ARC’s small nuclear reactors will not fill the power gap left by Belledune

Bill Labbe, President and CEO of ARC Clean Energy, appeared before the New Brunswick State Legislature's Climate Action Committee on Tuesday.  (Jacques Poitras/CBC - photo credit)

Bill Labbe, President and CEO of ARC Clean Energy, appeared before the New Brunswick State Legislature’s Climate Action Committee on Tuesday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC – photo credit)

One of the companies planning to build small modular nuclear reactors in New Brunswick says its technology will not be enough to replace all the electricity NB Power now generates from coal.

The provincial government has touted SMRs as a key element of its climate action plan to move away from generation that emits greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere.

“Our mission is to protect the planet with clean energy,” ARC Clean Energy CEO Bill Labbe told MLAs on the Legislature’s Standing Committee on Climate Change.

But Labbe said the company’s plans don’t include enough SMRs to offset the 450 megawatts of electricity generated annually by the Belledune coal-fired power plant.

“No, I think there is a significant megawatt shortage,” he told reporters. “This gap will require hundreds of megawatts of new generation.”

Belledune must stop burning coal by 2030, creating a potential gap in the province’s electricity generation.

Labbe said ARC is confident its first SMR will be operational at Point Lepreau by then, but it will only generate 100 megawatts of power.

The company plans to eventually have eight to 12 SMRs at Belledune, but they likely won’t be in place until 2032-2036.

And all of its output will be destined for a planned hydrogen power generation facility for export – meaning it will not be available for the NB Power grid.

The other New Brunswick-based SMR developer, Moltex Energy, says it is “on track to have an operational reactor by the early 2030s.”

Committee already warned

Last year, a former CEO of NB Power and a vice president of Saint John Energy warned the same committee that costs and regulatory processes could prevent SMRs from being ready in time for 2030

Labbe said other SMRs could be built in New Brunswick to generate more power for the grid, but nothing is on the drawing board for that, meaning they wouldn’t be operational until the coal phase-out.

And he said since every unit after the first Lepreau unit undergoes a federal, rather than provincial, environmental review, the process will take more time — unless ARC can convince Ottawa to institute an expedited regulatory process.

He said this would not mean sacrificing security, but potentially allowing multiple units to be licensed and approved at the same time.

“We believe there are ways to make this process efficient, that’s all. …but we still want to make sure we live up to everyone’s expectations,” he said. “We just think we can do it in an efficient way.”

Labbe made the comments during the first of four days of meetings of the climate committee. Two days are dedicated to small modular reactors.

A total of $30 million from the province

The Higgs administration gave ARC $20 million in 2021, adding to the $10 million it received from the previous Liberal government. Labbe told MLAs Tuesday that ARC will no longer require public funding.

Tuesday’s committee meeting was marked by a testy exchange between Energy Secretary Mike Holland and anti-nuclear activist Susan O’Donnell of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick.

Holland said O’Donnell is proposing an alternative energy plan, renewable energy plus large-scale battery storage, that is no more proven or viable than small reactors.

Jacques Poitras/CBC

Jacques Poitras/CBC

“Storage for renewable energy is as far away as SMRs on a cost-effective basis,” he said.

“So what you’re talking about is something that’s unrealistic for today.”

The CRED-NB proposal proposes new battery technology to store electricity from solar and wind energy, which could then be used on days when it is neither windy nor sunny.

“The technology is very expensive right now for storage, but the cost is going down fast, while the cost of solar and wind is coming down fast, it’s going down for storage,” O’Donnell said.

Jacques Poitras/CBC

Jacques Poitras/CBC

Holland argued that each SMR built will be cheaper than the previous unit, bringing costs down such that “the nth of its kind” will ultimately not be as expensive as a first large battery storage unit.

The minister said both technologies could eventually be viable, so “why not go both ways at the same time?”

“Well, Minister, you assume there will be an nth copy [SMR]’ said O’Donnell.

“Well, you assume that won’t be the case,” Holland replied.

O’Donnell said experts later appearing at committee meetings would be better able to answer questions about the cost of a renewable plus storage option for power generation.

“It’s really not up to us, a group of volunteers, to come up with a plan B,” she later told reporters. “NB Power should do that. The ministry should do that.”


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