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Reactor number 3 at the Darlington nuclear facility in Courtice, Ont., in 2014. A Saint John-based startup proposes to recycle radioactive waste from nuclear plants into fresh fuel for a new 300-megawatt reactor.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Less than a kilometre from the western shore of the Bay of Fundy, the Point Lepreau Solid Radioactive Waste Management Facility temporarily houses about 160,000 spent fuel assemblies from New Brunswick’s only nuclear power reactor. Moltex Energy, a Saint John-based startup, proposes to recycle that radioactive waste into fresh fuel for a new 300-megawatt reactor called the Stable Salt Reactor-Wasteburner, or SSR-W.

Moltex promises these facilities will greatly diminish the waste inventory of NB Power, the province’s primary electric utility, beginning in the early 2030s, while at the same time producing electricity. Critics, however, warn the resulting wastes would be harder to dispose of than the assemblies themselves.

Criticisms notwithstanding, Moltex’s proposal appears to be gaining momentum. It has partnered with SNC-Lavalin Group, which holds a minority ownership stake and provides many of Moltex’s 35 employees through secondments – a vote of confidence from a company with deep roots in Canada’s nuclear sector.

Moltex’s parent company was founded in Britain in 2012 by chief scientist Ian Scott, who previously worked in the biological sciences field including as a senior scientist at Unilever PLC, the consumer products giant. With no previous nuclear experience, he moved into reactor design and fuel reprocessing.

Premier Blaine Higgs hailed Moltex in a speech in February, stating his government’s support “is positioning New Brunswick as a leader in development of new nuclear.” Mike Holland, Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development, has extended what he described as “unwavering commitment to seeing this project become a reality.” The province has already supplied $10-million toward that end, while the federal government, through its Strategic Innovation Fund and other channels, has provided $50.5-million.

What these supporters have signed up for, however, isn’t entirely clear. Moltex’s technologies are embryonic; emphasizing that fact, partners that would play crucial roles in implementing them refused to discuss the implications with The Globe and Mail. Citing the need for commercial confidentiality, Moltex chief executive officer Rory O’Sullivan acknowledges the company hasn’t revealed many details about its reprocessing technology (known as Waste To Stable Salts, or WATSS).

Critics, though, say they’ve seen enough to recognize WATSS as merely the latest variations on nuclear waste reprocessing experiments dating back decades. Those experiences revealed reprocessing to be not a solution, they claim, but a curse.

About the size of a fire log, fuel assemblies from Canada’s CANDU reactors consist of rods known as “pencils” that are welded together; each contains cylindrical uranium pellets. Highly radioactive upon removal from a reactor, assemblies are stored in pools of water for about a decade before being warehoused at nuclear power plants in shielded containers. There are now about 3.2 million spent assemblies, which if stacked like cordwood would fill nine hockey rinks up to the boards.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) was established more than two decades ago to find a final resting place. It’s designing an underground storage facility known as a deep geological repository (DGR), and hopes to select a construction site next year from two candidates in Ontario. Utilities would ship fuel assemblies by truck or rail to the DGR, where they’d be packed into copper-coated steel capsules and placed in chambers half a kilometre underground.

Moltex says there’s a better way.

“What we’re proposing to do is take that spent fuel and extract out that half per cent of elements in there that are actually radioactive for 300,000 years,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “And we can put them back into our reactor and use them as fuel … you’re literally turning matter into energy, so they no longer exist, they’re destroyed.”

WATSS would produce new wastes. By mass, the largest would be leftover uranium plus the metal cladding from CANDU fuel bundles, Mr. O’Sullivan said. This would be placed in the DGR, but in volumes greatly reduced than CANDU fuel bundles.

Then there’s fission products, a term encompassing hundreds of substances produced by nuclear fission inside a reactor. Though some are stable, others (such as cesium, technetium and strontium) are radioactive. These would be contained in salts that could be placed in canisters the same size as CANDU fuel bundles, facilitating storage in the DGR; Mr. O’Sullivan said they’d remain radioactive for up to 300 years.

“The onus is absolutely on us to demonstrate that we can produce waste byproducts at the end that are easier, safer and lower cost to dispose of,” he said. “We will be transparent in what we can and cannot do.”

But critics accuse Moltex of misleading the public. Gordon Edwards, a nuclear consultant and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said the company’s claim that the fission products would remain radioactive for only three centuries is “outrageous.”

“There are several radioactive materials which are very, very long-lived in the fission products, that have half-lives of not just thousands, but millions of years.”

The leftover uranium would contain leftover plutonium and fission products: “Experience has shown that this uranium is not clean, it’s contaminated,” he said. “You can’t just separate all of the fission products.”

WATSS wouldn’t significantly reduce storage volumes, Mr. Edwards added, as it’s the heat generated by radioactive waste – not the physical space occupied – that determines how large a DGR must be.

Ed Lyman, director of nuclear power safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists, has studied nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies since the 1980s. He said Moltex’s proposal is a variation on schemes that have been explored over many decades.

“All of the available evidence in the whole history of technology development in this area, as well as attempts to commercialize reprocessing in various ways, points to the fact that this is not going to work,” he said.

“At best, they’ll end up with a small amount of various types of waste before the project is terminated, that will just create a bigger disposal hazard. And if it’s stuck in the province of New Brunswick, it will be their problem. But there’s zero chance of this cockamamie contraption being useful for generating electricity, or treating radioactive waste in a sound way.”

In an appearance in February before a New Brunswick Standing Committee on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship, Mr. O’Sullivan estimated development and regulatory licensing costs for WATSS and the SSR-W at $500-million, and called on the federal and New Brunswick governments to fund half of that. (In an interview, he clarified that Moltex has not formally applied for new funding, and is seeking $30-million from private investors this year.)

M.V. Ramana, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s public policy and global affairs school who researches nuclear issues, said Moltex’s $500-million estimate is highly optimistic. He pointed to Portland, Ore.-based NuScale Power, an early SMR developer, which spent US$1.1-billion over more than two decades developing what is essentially a scaled-down version of light water reactors common in the U.S.

As a molten salt reactor, the SSR-W should be far more difficult to license, Prof. Ramana said. Only two such reactors have ever been built, the last one closing in 1969, and neither generated electricity commercially.

Additionally, a sister company of Moltex, called MoltexFlex, is marketing another molten salt reactor in the Britain. (The companies share key personnel.) And Moltex must separately develop and license the WATSS process.

Moltex challenges most of these concerns, and says critics do not understand its technologies. But key partners are of little help in clarifying uncertainties. NB Power has collaborated with Moltex for years; it would own and operate the WATSS facility and the SSR-W, and retain all liabilities for the resulting wastes. Yet it declined to answer questions about them.

“Questions on the process and its outputs would be better answered by Moltex, as it is still in the conceptual phase,” the utility stated.

Moltex has for several years explored with the NWMO how to dispose of WATSS wastes, and says it will demonstrate their purity over the next three years. Yet it’s unclear whether the NWMO would accept Moltex’s wastes into its DGR, or how it might manage them – details that could have significant practical and cost implications.

“While we’re in early discussions with Moltex, they are still in the development phase, so we don’t have sufficient data at this time to respond to your technical questions about fuel waste,” NWMO spokesperson Russell Baker wrote in an e-mail.

All that adds up to a heap of unanswered questions. But having already spent $50-million on the project, Prof. Ramana said the federal government will be under considerable pressure to contribute more. He questioned the due diligence it has conducted to date.

“It’s not clear to me that the Trudeau government is interested in asking some of these hard questions,” he said.

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