February 21 – “Show me the money!”

Why we should think twice on Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

“Show me the money!” football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr) yelled to his agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) in the movie of the same name.  It was his way of asking for proof that the agent would actually do what he was promising he’d do.  “Show me the money!” he shouted repeatedly, imprinting that line into popular culture.

In a world scrambling to transition away from oil, coal and natural gas, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs) are often held up as potential solutions.  They are nuclear reactors that are:

  • Small in size relative to conventional nuclear power plants.  Whereas New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station can produce 660 megawatts of power, the small modular reactors under development here are expected to generate 100 to 300 megawatts.
  • Modular, meaning that instead of being built entirely on a site from scratch, they will have assemblies or ‘modules’ manufactured off-site and brought in – kind of like a modular home that is brought pre-assembled to a building lot and placed onto a prepared foundation.  

A potential of advantage of some SMR designs is that they can use spent fuel (AKA nuclear waste) from conventional reactors such as Point Lepreau as their fuel source – potentially solving two problems at once.  Other SMRs do produce nuclear waste, which is highly radioactive and, like waste from conventional nuclear plants, must be stored safely for centuries.

Another advantage of nuclear power is that it is ‘baseload’: a utility can normally count on it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  That gives nuclear an advantage over renewables like wind and solar, which require backup for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Like renewables, nuclear power doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions – hence its categorization as ‘non-emitting’.

But this is where ‘show me the money’ comes in:

  • How much will they cost?  Small Modular Reactors are still under development, with none currently operational anywhere in North America.  That means considerable uncertainty remains about how the technology will work – and that means plenty of uncertainty about the final cost of construction and the eventual cost of electricity.  New Brunswick’s two experiences with nuclear power – the construction and then the refurbishment of Point Lepreau – have both resulted in massive cost overruns borne by NBers.  If the companies constructing SMRs are so confident in their technology, shouldn’t they be able to give a guaranteed price for the power they’ll provide before the first shovel hits the ground?  Ironically, the opposite has happened: New Brunswick’s government is requiring NB Power to buy electricity from the first two SMRs to be constructed here, regardless of the price.
  • Taxpayers have footed the bill:  So far, much of the SMR development work happening in this province has been funded by tens of millions of taxpayer dollars from both the provincial and federal governments – money that could have otherwise built considerable wind and solar capacity.
  • Will their power ever be cost-competitive with wind and solar?  According to the Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy, a global standard for comparing the cost of energy from various sources, wind and solar power, even when equipped with storage technologies to compensate for their intermittency, are among the cheapest sources of new electricity.  Nuclear power, on the other hand, is listed as among the most expensive.
  • It’s unlikely they’ll be ready on time:  According to the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global emissions need to be reduced 43 per cent below 2019 levels by 2030, just six years from now, if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.  It’s highly unlikely that SMRs could ever be ready by then, and putting our faith in them would seem a bit like taking off in an airplane to a destination without an airport on the promise that there will be one there by the time we arrive.  Contrast that with wind and solar, which are proven, cost-effective and scalable today.

It’s true that past inaction on climate change has pushed us to a point where no potential alternative to fossil fuels can be ignored.  However, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors remain rife with uncertainty.  So we’d probably all be wise to view them very carefully through a lens of rational analysis. 

Show me the money; show us all the money.

In the news:

Ethiopia announces that it plans to ban the import of all but electric vehicles (because the importation of gasoline is costing too much).

Canada “has only begun to scratch the surface of its vast and untapped wind and solar energy resources,” says the Canadian Renewable Energy Association.

Attention teachers! Learning for a Sustainable Future provides up to $500 for student-led climate change and sustainability Action Projects; deadline for applications is March 25.


“96% of the mass of mammals on our planet today are us and the livestock that we’ve domesticated. Only 4% is everything else, from elephants to badgers, tigers to bats. 70% of all birds are now domesticated poultry, mostly chickens. Nature once determined how we survive. Now, we determine how nature survives.”

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