Letter to MLAs: small modular nuclear reactors

Here is the text of a letter which we sent to all MLAs on March 15th:

You will have received a letter from a coalition of groups expressing opposition to funding or development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs) by the province of Saskatchewan. We also regard any positive consideration of SMNRs to be a misguided, dangerous and expensive distraction from the province’s real needs in a time of climate crisis. Please consider the following:

  1. SMNRs cannot deliver in time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2018 special report, made it clear – on the basis of the findings of peer-reviewed science – that substantial decarbonization of the economy needs to take place by 2030. Priority in energy policy therefore needs to be given to options which can be rolled out rapidly within this decade. It is highly unlikely that any of the 150 or so designs currently in nuclear engineers’ computer files will be commercially available until at least some time in the 2030s. NuScale – whose 60MW PWR is the option furthest ahead in seeking regulatory approval in the USA, and reported to be the leading contender in Saskatchewan – is currently claiming that it will be ready to generate in 2029. Given that there are unresolved design issues with the steam generator, with the emergency core cooling system and with the potential for dilution of the boron used to control reactor reactivity, it is likely that that date is just as unrealistic as NuScale’s previous predictions of readiness (successively for 2016, 2018 and 2026).

    In any case, the nuclear industry has a long track record of delivering late: a 2014 analysis of all completed reactors over the previous 30 years in the USA, France, Japan, India and the UK showed that on average construction took three years longer than projected. More recent experience is, most likely, even worse – consider the cases of V C Summer (South Carolina, USA), Vogtle (Georgia, USA), Olkiluoto 3 (Finland), Flamanville 3 (France), Haiyang 1 and 2 (Shandong province, China), Taishan 1 and 2 (Guangdong province, China) and Hinkley Point C (England).
  2. Nuclear power is too expensive. A widely respected source of information on relative costs of different electricity generation options is the Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, updated every year by the New York asset management corporation of that name. Using optimistic assumptions as regards construction time, reactor operation and waste management costs, Lazard’s latest (2020:Oct) calculation for a new 2200MW nuclear power station gives a range of 129 to 198 $/MWh. Such a reactor, when compared with an SMNR, benefits from substantial economies of scale – this is the reason that the industry has chosen to steadily increase the size of reactors over the last 60 years. Applying the standard engineering formula for scaling of capital costs, the Lazard numbers translate to a range of 312 to 506 $/MWh for a 60MW reactor. For comparison, Lazard quotes figures of 29 to 42 $/MWh for utility-scale solar photovoltaics and 26 to 54 $/MWh for wind power – values which are borne out by practical experience worldwide, including in Alberta. In other words, we can expect power from SMNRs to cost approximately ten times as much as power from the readily available renewables options.

    SMNR advocates claim that costs can be reduced by “production line” construction. However, this presupposes sufficient orders – for any one of the 150-odd mutually competing SMNR candidate designs – to justify construction of a mass manufacturing plant. Given the financial risks, the nuclear industry’s well-established track record of exceeding budget, widespread public opposition, and the global decline of the industry, this is a highly unlikely prospect.
  3. SMNRs would exclude better options. We consider it important that, as Canada heads towards a net zero carbon target, SaskPower should plan for the best possible configuration (socially, economically, environmentally and culturally) of a decarbonised provincial electricity grid. Grid managers use a concept of “merit order” – the priority order in which power stations are deployed to meet demand. In traditional 20th century grids, inflexible options such as nuclear or coal – sources which cannot be readily ramped up or down – would be put on the grid first and labelled “baseload”. In more modern grid design, merit order is primarily driven by marginal cost, so that wind and solar (which have no fuel costs and are cheap to maintain) are deployed first. However, the variability of demand means that both nuclear and renewables also need to be balanced in a number of ways – by quicker-response (“dispatchable”) sources such as hydro or biosyngas, by trading with neighbours, by load-shifting measures, and when necessary by energy storage options. Renewables and nuclear are essentially in competition with each other for high merit-order slots: more of one means less of the other. Given the substantial advantages of wind and solar – whether we are looking at cost, reliability, rapidity of rollout, employment potential, pollutant emissions, weapons proliferation risk, risk of major disaster, longterm waste management, or opportunities for local energy democracy and for Indigenous communities’ economic development – it should be obvious which option to choose. We must move swiftly and firmly to renewable energy and set aside the idea of going nuclear.

    Claims that SMNRs could be designed for greater dispatchability, and so be used to balance variable renewables, are at present unproven. In any case, using SMNRs in this way would substantially reduce their capacity factor and so make their economics even worse than the figures quoted above. In 2010, Scotland produced about 24% of its electricity demand from renewables – a figure similar to Saskatchewan at the time, and indeed to Saskatchewan today. By 2019, that proportion had risen to over 90%, and by the end of this year it is likely to exceed 100% by a significant margin. The vast majority of this growth has come from wind power – for which Scotland’s resource characteristics are only slightly better than Saskatchewan’s. Compared to Scotland (and to many other jurisdictions), SaskPower’s current plans for renewables lack ambition. Scotland has shown what is both possible and desirable: the rapid deployment of renewables, together with serious energy efficiency measures – and not SMNRs – is the direction in which policy should be driven.

    However, a shift to a decarbonized grid requires serious planning, and SaskPower can learn from several international counterparts which are further along the path. National Grid, for example, which manages Britain’s electricity grids, has committed to be net-zero-ready by 2025, and this has required significant re-thinking. As National Grid’s Head of Networks, Julian Leslie, said on a recent webinar, “Ten years ago we talked about having coal and nuclear as a baseload. We don’t talk about that anymore – it’s whatever the market provides, and if it’s wind and solar that’s our baseload and then we look at what we need to top it up to ensure we have a safe and reliable grid. It’s turned on its head the way we operate the grid system.”5 There is no need for nuclear on such a grid.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mark Bigland-Pritchard MA MSc PhD
    for Climate Justice Saskatoon

    Dave Greenfield
    for Council of Canadians Saskatoon chapter

    Nancy Carswell
    for Council of Canadians Prince Albert chapter

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