Micro nuclear reactors: good goals, questionable technology

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

Earlier this month, I received a telephone call asking if I would be willing to answer a few questions for a survey of opinions on current issues. She began by asking questions about where I lived; what were the advantages and challenges at the community level. However, after a few general questions, it became obvious that she was collecting public reactions to the proposed construction of the Micro Modular Reactor (MMR) at Chalk River. I have some knowledge of the proposed use of small nuclear reactors to replace fossil fuel generators in remote, isolated communities. The idea behind the use of these small nuclear reactors is that they can make a significant contribution to carbon reduction and the goal of carbon neutrality while providing remote communities with a power source that allows for the full use of modern technology. I agree with the goals, but there are some significant issues with the technology.
The first of these is the complexity of all nuclear reactors. While the reactor can be built off-site and assembled where needed, its operation will still require trained technicians and engineers on-site. As these are remote locations, obtaining and retaining personnel with the required level of expertise will be a continuous problem. But more important is the fact that these are to be uranium-driven reactors. Recent events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima remind us of the dangers of nuclear reactors. To counter this, it’s claimed that MMR technology is much safer, but this claim was also made for the reactor at Fukushima. Here in Canada, we had the November 2007 nuclear reactor start-up despite the objections of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Political demagoguery took precedence over nuclear safety even to the extent of firing the head of the commission (Dr. Lina Keen). The pretence that there
are guaranteed safety regulations is another example of “fake news.”
Another limitation of the MMR proposal is the lack of investigation into alternatives. Developing electric power generators that do not depend on fossil fuels
is worthwhile, but why is nuclear the only consideration? Many locations in Canada’s North are suitable for geothermal energy sources. The argument against solar energy is that for months there is no sun, but the counter-argument
is there is continuous sun for many months. So, the solution would be to find a way to store energy from the sun while it’s shining 24 hours a day and use the storage when there is no sun. One proposal is to use the excess energy from daylight to generate hydrogen from water and then use the hydrogen as fuel when there’s no sun. The objection is that some of these alternative solutions are expensive, but so is operating even a small nuclear facility. What’s needed is research into a variety of alternatives including a possible combination of non-nuclear methods for power generation.
If nuclear power is the only alternative, why is thorium not considered? The half-life of nuclear waste from uranium is measured in thousands of years. Waste from uranium-based power generators will continue to contaminate the area
for generations. Waste from thorium-based reactors can be more easily handled.
There are many issues surrounding the MMR proposal that have not been adequately addressed. More research is needed, especially into alternatives.