The Yukon’s nuclear option

By candlelight and over hot Lindemans at an off-grid cabin this Christmas, some friends and I debated nuclear power in the Yukon.

By candlelight and over hot Lindemans at an off-grid cabin this Christmas, some friends and I debated nuclear power in the Yukon.

After all, the town of Galena, Alaska was considering a small nuke a few years ago. The idea even got mentioned in National Geographic magazine, before wandering off into the willows to die quietly a bit later.

Even under the influence of multiple hot Lindemans, we knew it could never happen here. There are a lot of technical question marks about nuclear safety and economics. But, even more daunting, we were unable to imagine any Yukon politicians pushing through such a controversial measure. If changing fuels from diesel to natural gas at the Schwatka plant got so many people upset, try to imagine what putting a micro-nuke in the Marwell area would provoke.

In the absence of cabin wifi and Wikipedia, we were unable even to remember the last time the Yukon approved a power facility of more than five megawatts that wasn’t just an expansion of a facility built in the 1970s or earlier.

Nonetheless, I thought I would do some research on the topic when I got home. To my amazement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports that there are a staggering 45 different small and medium-sized reactor (SMR) designs under development around the world.

Note that “small” reactors are designed to put out less than 300 megawatts of electricity. This is a size that would fit in the Yukon, since our current generation capacity is about 150 megawatts. A 50 or 100 megawatt reactor would emit no carbon dioxide and provide power for future population growth, mine projects and allow electrical heat to replace home heating oil for thousands of Yukon homes.

Several are already operating. Our friends in Siberia have four units. They generate 62 megawatts of energy each, with 11 megawatts of electricity and the rest used for heating nearby homes and buildings. They have operated without melting down since 1976.

Take a moment and try to picture the Yukon Minister of Energy at a public meeting at the Gold Rush hotel saying the words “based on Soviet technology from the 1970s.”

Pakistan, China and India all have operating reactors in the “small” category, according to the World Nuclear Association (The WNA is an industry body, while the IAEA mentioned above is a club of governments including Canada).

Five small reactors are currently under construction: three in China, and one each in Russia and Argentina. The Russians are even working on floating versions, which can be towed to Northern places like Yamal or Kamchatka.

The Alaskans downstream are still mad at us for releasing untreated sewage into the Yukon River for decades. The probably wouldn’t be fans of a floating nuclear reactor at Dawson.

Projects in South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, India, France and Britain are also working on small reactors, although progress on these schemes are less advanced.

In Canada last year, Terrestrial Energy submitted its design for an Integral Molten Salt Reactor to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The company reportedly hopes to have a facility operational in Canada sometime in the 2020s. Another company, Northern Nuclear Industries, wants to develop a small reactor for northern communities, the oilsands and Canadian military bases in the Arctic.

I don’t know if these proposals will get any serious traction. My guess would be that they stay on the drawing board. But expect the topic to keep simmering — and generating controversy — since we need to do something to reduce carbon emissions.

If any of our newly elected MLAs are already tired of politics, pushing the nuclear topic would be a good way to accelerate getting back to the private sector.

But thinking about nuclear does raise some real-world implications for the Yukon. If nuclear is a no-go and building another big dam is only slightly less politically toxic, what is it? Wind, wood, micro-hydro and solar all work in the Yukon. But our engineers and businesspeople have yet to show that they can generate significant electricity at a reasonable price; say, more than five megawatts at under 15 cents per kilowatt hour.

The new government needs to get cracking on coming up with a plan for significant renewable energy at a reasonable price.

If we dither too long, we’ll just end up burning more fossil fuel at Yukon Energy’s new plant. I was reminded of this as we drove back to town the day after our hot Lindeman debate, and a tall column of smoke was coming out of the natural gas-fired generators at Schwatka.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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