Mini-Nukes, Big Bucks: The Interests Behind the SMR Push

Why Canada is now poised to pour billions of tax dollars into developing Small Modular Reactors as a “clean energy” climate solution

by Joyce Nelson

Nuclear power plant Dukovany at sunset in Czech Republic Europe | stock photo

Back in 2018, the Watershed Sentinel ran an article warning that “unless Canadians speak out,” a huge amount of taxpayer dollars would be spent on small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), which author D. S. Geary called “risky, retro, uncompetitive, expensive, and completely unnecessary.” Now here we are in 2021 with the Trudeau government and four provinces (Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Alberta) poised to pour billions of dollars into SMRs as a supposed “clean energy” solution to climate change.

It’s remarkable that only five years ago, the National Energy Board predicted: “No new nuclear units are anticipated to be built in any province” by 2040.

So what happened?

The answer involves looking at some of the key influencers at work behind the scenes, lobbying for government funding for SMRs.

The Carney factor

When the first three provinces jumped on the SMR bandwagon in 2019 at an estimated price tag of $27 billion, the Green Party called the plan “absurd” – especially noting that SMRs don’t even exist yet as viable technologies but only as designs on paper.

According to the BBC (March 9, 2020), some of the biggest names in the nuclear industry gave up on SMRs for various reasons: Babcock & Wilcox in 2017, Transatomic Power in 2018, and Westinghouse (after a decade of work on its project) in 2014.

But in 2018, the private equity arm of Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management Inc. announced that it was buying Westinghouse’s global nuclear business (Westinghouse Electric Co.) for $4.6 billion.

“If Wall Street and the banks will not finance this, why should it be the role of the government to engage in venture capitalism of this kind?”

Two years later, in August 2020, Brookfield announced that Mark Carney, former Bank of England and Bank of Canada governor, would be joining the company as its vice-chair and head of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) and impact fund investing, while remaining as UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance.

“We are not going to solve climate change without the private sector,” Carney told the press, calling the climate crisis “one of the greatest commercial opportunities of our time.” He considers Canada “an energy superpower,” with nuclear a key asset.

Carney is an informal advisor to PM Trudeau and to British PM Boris Johnson. In November, Johnson announced £525 million (CAD$909.6 million) for “large and small-scale nuclear plants.”

SNC-Lavalin

Scandal-ridden SNC-Lavalin is playing a major role in the push for SMRs. In her mid-December 2020 newsletter, Elizabeth May, the Parliamentary Leader of the Green Party, focused on SNC-Lavalin, reminding readers that in 2015, then-PM Stephen Harper sold the commercial reactor division of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) “to SNC-Lavalin for the sweetheart deal price of $15 million.”

May explained, “SNC-Lavalin formed a consortium called the Canadian National Energy Alliance (CNEA) to run some of the broken-apart bits of AECL. CNEA has been the big booster of what sounds like some sort of warm and cuddly version of nuclear energy – Small Modular Reactors. Do not be fooled. Not only do we not need new nuclear, not only does it have the same risks as previous nuclear reactors and creates long-lived nuclear wastes, it is more tied to the U.S. military-industrial complex than ever before. That’s because SNC-Lavalin’s partners in the CNEA are US companies Fluor and Jacobs,” who both have contracts with US Department of Energy nuclear-weapons facilities.”

But, states May, “Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has been sucked into the latest nuclear propaganda – that ‘there is no pathway to Net Zero [carbon emissions] without nuclear’.”

Terrestrial Energy

Then there’s Terrestrial Energy, which in mid-October 2020 received a $20 million grant for SMR development from NRCan’s O’Regan and Navdeep Bains (Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry). The announcement prompted more than 30 Canadian NGOs to call SMRs “dirty, dangerous, and distracting” from real, available solutions to climate change.

The Connecticut-based company has a subsidiary in Oakville, Ontario. Its advisory board includes Stephen Harper; Michael Binder, the former president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; and (as of October) Dr. Ian Duncan, the former UK Minister of Climate Change in the Dept. of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Perhaps more important, Terrestrial Energy’s advisory board includes Dr. Ernest Moniz, the former US Secretary of the Dept. of Energy (2013-2017) who provided more than $12 billion in loan guarantees to the nuclear industry. Moniz has been a key advisor to the Biden-Harris transition team, which has come out in favour of SMRs, calling them “game-changing technologies” at “half the construction cost of today’s reactors.”

In 2015, while the COP 21 Paris Climate Agreement was being finalized, Moniz told reporters that SMRs could lead to “better financing terms” than traditional nuclear plants because they would change the scale of capital at risk. For years, banks and financial institutions have been reluctant to invest in money-losing nuclear projects, so now the goal is to get governments to invest, especially in SMRs.

That has been the agenda of a powerful lobby group that has been working closely with NRCan for several years.

The “billionaires’ nuclear club”

The 2015 Paris climate talks featured what cleantechnica.com called a “splashy press conference” by Bill Gates to announce the launch of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC) – a group of (originally) 28 high net-worth investors, aiming “to provide early-stage capital for technologies that offer promise in bringing affordable clean energy to billions.”

Though BEC no longer makes its membership public, the original coalition included such familiar names as Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Jack Ma (Alibaba), David Rubenstein (Carlyle Group), Tom Steyer, George Soros, and Mark Zuckerberg. Many of those names (and others) can now be found on the “Board and Investors” page of Breakthrough Energy’s website.

“As long as Bill Gates is wasting his own money or that of other billionaires, it is not so much of an issue. The problem is that he is lobbying hard for government investment.”

Writing in Counterpunch (Dec. 4, 2015) shortly after  BEC’s launch, Linda Pentz Gunter noted that many of those 28 BEC billionaires (collectively worth some $350 billion at the time) are pro-nuclear and Gates himself “is already squandering part of his wealth on Terra Power LLC, a nuclear design and engineering company seeking an elusive, expensive and futile so-called Generation IV traveling wave reactor” for SMRs. (In 2016, Terra Power, based in Bellevue, Washington, received a $40 million grant from Ernest Moniz’s Department of Energy.)

According to cleantechnica.com, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition “does have a particular focus on nuclear energy.” Think of BEC as the billionaires’ nuclear club.

By 2017, BEC was launching Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a $1 billion fund to provide start-up capital to clean-tech companies in several countries.

Going after the public purse

Bill Gates was apparently very busy during the 2015 Paris climate talks. He also went on stage during the talks to announce a collaboration among 24 countries and the EU on something called Mission Innovation – an attempt to “accelerate global clean energy innovation” and “increase government support” for the technologies. Mission Innovation’s key private sector partners include the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the World Economic Forum, the International Energy Agency, and the World Bank.

An employee at Natural Resources Canada, Amanda Wilson, was appointed as one of the 12 international members of the Mission Innovation Steering Committee.

In December 2017, Bill Gates announced that the Breakthrough Energy Coalition was partnering with Mission Innovation members Canada, UK, France, Mexico, and the European Commission in a “public-private collaboration” to “double public investment in clean energy innovation.”

Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources at the time, Jim Carr, said the partnership with BEC “will greatly benefit the environment and the economy. Working side by side with innovators like Bill Gates can only serve to enhance our purpose and inspire others.”

Dr. M.V. Ramana, an expert on nuclear energy and a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC, told me by email: “As long as Bill Gates is wasting his own money or that of other billionaires, it is not so much of an issue. The problem is that he is lobbying hard for government investment.”

“Nuclear power is like fighting world hunger with caviar, it’s like using the most expensive option when there are far more plentiful and nutritious options available when you account for the costs.” —Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy, University of Sussex and a lead author for the IPCC on climate change mitigation between now and 2050 – speaking on CBC radio’s What on Earth

Dr. Ramana explained that because SMRs only exist on paper, “the scale of investment needed to move these paper designs to a level of detail that would satisfy any reasonable nuclear safety regulator that the design is safe” would be in the billions of dollars. “I don’t see Gates and others being willing to invest anything of that scale. Instead, they invest a relatively small amount of money (compared to what they are worth financially) and then ask for government handouts for the vast majority of the investment that is needed.”

Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist at Beyond Nuclear, told me by email that the companies involved in SMRs “don’t care” if the technology is actually workable, “so long as they get paid more subsidies from the unsuspecting public. It’s not a question of it working, necessarily,” he noted.

Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, says governments “are being suckers. Because if Wall Street and the banks will not finance this, why should it be the role of the government to engage in venture capitalism of this kind?”

“Roadmap” to a NICE future

By 2018, NRCan was pouring money into a 10-month, pan-Canadian “conversation” about SMRs that brought together some 180 individuals from First Nations and northern communities, provincial and territorial governments, industry, utilities, and “stakeholders.” The resulting November 2018 report, A Call to Action: A Canadian Roadmap for Small Modular Reactors, enthusiastically noted that “Canada’s nuclear industry is poised to be a leader in an emerging global market estimated at $150 billion a year by 2040.”

At the same time, Bill Gates announced the launch of Breakthrough Energy Europe, a collaboration with the European Commission (one of BEC’s five Mission Innovation partners) in the amount of 100 million euros for clean-tech innovation.

Gates’ PR tactic is effective: provide a bit of capital to create an SMR “bandwagon,” with governments fearing their economies would be left behind unless they massively fund such innovations.

NRCan’s SMR Roadmap was just in time for Canada’s hosting of the Clean Energy Ministerial/Mission Innovation summit in Vancouver in May 2019 to “accelerate progress toward a clean energy future.” Canada invested $30 million in Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada to fund start-up companies.

A particular focus of the CEM/MI summit was a CEM initiative called “Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy (NICE) Future,” with all participants receiving a book highlighting SMRs. As Tanya Glafanheim and M.V. Ramana warned in thetyee.ca (May 27, 2019) in advance of the summit, “Note to Ministers from 25 countries: Prepare to be dangerously greenwashed.”

Greenwash vs public backlash

While releasing the federal SMR Action Plan on December 18, O’Regan called it “the next great opportunity for Canada.”

Bizarrely, the Action Plan states that by developing SMRs, our governments would be “supporting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples” – but a Special Chiefs Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations passed a unanimous 2018 resolution demanding that “the Government of Canada cease funding and support” of SMRs. And in June 2019, the Anishinabek Chiefs-in-Assembly (representing 40 First Nations across Ontario) unanimously opposed “any effort to situate SMRs within our territory.”

Some 70 NGOs across Canada are opposed to SMRs, which are being pushed as a replacement for diesel in remote communities, for use in off-grid mining, tar-sands development, and heavy industry, and as exportable expertise in a global market.

Whether SMRs work or not, Mission Innovation members will be throwing tax-dollars at them like there is no tomorrow.

On December 7, the Hill Times published an open letter to the Treasury Board of Canada from more than 100 women leaders across Canada, stating: “We urge you to say ‘no’ to the nuclear industry that is asking for billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to subsidize a dangerous, highly-polluting and expensive technology that we don’t need. Instead, put more money into renewables, energy efficiency and energy conservation.”

No new money for SMRs was announced in the Action Plan, but in her Fall Economic Statement, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland touted SMRs and noted that “targeted action by the government to mobilize private capital will better position Canadian firms to bring their technologies to market.” That suggests the Canada Infrastructure Bank will use its $35 billion for such projects.

It will take a Herculean effort from the public to defeat this NICE Future, but along with the Assembly of First Nations, three political parties – the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Green Party – have now come out against SMRs.


Award-winning author Joyce Nelson’s latest book, Bypassing Dystopia, is published by Watershed Sentinel Books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca.


Watershed Sentinel Feb-March 2021 CoverThis article appears in our February | March 2021 issue.


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