Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Williams Lake Tribune. (Black Press Media image)

Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Williams Lake Tribune. (Black Press Media image)

Nuclear power has promise, but still controversial

I was surprised and encouraged that some provinces along with the federal government were looking into small modular reactors (SMR).

According to a recent press release Ontario, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have pledged to work together to build SMRs and the federal government has announced its plan for the promotion of this small-scale, nuclear-power program.

Small modular reactors are basically smaller-than-usual nuclear reactors that are sometimes considered safer due to their smaller size, noted the federal news release. They generate less than 300 megawatts of electricity (MWe) per reactor, and can be small enough to fit in a gymnasium, so they can operate in areas where less power is required.

An SMR could even provide power to off-grid locations where power needs are only between two and 30 MWe.

Canada’s current nuclear reactors supply between 500 and 800 MWe. SMRs are called “modular” because they can operate individually, or as part of a larger nuclear complex.

Multiple SMRs can be set up at a single nuclear plant to supply a similar level of power as larger generators, which means a nuclear power plant could be expanded gradually, as demand increases.

One of the criticisms of the SMR program is the time it will take (a decade or more) to implement even though Canada has a long history of nuclear power projects.

I assume switching to the modular concept is what will take some time along with the fact that most of the smaller reactors have been built for military applications.

On the positive side it should be noted that the military safety record has been very good.

For example, the US Navy has accumulated over 6,200 reactor years (over a 50 year period) of accident-free experience involving 526 nuclear reactor cores over the course of 240 million kilometres, without a single radiological incident.

It operated 81 nuclear-powered ships (11 aircraft carriers and 70 submarines ).

The length of service is also impressive with some reactors lasting over 50 years and some expected to last over 90 years.

As noted in the federal SMR master plan, Canada is in a good position to develop this technology with many years experience in nuclear power and is the second-largest producer of uranium and accounts for 40 percent of the world’s supply of Cobalt-60 which is used to sterilize medical equipment such as gloves and syringes.

There is also work being done in some countries on thorium-based nuclear power.

Thorium fuel is a lot more abundant than uranium along with superior physical and nuclear fuel properties, reduced nuclear waste production as well as lower weaponization potential.

Unfortunately thorium-based power has significant start up costs and to date most reactors have only operated for a few years.

I do agree with the critics of nuclear power that we should not look at this or any other technology as an excuse to continue with our waste full approach to energy use.

We need to keep up with the development of other non fossil based approaches like solar and wood bioenergy, along with proper building of our homes and business as well as adopting a healthier life style.

We should use the experience from 2020 as an opportunity to adopt less wasteful practices and enjoy the environmental improvements due to less use of fossil fuels.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.


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