Alberta Politics
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney displays the speculative agreement he had just signed promising to promote “small modular reactors” (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta).

More flimflam than usual in yesterday’s four-province news conference touting small nuclear reactors

Posted on April 15, 2021, 1:55 am
7 mins

By recycling some old news about their joint project to promote “small modular reactors” yesterday, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick have proved dubious ideas in Canada have a half-life worthy of a uranium isotope.

Well, maybe not quite that persistent. Some of those suckers can hang around for four and a half billion years. But the political equivalent, anyway.

University of British Columbia theoretical physicist M.V. Ramana (Photo: UBC).

The effort to sell us on the idea of Small Modular Reactors, the nuclear industry’s slightly sanitized term for small nuclear reactors, is an example of how bad ideas keep reappearing in this country like the proverbial bad penny – although a very large number of pennies are inevitably involved. 

There’s always a certain amount of flimflammery in government news announcements, but yesterday’s contained more than usual. After a feasibility study, four Conservative provincial governments have now signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on the advancement of an unproven and expensive technology for which there is no market. 

But since the Conservative premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick had already signed the speculative deal, the only thing actually approaching news yesterday was that Alberta signed up too. All four were on hand via teleconference link, with Ontario’s Doug Ford acting as master of ceremonies. 

Unmentioned in the Alberta government’s verbose release was that the Kenney-come-lately province’s decision to join the deal last summer was likely the United Conservative Party Government’s urgent need to change the channel on a huge political embarrassment – Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s incoherent gong show of a curriculum-review news conference on Aug. 6. 

That in turn appeared to be an attempt by Premier Jason Kenney and his political strategists to distract Albertans from the fatal potential of the province’s half-baked plan to reopen Alberta’s schools in September without adequate measures in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This can’t be said to have been a very successful sleight of hand. Months later, both issues are still plaguing the Alberta Government. But as they say, in for a penny, in for a billion pounds! 

Mr. Kenney’s enthusiastic description of this “exciting new technology that could be used in the future to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions” was a chance to change the channel yet again. (Emphasis added.) This time, the Kenney Government’s problems are the third wave of the pandemic that’s now hammering Alberta and the embarrassing rebellion by 18 backbench MLAs from the UCP’s own caucus who want to undermine the province’s effort to control the coronavirus. The curriculum, which has now been released to disastrous reviews, is not far from many Albertans’ minds either. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford at yesterday’s virtual news conference (Photo: Screenshot of Alberta Government video).

As for the yarn about little modular reactors producing clean energy – even “generating power for Canadian oilsands producers,” as Mr. Kenney hopefully put it – that’s almost certain to turn out to be a pipe dream. 

As University of British Columbia theoretical physicist M.V. Ramana wrote last month in a paper entitled Small Modular and Advanced Nuclear Reactors: A Reality Check, “expectations that small modular or advanced nuclear reactors will rescue nuclear power are unlikely to be met.”

“Nuclear advocates seem to be clutching at straws by emphasizing these options,” he said. 

Dr. Ramana argued that among the challenges facing the idea – which is not really a technology, as Premier Kenney claims, so much as a large number of competing concepts for smaller reactors that have never been built – are the facts they’re less economical to operate than large nuclear power plants, they aren’t likely to be able to compete even with renewable energy like wind and solar, they’re not necessarily safer than large reactors, some designs might even make safety challenges worse, and there’s no demand for the things. 

Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In addition to the points raised by Dr. Ramana, small nuclear reactors are never going to make economic sense as long as natural gas is cheap and plentiful. 

Of the dozens of SMR designs being touted throughout the world, only one doesn’t require enriched uranium – and Canada produces no enriched uranium. This means Energy Minister Sonya Savage’s claim last summer that “Alberta’s rich uranium deposits … could make us an attractive destination to develop and deploy SMRs” was flimflam too. Global uranium markets are saturated. 

Moreover, attempts to build SMRs like Russia’s reactor on a barge, nicknamed “Floating Chernobyl” by critics, have experienced huge cost overruns, just like those common to large nuclear projects. “One study of construction cost overruns showed that 175 out of the 180 nuclear projects examined had final costs that exceeded the initial budget, on average by 117 per cent,” Dr. Ramana noted in his paper.

The problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unsolved as well.

Finally, even in the unlikely event SMRs become a marketable and affordable technology, most of the Canadian jobs created are likely to be in Ontario, where the manufacturing capacity and nuclear engineers are found. 

Nice distraction, but this dog won’t hunt.

27 Comments to: More flimflam than usual in yesterday’s four-province news conference touting small nuclear reactors

  1. Anonymous

    April 15th, 2021

    Nuclear reactors are fraught with risks a plenty, and no rewards. The UCP are rehashing something that the Alberta PCs were looking into, and Albertans at that time gave a resounding no. They said no to nuclear power in Alberta. The questions remain concerning potential disasters, and also the disposal and storage of waste materials from nuclear reactors. Nuclear power isn’t foolproof, nor is it safe. History is abundantly clear on that. The UCP are making a very bad decision here. Who will the UCP blame, if someone goes wrong? Also, the UCP has weak environmental protection policies, as most of the running Alberta PC governments had. It was Ralph Klein who began to let oil companies not fix up their messes. Nothing was done after that, and Albertans have to fork over $260 billion, or more for this. What bill would the UCP give to Albertans for a nuclear power reactor catastrophe, and/or the problems associated with improperly stored nuclear waste?

    Reply
    • Neil Lore

      April 15th, 2021

      I’ve encountered several people in the last few years who passionately argue that nuclear is the solution to climate change. Reading your post, I had an epiphany – nuclear power is the ideal Neoliberal solution. The gains are privatized and the costs are socialized.

      Reply
  2. Bill Malcolm

    April 15th, 2021

    Exactement. Useless. These premiers are so illiterate on technical matters, except for Higgs who should know better as an engineer but apparently doesn’t care, that industry flimfam has captured their limited imaginations with pretty colour brochures touting visions of radioactive sugar plum fairies. Hot diggity damn! Take that, Trudeau cabon tax! I say build more wind farms, which are incredibly capital inexpensive these days, and power them with UCP and Con hot air. Now that really would be inexpensive electricity.

    Reply
  3. Sadder Budweiser Lite

    April 15th, 2021

    Somewhere in my files I have a nice brochure from the good old days of AECL when they touted their Slowpoke technology for everything from remote community district heating to shopping malls.
    Nukes are pretty much out of fashion since Chernobyl and Fukushima. CANDU and Slowpoke are pretty safe, comparatively, but they are still nuclear reactors. I wouldn’t want one left in the hands of a janitor.
    Harper’s gang, having wrecked Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, gave it to SNC Lavalin to run as a new company called Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. All of this “new small nukes” activity is because they’re desperate for investment to keep this lame/dead duck going for a while longer.
    SNC-Lavalin – A name you can trust til Armageddon!

    Reply
  4. Geoffrey Pounder

    April 15th, 2021

    In Canada, Jason Kenney, Doug Ford, and Scott Moe are leading the charge for SMRs. Canadians who still have their heads attached to their shoulders should run in the opposite direction.
    Even if I were neutral on nuclear, I would be doubtful. Four “Conservative” premiers. Each a fount of bad ideas. Count their lies about renewables, if you can.
    Then there’s the two climate change deniers the nuclear industry hired to lead its PR campaign: perennial renewables-basher and anti-environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, and former-Greenpeace-member-turned-corporate-shill and professional recycler of climate myths Patrick Moore. Neither of whom can open their mouths without their noses growing longer.
    SMRs are also getting a huge push from industry-captured bureaucrats at Natural Resources Canada. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan repeats empty claims: “We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear.”
    O’Regan needs to look harder.
    The Trudeau Liberals have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 even with nuclear, because they continue to push fossil fuels: new export pipelines enabling oilsands expansion and new LNG projects. Hopelessly disingenuous.
    The IEA’s 2020 ETP Clean Energy Technology Guide rates SMRs as just “Moderate” (lowest rating) in terms of Importance for net-zero emissions. The IEA rates wind and solar High in Importance for Net-Zero Emissions and much higher in Technology Readiness Level.

    Fossil fuel boosters and nuke pushers claim renewables “just aren’t ready”. They’ve got it backwards. It’s SMRs that aren’t ready.
    The nuclear push is a delaying tactic. Renewables are ready to go. At much lower cost.
    Just about every ENGO opposes nuclear — “a dangerous distraction from real climate action.”
    https://cela.ca/dirty-dangerous-new-reactors/

    Benjamin Sovacool, director of the energy group, U of Sussex: Renewables provide a bigger bang for the buck to lower emissions, and are widely available now, unlike SMRs. “Nuclear power is like fighting world hunger with caviar, it’s like using the most expensive option when there are far more plentiful and nutritious options available when you account for the costs.”
    “Can small nuclear reactors help Canada reach its net-zero 2050 goals? Some experts are skeptical” (CBC)
    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/whatonearth/can-small-nuclear-reactors-help-canada-reach-its-net-zero-2050-goals-some-experts-are-skeptical-1.5792823

    The nuclear industry is its own worst enemy: negative learning curve, construction delays, big cost overruns, mining pollution, waste problem, plant releases, etc.
    While the cost of renewables falls, nuclear costs rise. Renewables without subsidy increasingly beat fossil fuels on cost; nuclear requires massive govt support and subsidies.
    So why are self-styled free-market conservatives so keen on SMRs? A head-scratcher, for sure.

    Reply
  5. Jim Clarke

    April 15th, 2021

    Four and a half Billion years, not Million. Doesn’t weaken your point!

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      April 15th, 2021

      Thank you, Jim. I’m afraid I can’t pass that one off as a typo. It was an honest mistake, based on my apparent inability to count zeroes. There’s a reason my father was a physicist, and I’m not. Thanks for the correction; my readers are my editors. It’s been fixed. DJC

      Reply
      • jerrymacgp

        April 16th, 2021

        So, the half-life of Uranium-238, which is the predominant isotope in natural unenriched uranium, is indeed about 4.5 billion years, or about the age of the planet Earth; so, it is likely that at the time of the formation of the Solar System, Earth had about twice as much uranium as it does now. The half-life of the more fissionable isotope U-235 is more like 704 million years. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of roughly 24,000 years. (I’m no physicist either, but I did take a couple of university-level basic physics courses back in the ‘70s).

        As for the feasibility of these small modular reactors, a type of small modular reactors has been in common use … in big-power navies since the 1950s, on submarines & aircraft carriers. I suppose if you took a reactor designed for a sub & just put it on a concrete foundation somewhere, you’d have an SMR. I’m not sure about the advisability of doing that, mind you, but it is indeed possible to build a reactor that isn’t humongous.

        My biggest objection to nuclear isn’t the safety aspect per se; there are lots of energy industry facilities with serious safety risks: I’d hate to live anywhere near Edmonton’s Refinery Row, for example. But until & unless we come up with a permanent & widely acceptable solution to nuclear waste, we need to stay away from this as a energy source.

        Reply
  6. Roger

    April 15th, 2021

    Seems that the Japanese have solved the disposal of waste problem, dump everything into the Pacific. Kenney and his gang of clowns would maybe be ok with dumping waste into the N. Sask, Oldman, etrc..rivers along with the selenium they don’t care about from their pet AU coal mines. Sarcasm most definitely intended!

    Reply
    • Abs

      April 15th, 2021

      At least we know why the War Room was so upset with the mention of nukes in the Bigfoot movie, and why Kenney wants access to tidewater.

      Reply
  7. Neil Lore

    April 15th, 2021

    Chretien has a solution to nuclear waste that seems to involve him getting paid a bunch of money to help secretly bring it from other countries and bury it in Labrador. When confronted about it, he lied, and when confronted with proof of his lie, he gave an actual interview. It couldn’t be any more vintage Jean if he threw in a Shawinigan Handshake, an incident that actually has a wikipedia page. Who said Canadian politics is boring?

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/chretien-nuclear-waste-project-1.5971996

    Reply
  8. Keith McClary

    April 15th, 2021

    Notice that they don’t give examples of remote communities that would benefit from these. That’s because there are very few with enough population to justify the cost.

    As for using them in the bitumen mines, Kenney just sees another opportunity to give public $ to the oil companies.

    Reply
  9. Hana Razga

    April 15th, 2021

    Ford, Moe, Kenney – three of the original “Resisters”. Missing Andrew Scheer and Brian Pallister. When you hear Jason Kenney talk you know he does not know what he is talking about…..

    Reply
  10. ema

    April 15th, 2021

    The similarity between that picture of our ideological premier and a certain Marmalade Man screams out….”Look at me, I am way out of my depth, but take a photo anyway, so that I get more coverage of yet another bit of flimflam.” UGH!!

    Reply
  11. Carlos

    April 15th, 2021

    Hopefully he will be gone by the time the first pilot is built 🙂

    Reply
  12. Simon Renouf

    April 15th, 2021

    Does that picture of Kenney actually have a little arrow post-it showing him where to sign?

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      April 15th, 2021

      Yup. DJC

      Reply
  13. Athabascan

    April 15th, 2021

    As with all things related to Conservatives, this scheme is not as it seems.

    They have no intentions of producing power, via nuclear generation, let alone build mini or maxi reactors. This is just another pretext to steal public money for themselves and their friends. Many millions will be spent doing “independent studies” that will be headed by conservative hacks who need work.

    Conservatives are atracted to mega projects because of the potential for skimming they represent.

    Reply
    • Purple Library Guy

      April 17th, 2021

      I think you’re being unfair to them. It’s more than that. It’s a climate-washing exercise. The idea is to tout these things as the solution to climate change (along with hydrogen), and study them to death for five or ten years as an excuse to not do anything real–any time someone points out they’re doing nothing whatsoever to reduce fossil fuel use or extraction, they can point to the Small Modular Reactors, which will be ready Any Year Now.
      After those don’t pan out maybe they can try fusion power for a while–another perfect power source which has been just 30 years away since the 1960s.

      Reply
  14. GreenMapleLeaf

    April 15th, 2021

    When the house is on fire do we really have the option to deny the use of a bucket of water because it can be dangerous? We are on a dying planet because of an immediate pollutant, one possible solution is to get our power from nuclear but it is a long term pollutant. I have zero problem with the use of this technology.

    The Soviet and Japanese incidents were due to poor design (Chernobyl) and poor placement (Fukashima), new reactors can be built better and smarter. How many reactor fubars have we had since inception compared to oil spills, oil train derailments etc? Seems to me it’s an easy decision.

    As an aside the four muskateers coming out with this political kabuki was timed well with the SCOC decision on the Federal carbon levy. Coincidence? Did they know they were going to lose and had this as a back-up plan while wasting taxpayer money? It certainly has the possibility of splitting soft Liberal votes away and going to the NDP, the Liberals will have to be for the nuclear option while the NDP can safely play possum and be against. This will have the effect of splitting the vote allowing the CPC to run up the middle to at a minority. History does repeat. 🙂

    Reply
    • Purple Library Guy

      April 17th, 2021

      Bad analogy. When the house is on fire you get a bucket or a hose. If someone comes along and tells you that everyone should leave the bucket chain to help him design a cloud-seeding device with which to get any local clouds to rain on the house, you tell him to shut up and grab a bucket. These premiers need to shut up and fund a wind farm.

      Reply
  15. brett

    April 15th, 2021

    Lots of flim flam however it is becoming obvious to even the most ardent UCP supporters that Kenney’s lies are becoming more obvious to even to disinterested voters.

    Why on earth does he blab on and on, enveloping himself in obvious misstatements and contradictions? Is he so much in fear of his party and caucus members that he cannot think straight and keep his stories straight?

    We need our Premier to be on the ball during this covid crisis with 100 percent attention to doing the right thing for the health and welfare of Albertans.

    What we do not need is a Premier who looks over his shoulder at this own party members each time before deciding what the right thing to do is. That only results in half way measures that are ineffective bound to failure.

    We do not need a Mr. Day Late and a Dollar Short for a Premier.

    Reply
  16. Scotty on Denman

    April 15th, 2021

    The delusional is, a fortiori, capably fanciful.

    From betwixt the headboard of the spacious four-poster inscribed “Conservative” and the footboard inscribed “Resistance,” the bundling board has been withdrawn and Kenney Kanuke finally reacts to finish the sweet, slowpoke entreaties of bromance from his more experienced elders glowing with carnuclear knowledge, each having lost their radioactive virginity long ago. At last!—smelting and fissioning are consummated! Rods of uranium have found a tender new frontier to spoil! At least on paper.

    Many kinds of Small Modular Reactors have been designed without necessarily having technology to build them. The minimum number of mass-produced units to reach estimated break-even far exceeds the demand. The conundrum has been studied so long, engineers have spawned whole “new generations” of designs, presumably that much more ahead of technologies needed to realize them. Now that’s innovation! At a moment of almost incredibly unfortunate realities, what better timing for some fantastically optimistic news!

    According to Wiki, finding ways “to bypass financial and safety barriers” motivates development of SMRs. With a waste product that stays radioactive for four million millennia, no wonder The K-Boy has taken the time to carefully consider these and other trivial matters. Naturally he also needs to tarry long enough for Albertans to forget potential credibility issues raised by his handling of Covid and Keystone pipeline fiascos, as peripheral to public safety and finances as those two distractions are. Politics is so unfair.

    Although unstable of late, Kenney knows UCP supporters are blessed with the ability to believe in the unprovable (like God and anti-Alberta conspirators) and disbelieve the provable (like petroleum-caused climate change), enraptured as they are with a presumed god-given right to combust fossil fuels into the infinite capacity of the heavens. And, hey, what do anti-vaxxer/anti-maskers care about others’ safety when they don’t even care about their own? Yet, despite these conveniences, the K-Boy is politically experienced enough to temper his Geiger counter, knowing full well neighbours like the BC socialists are naturally wary that anybody who goes into thermonuclear meltdown over a cartoon Sasquatch is dangerous with any reactor capability whatsoever and needs to be watched like the Israeli airforce does Iran and Iraq.

    But, if anybody could pull it off, Kenney can, SoConDu!

    Yet, given how much of the Alberta right’s future is the past, the matter of waste is certainly a concern: how can any government which bypasses safety and financial regulations with respect thousands of abandoned wellheads leaking methane which present unbudgeted cleanup costs in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars be trusted to deal safely and prudently with nuclear waste that’s hundreds of millions of times more dangerous to living ecosystems?

    It’s a simple a fortiori argument that the UCP —or, for that matter, any of the other three parties to have governed Alberta since the Drayton Valley oil strike back in 1947—cannot be trusted to safely deal with petroleum pollution, much less, therefore, nuclear pollution which is much, much more dangerous.

    The nuke announcement is rather phissionable material. BC Tomcats have not been scrambled.

    Reply
  17. Mike J. Danysh

    April 15th, 2021

    Well, if Jason et al want to get on an atomic-energy magazine’s email list, that’s fine. They can study the cool schematics and crunch imaginary numbers all day long. It’d keep them all out of bigger trouble–like messing up the third Covid-19 wave and setting us up for a fourth. As long as it doesn’t cost us taxpayers anything, I’m OK with it.
    —MJD, a.k.a. Mike in Edmonton

    Reply
  18. Dave

    April 16th, 2021

    The only thing having a nuclear meltdown at this time is probably Kenney and the UCP’s popularity. They must be a bit desperate for a distraction, if they are recycling news here. Perhaps they are also looking for cover to raise another user fee or something.

    Well I suppose the restitance premiers can’t credibly put out another news release about fighting carbon taxes at this point, so they needed something else. What better than a small nuclear reactor to pull out of their hats or pockets, like a strangely glowing rabbit?

    Although perhaps they are not so united anymore. They seem to be going off madly in all directions now with the Sask Premier apparently wanting a tax on electric cars. Maybe he is a bit confused here.
    The Federal Conservatives now seem to be proposing a carbon levy. Apparently its not a tax, but the reasoning for that is a bit convoluted. It apparently involves returning the money to people based on carbon use. Again that doesn’t seem like an incentive to reduce carbon use, but at least it is not a tax on electric cars.

    Makes one wonder what else Kenney ill come up to go along with his mini nuclear meltdown.

    Reply
  19. Richard Kover

    April 16th, 2021

    “Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s incoherent gong show of a curriculum-review news conference on Aug. 7. ” -shouldn’t that be April 7th ?

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      April 16th, 2021

      Well, you’re right there was a small error in the date, but not the one you thought. Thanks just the same for bringing it to my attention. The summertime curriculum review news conference referenced was on Aug. 6, 2020, not in April this year. The implementation of the curriculum, not that a review of it was going to take place, was announced on March 29, 2021. DJC

      Reply

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