On Sept. 19, at this year’s World Petroleum Congress, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz announced that the Government of Alberta would invest $7 million into a study by Cenovus Energy on the potential usage of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) to power future oilsands operations.
Over the past year, the government has singlehandedly picked the winners and losers in the energy transition race. Hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear are winners. With the recent moratorium on project approvals, solar and wind are set to be the losers. But don’t we, as Albertans, deserve a say?
The government’s new interest and investment in SMR feasibility should be a call to Albertans to start asking questions about what role (if any) nuclear should play in our energy future. Most of our current conversations are tied to the future of fossil fuels. Nuclear is not even on most people’s radar. We need to get ready to ask tough questions about nuclear energy that .
Here are three questions that Albertans need to ask:
Who will regulate the use of SMRs?
Currently, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is the single regulator of energy development in our province, overseeing the process from exploration to reclamation. AER’s recent silence after a known tailings leak at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oilsands mine has prompted questioning of not only AER’s transparency but also its ability to communicate risk and generate trust with communities that house energy projects. AER’s failure to notify residents in Wood Buffalo for nearly nine months about the estimated 5.3 million litres of leaked industrial wastewater has also raised serious questions about AER’s ability to ensure public safety. We need to ask: is AER, in its current form, the best regulator to oversee the development of nuclear energy?
What will happen to SMRs after they are decommissioned and where will we store our nuclear waste?
There are serious technological challenges to managing nuclear waste. Currently, Canada’s used nuclear fuel is managed at facilities at nuclear reactor sites in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, along with limited sites in Manitoba. These are all temporary sites. The federal government is hoping to finalize a permanent nuclear repository after 15 years of planning, engagement and scientific and engineering studies. Residents of communities where nuclear storage has been proposed are worried. There are currently no nuclear waste repositories in western Canada. If SMRs are used in Alberta, how much waste will they generate? And where will it be stored? Alberta’s unimpressive track record with decommissioning and reclaiming former energy sites (such as orphan wells) means that we need to ask tough questions about the afterlife of SMRs now.
How will Albertans be consulted in the creation of the Government of Alberta’s nuclear energy strategy?
While it is commendable that the GoA is investing in studies that explore clean energy, there is currently no indication that Albertans will be consulted about nuclear energy. While SMRs would clearly have an impact on oilsands operations and aid the industry in meeting aggressive net-zero targets set by the federal government, the regulation of the nuclear energy industry will impact all Albertans. We should all have a say in determining our path forward in energy transitions. And we should be doing this through broad consultation led by an independent third party, who does not stand to benefit financially or regulatorily from the introduction of SMRs.
Albertans are supportive of energy transitions. We must begin a serious public discussion of how and if nuclear energy should be a part of it. We have an orphan well problem. Do we want an orphan reactor problem as well?
Sabrina Perić is an energy anthropologist, associate professor at the University of Calgary, and the co-director of the Energy Stories Lab.
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