The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s review process of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) is taking place behind closed doors and allows private sector companies to sell unproven reactor designs to regulatory staff away from public scrutiny, claims environmental advocacy group Northwatch.
Based in northeastern Ontario, Northwatch has joined the outcry from groups such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), which fears regulators plan to weaken rules for the experimental nuclear reactors that can produce from 1 to 300 MW of electricity, and have design features promised to overcome the challenges that have historically prevented the expansion of nuclear power.
Kerrie Blaise, counsel for northern services with CELA, says there is reason to question the nuclear regulator’s independence, particularly when it can be tasked with both regulating and promoting nuclear expansion.
“The CNSC is supporting the nuclear industry’s requests to remove regulatory barriers for Small Modular Reactors,” Blaise said in a statement to media.
A January staff presentation by CNSC says that amendments are underway to “remove prescriptive requirements” from the Nuclear Security Regulations and publish the revised regulations by late 2021 or early 2022.
In a report on SMRs, Blaise says many of Canada’s nuclear reactors are now approaching the end of their operational lives. Survival of the civil nuclear industry, she says, will depend on commercialization of SMRs, which are often touted as the off-grid replacement for diesel generation in remote communities.
“The term ‘modular’ refers to industry’s hope that SMRs can be assembled from factory produced modules, rather than constructed on site like existing large reactor designs,” writes Blaise.
Of particular concern to CELA is a proposal that SMRs up to and including 300 MW reactors be exempt from environmental assessments or impact assessment processes, which would also mean removing public opportunity to weigh in on the project. SMR proponents assert that the “low safety and environmental risk” of the reactors merit exclusion from reviews.
The United Church of Canada recently joined with over 100 citizen groups, the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Anishinabek Nation, and three federal parties in opposing SMRs. While often touted as green energy, critics say nuclear waste is often left out of the sustainability conversation.
SMR technology has not been widely deployed worldwide, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has seen it as a way to help Canada achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Natural Resources Canada started an SMR Action Plan in December 2020, and several provinces, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick, already have SMRs in the works. The CNSC has engaged in pre-licensing reviews of 10 Small Modular Reactor designs.
Of the more than 50 designs that exist for experimental nuclear reactors, the CNSC is reviewing a dozen under pre-licensing agreements with companies like Moltex Energy and GE-Hitachi, according to CELA.
The CNSC presentation indicates that the regulator is supportive of studying how plutonium might be extracted from highly-radioactive irradiated CANDU fuel in New Brunswick. Dr. Susan O’Donnell, spokesperson for the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick, called the proposal a “risky and costly experiment with dangerous radioactive materials,” particularly considering the absence of public input.