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Small reactors could empower First Nations with energy security

Indigenous communities in Ontario, Saskatchewan get on the ground floor of this emerging technology
Conceptual rendering of BWRX-300 small modular reactor (GE-Hitachi conceptual)

Emily Whetung MacInnes was hesitant when Ontario Power Generation (OPG) approached her community of Curve Lake First Nation for their input about building Canada's first on-grid small nuclear reactor (SMR).

OPG is planning a 300-megawatt SMR at its Darlington site, east of Toronto, on the traditional land of Curve Lake. The provincial utility wanted to ensure that Indigenous voices were heard.

As one of the signatory communities in the Williams Treaty (1923), Curve Lake was invited to be part of the conversation about any environmental concerns and impacts.

The chief emeritus of the Kawarthas-area First Nation had concerns about the waste consequences associated with nuclear energy.

Today, count Whetung MacInnes in as "enthusiastically supportive" of nuclear energy. She views SMRs as a solution to a low-carbon future.

Sitting on an independent review committee, Whetung MacInnes has a front row seat to watch the project take shape.

Construction has not started. The Darlington SMR project has a site preparation licence. An application has been submitted to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for a licence to construct. According to an OPG website, the reactor will come online in 2029.

So impressed and confident is she with the nuclear industry's “over the top” safety protocols, Whetung MacInnes took her six- and nine-year-old kids on a tour of McMaster University's five-megawatt research reactor. 

She mentioned her experiences in an online panel discussion hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute last week headlined, Finding a good fit: Indigenous peoples and small nuclear reactors.

“When you see the extreme measures that the industry takes, I think you feel a lot better about things,” she said.

SMRs are being touted as a solution to supply power to electrical grids or remote off-grid areas, such as a mining operation.

Smaller than conventional reactors, the factory-designed modules allow the technology to be transported to a site for assembly. The technology, still in the design stage, is expected to be cheaper to construct and more scalable to meet the needs of industry and remote communities to provide a more reliable and cleaner source of energy than from diesel generation.

SMRs can provide reliable energy and heat but Whetung MacInnes also sees spinoffs such as locally produced, greenhouse-grown food production, better internet for on-reserve learning and employment, and also supply chain opportunities that can benefit First Nations.

"I think the applications are endless," she said. 

"Energy security is extremely important in the North," said Richard Boudreault, chief scientist with the Canadian Space Mining Corp. and chair of the Regina-based First Nations University of Canada.

When diesel generators break down in winter, he said, it's a crisis that sometimes requires immediate evacuation. Diesel creates pollution that harms people's health and contributes to climate change.

With diesel fuel prices sure to steeply rise once the federal carbon tax kicks in, energy will not be secure in Far North communities, Boudreault said.

A trained engineer, he has 40 years of experience in the nuclear sector and possesses a keen interest in energy solutions for Canada's most northerly regions.

A variety of small reactor technologies exist, he explained. Most still need to reach the prototype stage followed by a decade-long testing process before there’s regulatory approval to operate.

"These projects will take a long period of time,” said Boudreault.

However, there are tried-and-true small reactor technologies in use on university campuses that produce power and are run by students, he said. 

And through more than 50 years of operation, not one has gone "China Syndrome," said Boudreault, referencing the 1979 movie thriller about a nuclear meltdown. Nor has there been one recorded death in the nuclear industry in either Canada or the U.S., he claims.

Nuclear energy has its supporters in northern Saskatchewan where uranium is mined and where this resource sector is the largest regional employer of Indigenous people.

“If we’re going to solve the climate change crisis we need baseload energy that’s carbon free, and so nuclear offers that,” said Sean Willy, president-CEO of Des Nedhe Group, the economic development arm of English River First Nation, a Dene community in the northern half of the province.

Indigenous people employed in the uranium mining sector are aware the health and safety conditions "are some of the best to work in." he said. And the industry is always being challenged by the public to be better.

Willy spent a decade with uranium miner Cameco, as the point person of its exploration efforts. First Nation and Métis community engagement was prioritized. 

While more than $3 billion has been spent on the supply chain, “a great ESG story,” said Willy, English River and two other communities want to diversify and go a step beyond to invest as future owner-operators of small reactor technology.

“We felt it’s time to move down the supply chain.”

It’ll be likely 10 years, or more, before the technology is commercialized “but we wanted Canada to know that Indigenous people do support these projects, but we want to be investors in these projects wherever they occur," said Willy.

The dialogue is already happening between the nuclear tech companies and First Nations, but they are high-level discussions. It's at the grassroots level where engagement must take place for SMRs to gain acceptance, he said. 

Yet, many misconceptions exist about MSRs, mostly perpetuated by media and anti-nuclear groups, he said.

In touring OPG's Darlington nuclear site, Willy was surprised with the small amount of "used" nuclear fuel that's been stored away, in casks.

"It's such an efficient fuel that actually very little is produced."

A long-term storage solution is in order, he said, and Indigenous people "need to be front and centre of that discussion as well."

Jesse McCormick, senior vice-president of research, innovation and legal affairs for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, agreed those conversations are indeed taking place on where SMRs might be deployed.

How this technology will be financed will likely involve a mix of private and public funding, he said, hopefully, with some form of national loan guarantee program, similar to the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corp.

How the money moves depends on government regulations, he said.

The inherent risk lies in the federal impact assessment processes and a desire to take the existing system and “blow it up.” That can lead to a period of uncertainty that can cause a flight of capital out of Canada if no one knows what the rules are, McCormick said. 

But the dialogue begins and ends, McCormick said, with First Nations’ ability to understand the technology and be assured that small reactors and the waste material they produce are operated and handled safely.

“You need to have communications tailored to the capacity knowledge and experience of the people who they’re communicating with.”

That means First Nations must have someone trustworthy in place who can deliver the best possible advice and let them make their own independent evaluation.

“If we can get those things correct, we can get to a spot where timeframes are going to be accelerated, regulatory processes are going to be quicker, we can ensure that First Nations are active participants in the development of these projects through commercial and equity arrangements,” he said, then objectives and opportunities will move faster.

When it comes to deploying reactors, two or three First Nations might be directly impacted, but, politically, there will be outlying “second level” communities that will have concerns, he said.

Having informed First Nations voices brought in to facilitate those processes is a good thing. Knowing ahead of time on how First Nations will react to development is critical when it comes to laying a path to bring Indigenous communities on board instead of placing them in a position of opposition, McCormick said.