Alberta government considering conventional nuclear power plants, minister says

The Alberta government is reconsidering whether the province should have conventional nuclear power plants, Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf says.

Last proposed Alberta nuclear power project cancelled in 2011

Pickering Nuclear Generating Station
Existing Canadian nuclear power plants are only in New Brunswick and Ontario, including the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The Alberta government is reconsidering whether the province should have conventional nuclear power plants, Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf says.

"We're also very interested in looking at conventional nuclear and what that could possibly provide for Alberta in ... the longer term," Neudorf told reporters when asked about small modular reactors on his way into the legislature on Thursday.

The Alberta government has since 2020 been working with the governments of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick to develop plans for small modular reactors (SMRs), which generate less power than a conventional plant and can be manufactured elsewhere and assembled on site.

Neudorf's comment Thursday was the first public suggestion that Danielle Smith's United Conservative Party government is contemplating conventional nuclear power plants like those in Ontario and New Brunswick.

A man wearing a suit with a red tie past the camera.
Alberta Affordability and Utilities Minister Nathan Neudorf says Alberta is considering whether conventional nuclear energy should be part of the power system. (CBC)

Neudorf said although the plants are pricey to build, there could be long-term savings over the facility's lifetime.

He said he hasn't struck a panel to study the issue, or hired any consultants. The first step is for the government to write regulations for the generation and use of nuclear power in the province, then begin public consultations to gauge citizens' appetite for a new power source, he said.

The Alberta government's last serious look at conventional nuclear was in 2008 and 2009, when an expert panel outlined the potential benefits and challenges. It did not make recommendations about building plants.

In 2011, Bruce Power abandoned its plans to build a nuclear power plant in the Peace River area when natural gas prices dropped and made gas-fired power plants cheaper to run.

Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University who authored a book on the Canadian nuclear industry, wasn't surprised to hear conventional nuclear power production re-enter the conversation.

Capital Power's January 2024 announcement of a partnership with Ontario Power Generation to study the feasibility of building SMRs to generate power is the first serious look at integrating nuclear into Alberta's electrical system, Bratt said.

Previous proposals have focused on SMRs powering oil extraction, he said.

As Alberta's population grows close to five million people, and the power grid hits more load challenges, Bratt sees a role for nuclear power in the mix.

"Given the expectation of where the size of Alberta is going, this makes sense," he said.

Although the premier says she wants private investors to take the lead on nuclear projects, Bratt said the start-up costs are so huge, governments would have to contribute.

Nuclear could distort market, expert says

What's changed since 2011, says Bratt, is more private-sector interest in embracing nuclear power and the public's acceptance of nuclear power as a potentially greener alternative to fossil fuels.

There are still substantial hurdles to becoming a nuclear jurisdiction, critics say, including provincial, federal and international layers of approvals to satisfy.

"It's very strange that someone would be considering large reactors at this point," said M.V. Ramana, a professor of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.

He pointed to plant costs sometimes doubling or tripling once construction has begun, and facilities opening years later than scheduled.

Jason Wang, a senior electricity analyst with the Pembina Institute, says many countries are embracing networks of smaller, renewable power plants and distributed electrical storage to modernize electrical systems, alongside technologies that enhance efficiency and incentivize off-peak power usage.

"There's so many types of innovations that are coming to the electricity system that Alberta doesn't seem to have recognized as opportunities yet," he said.

The introduction of nuclear power could also distort Alberta's deregulated electricity market, scaring off investors considering renewable energy installations or carbon capture, utilization and storage, Wang said.

Wang questioned whether nuclear power companies would be expected to set money aside for future site and pollution cleanup the way the province says renewable energy companies will have to post a bond.

There is also the challenge of where to store and treat nuclear waste, Wong said.

"It's not just a multi-year problem," he said. "It's a multi-century, multi-millennium problem."

Nuclear power, nuclear weapons, disarmament, global security, UBC
M. V. Ramana is a professor and chair of disarmament, global and human security at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. (Submitted by M.V. Ramana)

Ramana says governments in fossil fuel-producing jurisdictions often talk about exploring nuclear energy to make it appear they're trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having to take action.

"Nuclear energy provides one way to say, 'We're serious about it. But the technology's not here,' " he said.

Governments earnestly trying to meet climate targets would incentivize renewable energy construction, because windmills and solar panels are faster to build than nuclear plants, he said.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.