This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Heather Exner-Pirot and Jesse McCormick, July 24, 2023
As we move towards a net-zero future, opportunities to increase the generation of emission-free electricity and industrial heat are becoming a key part of energy planning in Canada, particularly when it comes to the deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs).
Ontario is planning to build four of them at its Darlington site, while Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta have all indicated intentions to develop their own projects. But while Canada is well positioned to become a leader in the development and deployment of SMRs, the extent to which they will receive support from Indigenous communities remains to be seen.
SMRs are advanced nuclear reactors that generate up to 300 megawatts per unit, about one-third that of traditional nuclear reactors. They promise to be smaller, easier to site, cheaper to finance and faster to build than conventional reactors, and their modular design permits on-site assembly at a lower cost than conventional reactors. Moreover, the passive safety mechanisms built into various SMR models significantly reduce the risk of accidents, and some models will have the potential to reduce nuclear waste by reusing spent fuel to generate electricity.
Despite these benefits, Indigenous support is far from guaranteed, especially for First Nations with strong cultural values focused on protecting the land for future generations. Many First Nations live with the uncompensated impacts of past infrastructure projects and possess intimate familiarity with the harm that imposed development can cause. Limited access to financial and technical supports to evaluate new projects hinders First Nations participation and can lead to uncertainty and a lack of confidence.
Where the past experiences of Indigenous communities have been poor, the deployment of new reactors may be perceived as risk without reward. If direct and tangible efforts are not made to strengthen First Nations confidence in the deployment of new nuclear reactors, the impacts on project development and regulatory timelines will be significant.
Fortunately, respect for Indigenous rights has increased since Canada’s last era of nuclear reactor construction in the 1970s and ’80s. With the new wave of SMRs on the horizon, governments, Indigenous communities and proponents of clean power generation have the opportunity to harness not only the extraordinary potential of nuclear energy, but also the power of Indigenous consent to get projects built on budget and on time.
It starts with ensuring that First Nations have the capacity to engage effectively and confirm for themselves whether a proposed project warrants their support. Governments, regulators and project developers need to ensure that First Nations have the ability to make free, prior and informed decisions about SMR deployments within their territories.
The good news is that many successful models for industry-Indigenous engagement have been developed over the past two decades, and the lessons are being applied to nuclear energy. Indigenous experts are actively participating in policy development for the nuclear sector and helping shape Canada’s approach to the next generation of nuclear facilities. Regulators have prioritized financial support for Indigenous participants in regulatory processes, and SMR developers are proactively engaging with Indigenous partners.
As shared decision-making models are being written into project planning documents, Indigenous knowledge is being embraced as a foundational part of project design. New entrants are building on the decades-long history of robust Indigenous involvement in uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan, to create more space for Indigenous participation throughout the nuclear supply chain.
Workforce participation, construction contracts, component manufacturing and Indigenous ownership in the form of equity participation are just some of the options being explored with Indigenous businesses today. Good things are happening and it is paving the way for partnerships based on respect, co-operation and mutual benefit.
Not every Indigenous community will conclude that new nuclear deployments are the right option for them and many will express concerns about nuclear waste management and safety — important issues that need to be addressed. But for others, SMRs represent an exciting opportunity to advance their social, environmental and economic interests for the betterment of their communities.
Canada’s nuclear industry is getting a second chance to make a first impression. The pathway to prosperity and a net-zero future is through strong Indigenous partnerships grounded in culture, capacity and consent. Canada has the potential to be a world leader in the safe and effective deployment of SMRs. Embracing that opportunity begins with recognizing the right of Indigenous nations to be part of the process.
Heather Exner-Pirot is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Jesse McCormick is senior vice-president of research, innovation and legal affairs at the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.