existing Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto, and one at Chalk River, west of Ottawa, the research site where Canada developed its first nuclear technologies.
The two Ontario projects are supposed to be at opposite ends of the SMR spectrum. The one at Darlington is to be hooked up to the rest of the provincial power grid and generate 300 megawatts of electricity, or about a third as much as each of the full-size reactors it’ll be next to—so it’s big, by small-reactor standards—and be supplied by GE Hitachi.
Darlington is a flagship project for the joint venture of the two global conglomerates: a rendering of the unbuilt Darlington plant is front and centre on GE Hitachi’s website, with a little Canada Post truck out front. In December, it announced it was working with BWXT Canada, a nuclear-industry service company, on a deal to supply at least 10 SMRs to Poland by the 2030s.
The SMR at Chalk River is to be a comparatively tiny five-megawatt unit. It’s a demonstration model for a new class of reactor that might replace diesel generators in way-off-the-grid mines and remote northern communities, including First Nations, where a 2016 provincial study found nuclear power could be cheaper than diesel.
(The other stream sees New Brunswick testing two SMRs at its Point Lepreau nuclear plant, like Ontario’s Darlington project but with units from Canadian companies developing their own products instead of the more off-the-shelf model from GE-Hitachi.)
The incumbent Progressive Conservatives touted the SMR plans in the budget they released shortly before calling the election, including SMRs as part of Ontario’s “clean-energy advantage.”
The Liberals are likewise friendly to atomic power. Besides launching the refurbishments of the province’s current nuclear “fleet” and commissioning that study on SMRs in remote areas, they promise to close Ontario’s current natural-gas power plants and make a long-term plan for an electricity system that “includes the right, cost-effective mix of nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables.”
“As part of this planning exercise, we will thoroughly explore opportunities to better use innovative technology, including small modular nuclear reactors, in Ontario,” press secretary Andrea Ernesaks wrote in answer to a question about whether that plan would include SMRs specifically.
But the NDP is skeptical, and has its reasons.
The current Darlington plant was a notorious financial debacle, with a $4-billion construction estimate turning into $14 billion in final costs, and a midlife refurbishment there has been late and over budget. Another plant’s refurbishment is going better, however, and the Ontario utility that owns Darlington reported it was back on track by the end of last year.
Canada keeps its nuclear waste in “interim” storage sites because it has no permanent one, though efforts to find one began in 2002. The process is expected to take “many decades,” according to the national Nuclear Waste Management Organization, with construction of suitable facilities expected to go on for 10 years even once the agency has found a site.
So when and whether the cost and waste-disposal issues are “resolved” is something of a judgment call. If they aren’t now, though, nothing is likely to change that state soon.