Why the Liberal’s Throne Speech should drop a costly nuclear bailout

Guest Blog by Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Director of Programs Greenpeace Canada (originally published at Greenpeace Canada)

A Throne Speech is an opportunity for a government to make a fresh start, but Trudeau’s September 23 speech is already promising to make at least one of the same old mistakes: throwing hope and money at nuclear power.

Hypothetical new nuclear power technologies have been promising to be the next big thing for the last forty years, but in spite of massive public subsidies, that prospect has never panned out. Meanwhile, the cost of wind, solar and energy storage technologies have been dropping so fast they are making nuclear irrelevant.

On Saturday’s edition of CBC Radio’s The House, Natural Resource Minister Seamus O’Regan announced that the Throne Speech will include a government commitment to develop so-called Small Modular Reactors or SMRs. (They leave out the word “nuclear” in SMR due to the negative connotation).

Minister O’Regan’s decision to throw more good money at the Canadian nuclear industry, which has received over $20 billion from the federal government since 1950, is not an investment that will help Canada build back better from the current crisis. It’s a wasteful decision to pay the nuclear industry to dig yet another hole and fill it in again.

Here’s why.

The nuclear industry never delivered on its promise of providing cheap, safe and clean energy.

The global nuclear industry has been in decline since Chernobyl, and in Canada 9 of 22 reactors we built in the 1970s will be closed by 2025 due to the high cost of keeping them operating.

But this hasn’t stopped the Canadian nuclear lobby from trying to revive itself by promising new cheaper, safer reactor designs. The catch? The promise is always contingent on the federal government providing subsidies, cutting public oversight, and protecting industry from the liability for reactor accidents and radioactive waste.

SMRs are the latest promise of a new affordable reactor design, which advocates say would be indispensable for fighting climate change – if only they are developed.

After being sworn in, Minister O’Regan’s briefing book told him that the Ministry’s top priority related to nuclear energy was to “pursue opportunities for Small Modular Reactors (SMRS).”

The briefing book failed to mention, however, that his staff had made similar pitches to Minister O’Regan’s predecessors.

In the 2000s, the civil service and the nuclear lobby convinced previous Ministers to pursue the “Advanced CANDU” reactor. Just like SMRs, the Advanced CANDU was touted as being a tool to fight climate change because it would be cheaper, safer and produce less waste than previous reactor designs.

The Advanced CANDU turned out to be a total waste of money. In the 2000s, Minister O’Regan’s predecessors spent over $430 million to develop it, but it never got off the design board.

Worse, the staff at the Department of Natural Resources has swept this huge failure under the rug.

I filed an Access to Information request for evaluations of the federal government’s support for the development of the Advanced CANDU. The response: such records do not exist.

As the adage goes, if we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Minister O’Regan’s commitment to include Small Modular Nuclear Reactors in the Throne Speech shows he and the Trudeau government are suffering from nuclear amnesia.

Money and time spent on SMRs will divert us from the investments we need to make a green and just recovery.

So what should we do instead?

  1. Invest in proven renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions that are much cheaper, safer and faster to deploy.
  2. Update the Nuclear Energy Actwhich encourages staff at the Ministry of Natural Resources to continue developing and promoting nuclear energy in spite of its decline and checkered history — so future Ministers stop getting bad advice.