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Net zero: what governments have learned about public engagement and nuclear energy

In this new edition to Making Waves, Dr. Jeremy Rayner reviews the latest report on the future of small modular reactors issued by four provincial governments.

By Jeremy Rayner, Researcher, Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy; and Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy

The latest report on the future of small modular reactors (SMRs) in Canada has just landed with a metaphorical thump on our virtual desktops.  A Strategic Plan for the Deployment of Small Modular Reactors is an odd document, more a progress report than a plan. It adds little to what is already known about the plans of the four “MOU provinces”—Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan—that have agreed to develop and deploy SMRs.  The three tracks announced in the Action Plan are confirmed:  construction of a small conventional boiling water reactor in Ontario with subsequent deployment in Saskatchewan; two, less familiar, molten salt designs for New Brunswick; and very small modular reactors (vSMR) for remote and off grid applications to be developed at Chalk River.  Dates for deployment remain speculative and, if past experience with nuclear new builds is anything to go by, should be taken with a very large pinch of salt (not the molten kind).  Ontario plans to have the demonstration SMR completed at the existing nuclear site in Darlington by 2028, with the first of what is hoped to be a long run of commercially viable reactors online in Saskatchewan by 2034.   New Brunswick will see its reactors up and running by the end of the decade, while Chalk River proposes to have a Westinghouse designed vSMR ready by 2026. 

Why do these dates matter and what does the strategic plan tell us about the proprietary risk assessments that the provinces have presumably conducted to identify the challenges to meeting them? In the first instance, they matter because SMRs are now very clearly framed in the Plan as making an essential contribution to meeting Canada’s targets for net zero electricity production, replacing coal and gas for baseload electricity generation.  This is certainly a welcome development.  SMRs are not new technologies and for most of their life they have been solutions in search of a problem. It’s good to have that problem clearly stated, not least so that evidence-informed policy analysis can be conducted on the relative merits of SMRs and competing solutions to the same problem.

However, as a solution to the clean energy problem, SMRs are likely to have a relatively narrow window of opportunity. With a net zero objective, significant amounts of baseload electricity need to be generated only so long as the solution to another problem—how to store energy from intermittent renewables, mainly wind and solar—remains elusive.  A huge amount of innovation is currently going on to try to address the impact of intermittents on grid stability, involving everything from compressed air pumps to better grid design and connectivity.  While we still have a long way to go to solve this other problem (whatever the proponents of renewables might be telling you), by the end of the decade the storage and transmission landscape is likely to look very different from what it does now.  If SMRs are still at the demonstration stage by this time, their shelf life will be severely limited and provincial dreams of modular production running into the scores or hundreds will come crashing down. 

The Strategic Plan is very clear about how to avoid this debacle.  From the provincial governments’ perspective, the main risks to the timely deployment of SMRs are financial and regulatory. There is an eloquent plea for financial support from the feds and the same dangerous and delusive call for regulatory fast tracking that I drew attention to in the Action Plan.  As the authors of the Strategic Plan note, Canadians and, presumably, the citizens of countries to which we hope to export SMRs, can have confidence in their safety because the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is a world-class regulator with an outstanding record.  Simultaneously praising the CNSC while pressuring it to fast track SMR approvals is like loudly announcing the stability of a tree as you saw off the branch you are sitting on. 

More worrying still is the Plan’s approach to public engagement. I suppose that it’s progress of a sort that engagement is mentioned at all.  But even allowing for sections in the executive summary and introduction, the treatment of public engagement takes up just 3 pages in a 30+ page report. More alarming still is that the authors of the report continue to confuse public engagement with public education.  “Public engagement on the topic of SMRs could include developing a greater understanding of the traditional role that nuclear has played and continues to play as a cost-effective and clean source of energy with significant economic and societal benefits” (23).  In other words, engagement means that the public needs to be told about the role of nuclear in power generation and be introduced to the shiny new world of SMRs. 

This is a sales pitch not public engagement. It is unfortunately indicative of the extent to which the provincial government departments responsible for SMRs (and the Strategic Plan) remain in thrall to a toxic combination of hopeful entrepreneurs and the old nuclear establishment in Canada, who, like the emigres returning to France after the restoration of the Bourbons, have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” from Canada’s earlier foray into nuclear technologies.  To them, “the public” is composed of a small minority of deluded anti-nuclear activists, and the silent majority just waiting to be informed about the benefits of nuclear energy. 

Engagement is a dialogue. The latter word is mentioned in the Plan but clearly not understood.  A dialogue has two or more voices—it’s not a lecture (even when the lecturer takes questions) or a marketing campaign.  If SMRs are to have a future, they will need to become more than a transitional technology aimed at meeting clean energy targets. They must answer to the needs of energy consumers (not some undefined “public”) and the real role of engagement is to explore those needs and the suitability of SMRs in meeting them.  The Plan mentions many of the co-benefits that SMR’s could produce in addition to clean electricity, such as hydrogen and heat, but these are what engineers think SMRs are good for.  We know that consumers are concerned about the rising cost of energy, about the widening gap between those who enjoy energy security and those who don’t.  We know that there is excitement in northern and Indigenous communities for any technology that promises to address the energy imbalance between north and south in Canada. Beyond that, we have little idea of what consumers really think about SMRs, whether they would be comfortable living in close proximity to them, for example, or whether they would ever treat mass produced SMRs like other useful technologies that come with a risk of harm, like automobiles or lawnmowers, or what new economic activities might be enabled by the energy SMRs could produce. We could learn about this if we had a real dialogue. 

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record (another old technology undergoing something of a revival today), the real challenge facing nuclear energy in any form is not financial or even regulatory. The challenge is one of public acceptability in all its many dimensions.  It’s the difference between getting the first SMRs built and turning them into useful artefacts. So long as governments continue to shy away from a dialogue that could explore these dimensions, that challenge will remain and all our learning about the problem will continue to amount to net zero.  

Dr. Jeremy Rayner

Dr. Rayner earned his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia and was the principal investigator on a 2009 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that looked at using transition management theories to understand the options for sustainable power generation in Saskatchewan. His research currently focuses on governance arrangements for complex policy problems, especially at the intersection of forests, climate change and energy.