Letter: The new nuclear nightmare is not okay

A counter point to perceived pro-nuclear bias

To the Expositor:

Lori Thompson’s April 14 article ‘First of its kind nuclear project all about creating a new energy solution in Canada’ paints a rosy picture of a nuclearized Canada. To counter the rather biased pro-nuclear article, here are some facts to consider.

The reactor proposed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) for Chalk River does not yet have a licence to operate. It is already over a year behind schedule, it is unlikely to be built before 2030, and would not generate any electricity. It therefore does not help us reach our Paris targets for emission reduction.

Liberal natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan’s line that “there is no path to net-zero without nuclear” is not true.

We are in a climate emergency. We need to lower the temperature rapidly, and we have all the technology we need, right now, to start moving towards net-zero carbon emissions and meet our Paris targets. We have retrofit and efficiencies, we have proven technologies in renewables like wind, solar and geothermal, together fabulous new technologies with smaller more efficient batteries, and we have the option to make smart grids. A great place to learn more about these zero-carbon technologies that are lower-cost and easily implemented right now is Ontario Clean Air Alliance. We need to read articles, such as one recently from Stanford University (Mark Z. Jacobson et. al) that maps a transition to 100 percent renewables by 2050 for 139 countries. 

Why is the federal government pouring millions into an experiment called small modular reactors (SMRs)? 

The old nuclear reactors at Darlington, Bruce, Pickering and in New Brunswick have reached the end of their lives. In order to stay afloat these companies, like OPG, like SNC-Lavalin, need cash. To date, taxpayer direct funding to SMR start-up companies totals $70.5 million. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—they will need billions to get their projects off the ground. 

According to Susan O’Donnell, a researcher and adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick, “the government’s whole push for nuclear reactors…is coming from an industry that’s dying and desperate to survive.” O’Donnell tells us that the memoranda of understanding (MOU) signed by New Brunswick, Ontario’s Ford Government, Saskatchewan and now Alberta, “binds the parties to only talking about the benefits of these technologies…and not to talk about the risks…so we’re not going to hear any of that from the government.” Who is regulating these dangerous new technologies, if not our governments? 

O’Donnell also highlights that the pro-SMR MOU between our provinces also binds these governments, “to promoting nuclear energy as a clean technology that’s required as part of the climate change solution.” How much of the $70.5 million of taxpayer’s money is going to proper research, and how much to a pro-nuclear propaganda machine?

While the project at Chalk seems to be going ahead, little do most Canadians know that similar high-temperature gas-cooled reactor designs have been tried in the past but have not proven to be reliable or affordable. 

The Anishinaabek First Nation and Chi Ogimaa Glen Hare have stated unequivocally that they do not support the development of SMRs on their traditional territory. “We, as Anishinabek, have the responsibility to act as stewards of our lands and waters,” states Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare. “SMRs and nuclear power in general represents an unacceptable risk to our Nation. The Anishinabek Nation is vehemently opposed to any effort to situate SMRs within our territory. The stance we have taken is in support of the seven generations to come.”  

On the heels of a $50.5 million dollar federal gift to Moltex for an experimental SMR on the Bay of Fundy, what does real leadership look like? Green MP for Fredericton, Jenica Atwin, states, “In the House of Commons, we are debating Bill C-15 to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, enshrining free, prior, and informed consent,” said Atwin. “Meanwhile the government continues to fund and promote dangerous, dirty nuclear development without any attempt at consultation.” 

One of the most important issues not discussed properly in Ms. Thompson’s article is that the waste described by Mr. Mitchell would be “maybe a drum a year” of low level waste. Nuclear waste is categorized into three categories: low and medium (essentially the entire building) and high (spent fuel). The proponents of the Chalk River reactor have no plan for the irradiated graphite blocks and the high-level fuel waste produced after 20 years of operation. Transporting such highly radioactive waste would present a formidable logistical challenge and it would likely be abandoned on site.

This country currently has no viable, safe plan for the existing waste we’ve been generating for the past 40 years. Why would we recklessly start a plan to generate more waste when we still don’t know how to safely care for the waste we have? If we can’t trust our governments to tell us the dangers of these proposed SMRs, can we trust them to safely decide about the nuclear waste? 

In a recent letter to Minister O’Regan ,who is responsible for funding the Liberal and Conservative push for new nuclear, Green MP Elizabeth May writes, “The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is an industrial association of the generators and owners of nuclear fuel waste, namely Hydro Quebec, New Brunswick Power and OPG. The role of the NWMO contradicts the recommendations that an ‘arm’s length’ agency be formed, that is independent from the nuclear industry, to investigate approaches for managing Canada’s used nuclear fuel. As a result of the NWMO’s direct involvement with the nuclear industry, this organization is neither seen as trustworthy or credible in defending the public interest.”

The NWMO is targeting Ignace, Ontario (half way between Thunder Bay and Kenora) and Tiverton in southern Ontario for deep geological repositories (DGRs) for high level waste. This means that our highways will see trucks carrying nuclear waste for years. DGRs are dumps. They are experiments. Not one exists on the entire planet. Once the waste is interred, if something goes wrong, it is irretrievable. In 2017 the Anishinaabek First Nation with the Iroquois Caucus issued a statement that they “strongly oppose the transportation of highly radioactive liquid material from Chalk River to South Carolina and the abandonment of nuclear waste from Chalk River in a giant mound situated beside the Ottawa River.”

But if the government refuses to investigate options other than DGR, how can we know what path to choose?

The Wolastok First Nation in New Brunswick has clearly done the research themselves on the virtues of DGRs, and in their recent declaration state, in solidarity with the Anishinaabek First Nation, “That the Governments of New Brunswick and Canada and the nuclear industry respect the desires of First Nations in Ontario to stop the development of the DGR on Indigenous territory in Ontario, and to assume responsibility for the radioactive material created by nuclear reactors in New Brunswick.” The Wolastok declaration continues, “That the governments of New Brunswick and Canada store all existing nuclear waste on the site of the Point Lepreau nuclear station in above-ground, attack-resistant, reinforced vaults, pulled back from the water’s edge, until an acceptable, permanent and safe method to destroy or neutralize the waste is found.” 

Canadians need to know that the companies receiving taxpayer donations for their pipe-dream experiments are only doing so under the express understanding that SMRs will be deployed across the country. According to a newly released feasibility study by Sask Power, Energie NB, Bruce Power and OPG, we can look forward to “…a new class of micro SMRs designed primarily to replace diesel use in remote communities and mines.” At minimum, we can envision 20 reactors peppered across our precious hinterland. Why? So we can accelerate the dirty mining operations that will further pollute our watersheds and poison Indigenous communities across the North. 

Most importantly, Canadians need to know the truth about ‘recycled fuel.’ Plutonium does not occur naturally on our planet. Plutonium is the highly radioactive offspring of exploded uranium atoms. The process by which spent nuclear fuel will be turned into plutonium for SMRs is dangerous to say the least. This is the same technology that makes nuclear bombs.  

According to internationally respected nuclear awareness advocate Dr. Gordon Edwards, “In order to get it out of the fuel, which is solid, you have to dissolve the fuel and make it into a liquid form … radioactive gases come off … radon gas (a radioactive gas) … radioactive argon gas and xenon gas and krytpon gas.” That’s not all! Dr. Edwards continues, “And there’s also vapors … which start off as gases but then they resolidify and they get into the food chain … things like Strontium90 and Cesium137.” These radioactive particles cause genetic mutations, disease and severe illness, in all life forms, for tens of thousands of years.

At least one of the companies receiving our money to conduct experiments is SNC-Lavalin, who’s ties to the nuclear arms industry, and the Trudeau government, are well known.   

What is really going to happen at Chalk River? According to a group of citizens living downriver of the Chalk River facility, Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, “Canadian heavy water reactors use 0.7 percent U-235 (unenriched uranium fuel), and the current generation of light water reactors use 3-5 percent enriched U-235. Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, the Project partner in charge of the MMR design, proposes to use 9-12 percent enriched U-235. Commercialization of reactors with such a high U-235 enrichment would create security and nuclear weapons proliferation risks.”

There is a reason why Canada has not signed on to the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Creating plutonium for SMRs scattered across the Canadian hinterland will be inextricably linked to the nuclear arms race. 

Oh, Canada, our truth north strong and free, we stand on guard for thee. Is your Liberal and Conservative leadership, in league with the billionaire class, doing the same? 

Sarah Gabrielle Baron

Aundeck Omni Kaning