SMRs a promising solution to high carbon emissions in Alberta

Doug FirbyThere is a fierce debate in Alberta over how quickly the province must reduce its carbon emissions. Environmentalists say we’re moving too slowly but the Alberta government claims deadlines proposed by the federal government are so tight they will harm the province’s economy.

In fact, the United Conservative Party (UCP) government of Danielle Smith got so worked up over the feds’ draft Clean Electricity Regulations that it invoked the province’s sovereignty act – a move one newspaper columnist described as the “nuclear option.” (An ironic choice of words, as I will explain shortly.)

Imagine! All this thunder and lightning over rules that, even if invoked as proposed, would not come into effect until 2035 – fully 12 years from now.

Much of the debate over how to achieve these emissions reductions has centred on two strategies: significant cuts in energy use and increased development of renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal. These are great ideas and worth pursuing, but there are significant doubts over whether even our best efforts in these areas will get the job done in the time frame Canada has committed to.

smrs carbon emissions alberta

An architectural rendering of Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor power plant.
Image courtesy Terrestrial Energy

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But there is one option that gets less attention.

The nuclear option.

Yes, nuclear power can – and arguably must – be part of the energy picture if we are to have any realistic hope of meeting our emissions targets by the deadlines we have committed to (net-zero emissions, as a country, by 2050).

I have come to this conclusion somewhat reluctantly. I’m a Boomer, which means I’m old enough to have witnessed the many painful and expensive growing pains the nuclear industry has gone through. I saw the multibillion-dollar cost overruns at Ontario Hydro with its Canadian-made Candu reactors, I sat on the edge of my chair during the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, my heart sank at the death and devastation created at Chernobyl in 1986, and I was shocked by the disaster at Fukushima in 2001. Today, we fret that the ongoing occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine is making it ripe for an accident.

And yet, none of these terrible events is reason enough to abandon the introduction of nuclear reactors in Alberta. After a brutally long and expensive gestation period with this complex technology, it appears designers have finally begun to figure out how to build safe, affordable, small-footprint nuclear power plants that could help Alberta meet its emissions challenge.

A big part of the problem with nuclear reactors over the years has been their complexity. Each nuclear reactor, even those with so-called “common” designs, is unique and poses new technical challenges. In effect, designers have been redesigning reactors every time a new one is built. Another significant issue is the scale of the projects. The classic approach to reactors has been mega-projects that, rightly, take years of regulatory review to approve, and almost invariably must be modified during construction as regulations evolve.

A new approach to nuclear reactors addresses many of these vexing problems. The emergence of small modular reactors (SMRs) raises the possibility that smaller-scale nuclear power plants (50 MW and 300 MW compared to the more than 1 GW [1,000 MW] output from a typical large-scale reactor) could be both cheaper to build and safer to operate. Cheaper because standard parts could be built remotely and shipped to sites by rail and truck and safer because they use substantially smaller amounts of nuclear fuel (and because design best practices can be standardized).

This is not pie in the sky. Fully 60 percent of Ontario’s electricity already comes from traditional nuclear reactors. Even our oil-and-gas government in Alberta has been seriously considering SMRs for several years. In March 2022, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick released a strategic plan for the deployment of SMRs.

Alberta has the highest per-capita emissions in the country because we produce a lot of oil and gas. In response, a consortium of companies called Oil Sands: Pathway to Net Zero has embraced the concept of SMRs as a promising way for them to reduce GHG emissions in the oil sands. That’s great, but I also wonder why Alberta couldn’t start phasing in SMRs to replace the gas-fired turbines scattered around the province.

Now, anyone who has gotten caught up in the promises of new technology knows that the reality too often falls short of the dream. Even proponents of SMRs estimate that the cost of electricity from these as-yet largely unproven devices will be higher than what we pay today and much more expensive than photovoltaic or wind power.

And whoever heard of a power plant being delivered on time or on budget? The numbers can get pretty scary.

Yet, one thing nuclear can do that wind and solar so far cannot is deliver constant, predictable power, day and night. The relatively small footprint is a fraction of that required for a typical solar farm. Notwithstanding the spectacular incidents mentioned above, nuclear’s overall safety record, especially in Canada, compares favourably. And it is the only non-renewable option that produces electricity with zero emissions.

So, let the debate begin (in fact, there are some interesting debates already, including this one). But let’s not make it an endless game of chasing tails. If we are serious about getting SMRs up and running in time to make a difference to our emissions goals, then we’ll have to get going now.

Alberta would hardly be breaking new ground. Last week, more than 20 countries from four continents attending the COP28 conference in Dubai pledged to triple the output of nuclear energy. Let’s hope Alberta’s anti-fed premier is not too put off by the fact that Canada’s government was one of the signatories to the commitment. It’s a good time to set aside petty politics and to make a bold move in the interest of Albertans’ future.

Doug Firby is an award-winning editorial writer with over four decades of experience working for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Ontario and western Canada. Previously, he served as Editorial Page Editor at the Calgary Herald.

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