Weighing nuclear power options for First Nations in Canada

Energy security, equity involvement among upsides for remote rural communities in B.C. and elsewhere across the country

Jesse McCormick, senior vice-president of innovation and legal affairs for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition: First Nations’ investment involvement will be fundamental to the success of SMR projects | Submitted

Small modular reactors (SMRs) could generate big business and bigger energy security payoffs for First Nations in Canada.

Especially those in the country’s far north that rely on diesel generators or where the lack of reliable power sources limits natural resource development.

But, as a recent panel discussion on harnessing the potential of SMRs illustrated, nuclear energy offers First Nations far more than a pathway to a zero-carbon power future. It offers them an opportunity to become owners, operators and investors in that future.

The main challenge for B.C. First Nations that could benefit from SMRs is the province’s Clean Energy Act, which states that its energy objectives are to be achieved “without the use of nuclear power.”

That no-nuclear mandate potentially closes a lot of energy security windows of opportunity for many First Nations and other communities in rural areas of the province.

As Taco Niet pointed out to BIV, energy independence empowers communities.

The assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering added that decarbonizing the power grid in B.C. and elsewhere in North America “is complicated. There isn’t a single answer. It’s going to be a suite of different solutions.”

For Canada, that suite includes nuclear.

In unveiling the country’s SMR Action Plan in late 2020, Seamus O’Regan, federal minister of natural resources at the time, noted that Canada is “a Tier-1 nuclear nation with capabilities [ranging] from mining and research and development to building reactors, managing waste and more.”

SMRs, he said, “represent the next great opportunity for Canada – helping us to phase out coal and electrify carbon-intensive industries such as mining and petroleum extraction.”

The Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Steering Committee, which is made up of Canadian provincial and territorial governments and power utilities, points out in A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors that Canada could be a leader in developing and exploiting SMR technology. The report maintains that “with SMRs, we could witness the emergence of a new industrial subsector that will create jobs and economic opportunities across Canada.”

That subsector could help the country reach its low-carbon energy production goals.

Curve Lake First Nation Chief Emily Whetung-MacInnes said it could also help First Nations secure long-term energy security and allow them to get in on the ground floor of a new and potentially lucrative industry.

“We hear over and over again from our communities how frustrating it is to try and come in in the middle of an industry that’s already developed and not have had our voices heard from the beginning,” she said during a recent Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) SMR panel discussion.

The light water reactor technology behind SMRs allows for small modular configurations that reduce costs and construction times compared with conventional nuclear reactors. SMRs produce anywhere from one to 300 megawatts of electricity compared with traditional large reactors, which generate between 700 and 900.

Simplified reactor technology increases the reliability and safety of SMRs, according to McKinsey & Company’s What Will It Take for Nuclear Power to Meet the Climate Challenge? report.

But, as Niet points out, every source of energy has advantages and disadvantages.

For example, diesel, which is the current go-to power generation source in many remote communities, he said, “is crappy, but not that crappy.” It generates a lot of air pollution, but it is reliable and easy to maintain.

SMRs generate no carbon emissions. They are roughly the size of a standard 20-foot shipping container, and, once installed, can run for 50 years – no refuelling required.

But there is the issue of how to handle nuclear waste.

Niet said maintenance is the second big question surrounding SMRs.

“Is there a specialized maintenance knowledge that the community would have to have?”

So, any community considering SMRs must have answers to those and other questions before pursuing a nuclear power option.

Sean Willy, president and CEO of the English River First Nation’s (ERFN) Des Nedhe Group, told the MLI panel that his company uses its nuclear industry knowledge to help communities make informed nuclear power decisions and maximize Indigenous value when working with the industry.

Saskatchewan’s ERFN has signed several multimillion-dollar agreements with uranium mining companies to share in the development and operations of uranium resource extraction in and around its territory.

Communities in northern Canada and the Northwest Territories, Willy said, are very pragmatic.

“And I think nuclear … it’s very pragmatic. If we are going to solve the climate change crisis, we need base-load energy that’s carbon-free, and nuclear offers that when you tie in that Indigenous people are fully engaged in the front end.”

He added that northern Saskatchewan’s uranium industry is one of Canada’s largest Indigenous employers and has invested approximately $3 billion in its supply chain.

“So, it is a great ESG story. … And I’m proud to say that last year myself and two other economic development corporations in northern Saskatchewan, essentially where all the uranium comes from in Canada, put out a press release that we want to invest in these SMRs.… We wanted Canada to know that Indigenous people do support these projects. But we want to be investors in these projects wherever they occur.”

The North Shore-based First Nations Major Projects Coalition (FNMPC) is a national collective of approximately 130 First Nations that helps its members make economic and environmental decisions about projects being developed on their territories.

Jesse McCormick, the FNMPC’s senior vice-president of innovation and legal affairs, told the MLI panel that understanding the short and long-term safety of SMRs is as important as understanding their technology.

Effective communication, McCormick told BIV, will be key.

He said that starts with responsiveness to First Nation concerns through regulatory processes and direct engagement.

McCormick emphasized that First Nations’ investment involvement will be fundamental to the success of SMR projects.

“Alignment through equity participation is different than building support through impact benefit agreements or other forms of resource revenue sharing because it puts First Nations in the driver's seat. It helps First Nations to be partners in the project’s benefits and its outcomes.”

However, any widespread deployment of nuclear power generation in Canadian First Nations communities is still years away.

McCormick said its application would initially be in industrial or resource development where there is no electricity or power grid capacity. That could be at least 10 years down the road; he estimated that nuclear power generation in First Nations communities is 25 to 30 years away.

But the planning, education and investment groundwork for either use is necessarily in the here and now.

Curve Lake could be among the first SMR energy recipients.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is planning a 300-megawatt SMR on traditional Curve Lake land. Its power could come online in 2029.

Whetung-MacInnes said Curve Lake’s early involvement with OPG in the project helped address her concerns about how waste from SMRs would be handled.

She added that the value in securing ownership stakes in SMRs and their technology goes deeper than economics.

“The opportunity to deploy it in different ways that would allow potential food growth in First Nations in remote communities to reduce those costs,” she said, “and the opportunity to have a stable [power] base-load in those communities to create internet access and connectivity that would allow First Nations individuals to stay in [their] community and take education to a further degree or to work remotely … to feel connected to the rest of the world. And to be able to be at home. It means so much to be able to live with your culture and your language and raise your kids there.”

Back in B.C., First Nations will first have to clear the province’s no-nuclear-energy hurdle to realize any SMR benefits.

In an email response to BIV, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation acknowledged “that other provinces, with fewer options for renewable electricity than we have here in B.C., have shown an interest in using nuclear power to advance their climate goals. …  [but] there isn’t a need for generation from nuclear power in British Columbia, and we are not planning to develop or deploy small modular reactors in the province.”

It added, however, that while “not prohibited, there are practical and economic limitations to the use of SMRs by First Nations.” The ministry said, for example, that because SMR technology is new, the unit costs for the reactors are high and there is limited history upon which to assess their reliability as a replacement for any of the 17 diesel plants that currently generate power for remote communities in the province.

But Gudie Hutchings thinks the nuclear option makes sense for B.C.

During an April 5 visit to the province to promote Ottawa’s clean economy initiatives, the minister of Rural Economic Development told BIV that, when it comes to achieving the country’s shift to clean energy the federal government does not have a “one size fits all” solution.

“We do many things to help get the country connected, especially our Indigenous communities.”

Asked if a First Nation in B.C. would be prevented from pursuing the use of SMR technology, Gudie said, “Oh no, not at all. There are government programs from Natural Resources Canada, with Minister [of Natural Resources Jonathan] Wilkinson, and, like I said. … There are many tools in our toolbox, and nuclear reactors are going to be a part of that, I’m sure.”