Say no to small modular reactors: Stop normalizing the exploitation of nature

By Erin Hurley | April 1, 2024

rendering of a proposed nuclear reactor buildingArtist’s concept of a small modular reactor proposed for the Point Lepreau site in New Brunswick, Canada. Credit: Moltex Energy

Among other global crises, the worsening impacts of climate change are intensifying every year. Last year was the warmest on record and, beginning in March 2023, raging wildfires filled cities across Canada with smoke for months. This year is already shaping up to be warmer than the last. This is why a lot of young people are questioning the very systems we live under. This is why many of us support a rapid and just transition in energy. But in this process, some governments are promoting an expansion of nuclear power, supposedly to solve climate change. I fear that such an expansion will result in my generation having to confront an equally terrifying set of problems resulting from the nuclear fuel chain.

This is precisely what I already see happening around me in the Canadian province of New Brunswick where I live and study. Over the last few years, the province’s government has advocated for and funded the development of what it calls small modular reactors (SMRs). Even though SMR doesn’t include the word “nuclear,” these are nuclear reactors. Ostensibly, these reactors are meant to decarbonize the Canadian economy. But in 2021, New Brunswick Energy Minister Mike Holland protested the 2030 target for phasing out coal in the province, saying new nuclear reactors would not be ready in time to meet that goal. How will the expansion of nuclear power decarbonize the economy if, meanwhile, New Brunswick is still extracting and burning fossil fuels?

The province has funded two companies—Moltex Energy and ARC Clean Technology—to develop small modular reactors. On their websites, Moltex and ARC market nuclear power as “clean,” “carbon free,” and a “clean energy solution.”

Last year, Moltex CEO Rory O’Sullivan spoke to me, my fellow students, and professors working on the Plutonium Project at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in which we explored these small modular reactors being proposed for the province to develop an understanding of the assumptions, claims, and implications of these technologies. I remember O’Sullivan as friendly and well-spoken. He emphasized that a transition away from fossil fuels is necessary and that renewable energy is a key element in this transition. Yet he told us that wind farms, for example, could not generate enough energy to sustain our society, and that battery storage was not advanced enough to help with this, and thus renewables could not be considered an effective climate solution on their own. This is why he advocates for small modular reactors—as a necessary supplement to renewables in the energy transition. But, again, he stressed that, at Moltex, they were working to reduce any potential safety risks.

This made me wonder: What about the highly radioactive waste these reactors will produce?

Even if SMRs produce less waste than past nuclear reactors (although not when weighted by how much electricity they produce), spent fuel will remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. While nuclear proponents have argued that a deep geological repository would be an effective storage space for the waste, there are many uncertainties surrounding this proposal, and the long-term impacts are unknown. The proposed sites for the repository are located on traditional Indigenous lands in the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace and Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce areas in Ontario. Because the safety of the proposed repository is unproven, storing radioactive waste there would jeopardize the health of the local Indigenous communities and their lands.

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Moltex and ARC have advertised reprocessing as a way to recycle waste and use it to power other reactors. However, this is also incredibly dangerous, because once plutonium is separated from used nuclear fuel, it can be used much more easily in the production of atomic weapons. If separated plutonium were to fall into the wrong hands, the result would be nuclear proliferation—an increased number of nuclear weapons across the globe.

In addition to the waste and proliferation problems, small modular reactors will not be built and operating in time to be an effective climate solution. Canada’s climate targets involve decreasing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050. However, ARC predicts that it will finish building its first small modular reactor by 2028 which will “replace the existing coal generation station in 2030” at Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station in Saint John, New Brunswick. And Moltex does not expect to have an “operational reactor” until “the early 2030s.”

This timeline will clearly not help Canada reach its decarbonization goal by 2030, and so the country will not be on track for the 2050 goal either. Given these realities, I find it hard to believe that nuclear power is in the best interest of humans, non-human species, or the planet as a whole.

Capitalist nations that prioritize economic growth above all else, such as the United States and Canada, have normalized the exploitation of nature. This has happened with the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, and it will happen again with the radioactive waste produced by new nuclear reactors if humans do not learn from past mistakes. It is hard enough to deal with the large stockpile of radioactive waste produced by conventional nuclear reactors that were built during the late 20th century, when the public and even experts knew less about how difficult this material is to deal with.

Humans cannot effect meaningful change in the face of the climate crisis without seriously reexamining the relationship they have with Earth. Can we dismantle the current  relationship in favor of reciprocal relationships with the natural world and each other?

I had an interesting conversation on January 14 with gkisedtanamoogk, a Wampanoag elder and member of the Otter Clan from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, about learning to listen to the natural world. I am a research assistant for the Contesting Energy Discourses through Action Research (CEDAR) Project, and I met gkisedtanamoogk during a panel on energy transitions at a CEDAR event.

Wampanoag elder speaking at St. Thomas University in October 2023
gkisedtanamoogk, an elder from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, spoke about energy transitions at St. Thomas University in October 2023.

gkisedtanamoogk went by an English name and identified as a typical “Joe America” until the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by followers of the American Indian Movement. This made gkisedtanamoogk, then a sophomore in college, wonder about what it meant to be a Wampanoag. gkisedtanamoogk traveled back to the Mashpee community to explore traditional songs, languages, and ceremonies with other young people there.

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After becoming reconnected to these Indigenous roots, gkisedtanamoogk—who now goes by thing/it pronouns because so many of its teachers are non-human and are often referred to with these terms—abandoned its English name in favor of its traditional Indigenous name. gkisedtanamoogk has identified as “Joe Wampanoag” ever since.

gkisedtanamoogk is now married to Miigam’agan, the Elder-in-Residence at St. Thomas University and an elder of the Burnt Church First Nation in New Brunswick. The proposal to construct small modular reactors at Point Lepreau—the site of New Brunswick’s only existing nuclear power plant—is close to home for gkisedtanamoogk, who moved to the province years ago to live with Miigam’agan.

In our conversation, gkisedtanamoogk told me, “I can’t help but notice that Earth and Creation go to great lengths to keep us alive. They make a place for us, and we have a duty and an obligation and a responsibility to be reciprocal.” When gkisedtanamoogk spoke these words, it was with a soft but powerful voice. gkisedtanamoogk’s gray hair was shaved on the sides, and the rest was pulled back into a short ponytail at the nape. Earrings made from some kind of animal tooth dangled from each of gkisedtanamoogk’s ears, and I noticed a couple dragonfly pins: one attached to gkisedtanamoogk’s hat alongside a bird feather and the other pinned over gkisedtanamoogk’s heart.

Maybe a reciprocal relationship with Earth is about learning to listen to the whispers in the trees and the songs in the wind, or the “ancient song” as gkisedtanamoogk calls it—and recognizing all the natural world does for us. In doing so, humans can reconnect with the natural community and remember their place in it. With this respect for nature, humans can then stop degrading it with our energy pursuits, from dirty fossil fuels to radioactive nuclear power.

Nearly two-thirds of Canadians support an emissions cap on the oil and gas industry. The majority of Canadians recognize the necessity for a transition away from fossil fuels. But let’s not transition into an age of radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation. Let’s not transition to another problem disguised as a solution.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation based in Shawnee, Oklahoma, writes beautifully about a reciprocal relationship with the planet, rather than an exploitative one: “As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”

Canadians must begin to mend their relationship with the natural world through actions such as transitioning to renewable energy and consuming less overall. But we all must act now, in the most responsible and caring ways that we can, so that we do not leave a legacy of environmental destruction and toxic waste for future generations.

Earth has sustained us since time immemorial, and we have a responsibility to give back to the natural world for all it has given to us. That is the legacy I want to leave.


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C Husser
C Husser
2 months ago

This is an odd article, in that it seems to advocate for coal in favor of nuclear in the context of climate change. While transitioning to renewable energy is a desirable and necessary goal, it is decades away. Nuclear power is available now and it is carbon free. Yes it produces radioactive waste, but a great deal of that can be consumed as fuel in secondary reactors. Burning coal until sustainable energy catches up *also* releases radioactive waste *in addition to* carbon; unlike the waste from nuclear power plants, radioactive products from coal combustion are released directly into the atmosphere,… Read more »

Dale Dewar
Dale Dewar
2 months ago
Reply to  C Husser

New nuclear is not here now – she outlines that quite clearly. I think she is advocating for sustainables, wind & solar albeit recognizes that we don’t have the batteries that we need yet. By the time this nuclear revolution even gets started, we’ll have figured how to keep the lights on – much better than the 75 years we’ve spent trying to find a solution to nuclear waste.

john a mccormick
2 months ago

For decades, I’ve pushed nuclear power as something achievable as opposed to all the schemes to “fix” the planet. I have pointed to the number of civilian deaths in the US from nuclear power plant accidents. I toured and lived near the very first commercial nuclear plant near Pittsburgh. I am trained in physics and spent decades as an emergency management coordinator. But there are proven safe reactor designs which can shut down with no outside power or human intervention. The only reason I can see NOT to adopt modular nuclear power stations is the concern about waste products. I… Read more »

William Brant
2 months ago

The key for the spent fuel problem is to reprocess and downblend it into mixed oxide fuel and “burn” (use up the plutonium). This had been done before with Russian nuclear bombs that were downblended at the US Savanah River Plant when Russia gave the US thousands of warheads under an arms agreement in the 1990s. This can be securely done.

john a mccormick
2 months ago
Reply to  William Brant

I agree but foresee too many political reasons against it and there some security concerns. Also, it doesn’t solve the disposal problem for the core.

Are you also thinking about thorium pebble bed reactors? They were actually invented here in the US but only Russia uses them. I think there is only one actually running and it may have shut down by now but I think there are still plans for one in S.A.

George Kamburoff
George Kamburoff
2 months ago
Reply to  William Brant

Fukushima Unit Three was fueled with MOX, reactor fuel spiked with Plutonium. The reactor vessel was blown into the air as the compression of the fuel by the hydrogen explosion created a prompt criticality which immediately blew itself apart after sending the vessel hundreds of feet vertically.

T McLean
2 months ago

Well said! Nuclear is continues to be slow and expensive. The nuclear advocates always cry “wait, it will be awesome in a decade or two”. Instead, we see cost overruns followed by bailouts by taxpayers. “SMR” is just the latest marketing pitch. Renewables, storage, transmission and demand-response are being deployed globally now, not in decades. They are far cleaner and less expensive than nuclear and continue to get even cheaper. The coal power in the province could have already been replaced by wind and storage if the province had chosen more wisely.

SK
SK
2 months ago
Reply to  T McLean

I think SMRs would be perfect for places like Hilly Terrains, etc, that are very vulnerable to Natural changes like Mining, Air Pollution, etc. It follows a path of Advancement. There are many places that are Freezing cold in Winter and Environment sensitive like Siberia of Russia, Northern Region of Japan, Northern Canada, Southern Argentina,Central Asia mountains, Himalayans Terrains,etc which rarely have renewable Energy due lack of Sunlight in Winter, Negative Temperature, Unconditional Winds,etc resulting in use of Fossil Fuels. Siberia has a lot of Fossil Fuel way of Energy Generation but it affects Environment. To tackle this, SMRs come… Read more »

Dale Dewar
Dale Dewar
2 months ago
Reply to  SK

SMRs are still “powerpoint” reactors – paper designs only. None have been built – not to say that small reactors have not been built but no modular designs have been tested or built.

José DeSouza
José DeSouza
2 months ago

Want more modular nuclear reactors? So, make them standardized and big enough (900 – 1,000 MWe) in order to replace coal-fired power stations as fast as realistically possible. Not miniature ones, for the sake of economies of scale and learning curve issues. France blazed that trail quite successfully more than 30 years ago.

SK
SK
2 months ago
Reply to  José DeSouza

SMRs are meant to give Energy Supply to towns, not big cities.

Boba
Boba
2 months ago

What do you want us to transition to, then?

Asking for a friend.

Matt Hulstry
Matt Hulstry
2 months ago

SMR’s will generate far more radioactive waste than normal size reactors because their small size DEMANDS they deploy addition radiation shields. These shields become radioactive and must be changed out quite often.

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