Alberta to explore nuclear energy development

Last week, the Government of Alberta announced that they’ll be entering a memorandum with 3 other provinces to explore nuclear energy.

Those provinces—New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan—entered an MOU this past December to explore nuclear energy. This update will functionally bring Alberta into the mix.

In November 2018, the Trudeau government outlined recommendations for collaboration among various governments, Indigenous communities, and other stakeholders to support the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). This autumn, they’ll launch an action plan for SMR development in Canada.

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The MOU between the 4 provinces will help them support SMR development in their respective provinces.

SMRs are typically smaller than traditional reactors. I guess the name probably gave that away. Their modular nature allows for scalability—so they can adapt to local needs—and for being constructed in factory and shipped to their final install location. Plus, they have lower capital costs and better safety features that mitigate risk of human error.

Nuclear energy in general has virtually no direct emissions. Granted, emissions are created during construction, as well as in the mining and transportation of the uranium needed for the operation of the reactors). The energy produced by nuclear reactors also has a lower overall cost than other energy sources.

SMRs generate between 2 and 300 MW of electricity, enough to power a small city.

I’m actually generally in favour of nuclear energy. They have lower emissions, lower capital costs, and lower operating costs. That makes them attractive in a lot of ways. However, they’re not entirely green.

First, nuclear reactors require uranium to generate energy, and that uranium must be mined, making it environmentally destructive, particularly when it’s extracted from open pit mines. The material extracted from the mine ends up being less than 20% uranium, making for a lot of non-uranium material being displaced in the process.

And we can’t just put that non-uranium material back where we got it. Waste generated by uranium mining and processing fall into basically two categories: waste rock and tailings.

Waste rock is material removed from the mine to gain access to the ore, and it is further separated into clean rock and mineralized rock.

Clean rock is fairly inert and is often used in concrete or road construction. It’s left in large piles on the mine surface, and once the mine is depleted and decommissioned, remaining piles are contoured and covered in vegetation.

Mineralized rock contains low-grade ore or significant concentrations of secondary minerals. If left on the surface permanently, it could negatively impact the local environment through leaching and acid generation.

Tailings are a the waste produced from grinding the uranium and have the consistency of fine sand once the grinding process is complete.

Both mineralized rock and tailings must be stored long term. Modern mine operations generally store both waste products in decommissioned open pits.

The second reason nuclear energy isn’t green is the waste byproduct of the energy production itself. This, like the mining waste, must be stored long term.

After a fuel bundle has completed its useful life, it’s stored underwater in indoor storage bays for 7–10 years, after which it’s transferred to a dry storage facility.

The construction and operation of both wet and dry storage facilities has environmental impact, both in space used and indirect emissions (such as through transportation and facility construction).

At this point, storage of spent fuel bundles requires relatively little room. Even though Canadian nuclear power reactors have used over 2.5 million bundles over the last 50 years or so, they’re small enough that—if packed end to end—they’d fit into a space the size of 7 hockey rinks.

That being said, nuclear energy makes up only 15% of the electricity generated in Canada. Obviously, if that proportion increases significantly—especially if electricity consumption as a whole increases—the amount of space to store nuclear waster would increase significantly.

If we could find a way to reduce or even reuse mining waste and nuclear fuel, I’d probably support nuclear energy more warmly.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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