For many off-grid communities in the Northwest Territories, diesel is the lifeline that heats homes and powers businesses. Major industries in the North, such as the mining sector, rely on diesel to generate income and fuel the economy.
But as both the federal government and the Northwest Territories look to transition away from fossil fuels, territorial leaders are exploring how small-scale nuclear energy could alleviate the North’s dependency on diesel.
In October, the federal government announced it was investing $20 million into small modular nuclear energy reactors as part of its commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller than a conventional nuclear power plant and can be built in one location before being transported and assembled elsewhere.
The N.W.T. government has also shown interest in this form of energy and identified it as an emerging energy technology that it follows “closely,” according to a written statement from the Department of Infrastructure.
Others, however, think the federal funding is misplaced.
Last week, the Green Party of Canada called on the federal government to abandon nuclear energy and invest in renewable energy instead.
In a press release, MP Elizabeth May said that “small nuclear reactors (SMRs) have no place in any plan to mitigate climate change when cleaner and cheaper alternatives exist.”
May cited issues with the high costs involved in nuclear energy, the long timeline to rollout, and the environmental risk.
What is small-scale nuclear energy?
SMRs is a term that represents “a range of technology,” said Diane Cameron, director of nuclear energy at Natural Resources Canada.
The federal government’s $20-million investment is toward Terrestrial Energy, an Oakville, Ont., firm that is working to bring SMRs to market. That technology is still in the design phase, but could become commercially viable in five to 10 years, said Cameron.
The goal for SMR designers is to “work towards a unit that could be manufactured in a factory, kind of the way cars are manufactured in the production line,” said Cameron.
“Whether it’s in one or a half a dozen shipping containers, the idea is that the actual unit is small so that its land footprint and its land impact is very small as well.”
In comparison to existing nuclear reactors in Canada, which operate in the gigawatt scale, SMRs would supply five to 300 megawatts of electricity, Cameron said.
What’s being considered in the North, she told CBC News, is on the lower range of the SMRs — about five megawatts.
According to the National Research Council, one megawatt of energy can supply electricity to anywhere between 400 and 900 homes, depending on their consumption.
Application in the North
Most communities in the N.W.T. rely on diesel that has to be shipped into remote areas via barge, ice roads, and along distant highways.
Fuel is regularly transported on terrain that is becoming more unpredictable as the climate warms.
Some local leaders in the N.W.T. are pushing for more research into how small-scale nuclear energy could be applied in the North, to wean the region off diesel.
Niels Konge, a Yellowknife city councillor, said that “finding clean, reliable energy sources is of the utmost importance.”
He’s optimistic that some of the latest nuclear designs “could solve some of our power issues in the North.”
SMRs would have a high initial startup cost, but over time, they would not require the ongoing transportation costs that refuelling diesel does.
However, Konge cautioned that “there’s still a ways to go before we actually get something that’s marketable, and it really is going to depend on how they can scale it.”
N.W.T. part of small-scale nuclear group
The Northwest Territories is among several jurisdictions and energy corporations that are part of a working group looking at how small-scale nuclear reactors could be used across the country.
The working group “has recognized the potential for application in off-grid small and remote communities and for remote industrial sites that rely on diesel,” the Department of Infrastructure said in a statement.
The statement also said that there needs to be more information about whether SMRs would be technically viable, safe, reliable and cost effective in the North.
The Department of Infrastructure considers small-scale nuclear energy a long-term initiative.
Cameron said SMRs could be commercially viable anywhere from 2025 to 2030, but before it’s likely to be brought up to the N.W.T., it will be tested in national labs.
If that is successful, the technology could make its wat into communities, but that might not be for another 20 or so years, she said.
‘Not the answer to climate change’
In a 2018 UN report, scientists warned that there were only 12 years left to drastically reduce global emissions in order to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
This is part of the reason why May and other environmentalists don’t think small-scale nuclear energy is part of “the answer to climate change.”
Theresa McClenaghan, the executive director of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said the industry requires extremely high startup costs, which divert attention away from renewable energy.
Funding should be going toward existing renewable energy sources that are currently viable, like geothermal, solar, or wind energy, she said.
“These are not pipe dreams. These are existing technologies where the price is coming down practically by the day,” said McClenaghan.
“It’s not to say we don’t want an alternative to diesel, but that alternative should be renewables.”