Heather Exner-Pirot and Jesse McCormick: How Indigenous participation can help drive the new nuclear age

Industry is learning that Indigenous partnerships are assets, not hurdles, to moving projects forward
Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant stands on Jan. 20, 2023, in Waynesboro, Ga. John Bazemore/AP Photo.

The need to decarbonize energy generation while maintaining reliability and dispatchability has positioned the nuclear sector for significant growth in Canada. The size and modularity of small modular reactors (SMRs, or nuclear reactors of between 5-300MW), promise to expand nuclear energy’s applicability and siting potential, while addressing the risk of cost overruns.

Canada stands to benefit from its over 70 years of technological leadership, well-developed regulatory system, robust domestic supply chains, and globally significant uranium production. Despite these advantages, the potential for deployment of SMRs in regions of Canada where nuclear energy has not previously been generated poses new challenges for industry, government, and regulators.

The majority, if not all, of the existing nuclear generation facilitates in Canada were developed without adequate consideration of the rights and interests of First Nations. The introduction of new nuclear energy and nuclear waste management facilities in territories where relationships with First Nations have not yet been established presents a significant risk to project costs and timelines. A legacy of exclusion from decision making in relation to major projects combined with a high degree of culturally grounded concern about the potentially negative long-term effects of spent nuclear fuel on the environment, leave some First Nations wary of new deployments in their territories.   

Deputy grand chief Glen Hare of the Anishinabek Nation speaks as representatives for First Nations and environmental groups hold a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, April 23, 2018., asking the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate radioactive waste management in Canada. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

Those concerns will be expressed through active participation in regulatory processes, public dialogues, and added scrutiny of the actions of proponents and government, particularly for first-of-a-kind technologies that are new and poorly understood. First Nations have demonstrated the power to exert significance influence over projects through regulatory participation, litigation, and by harnessing the power of public opinion. That influence can be used to speed up project development or bring a project to its knees. Developers will have to decide how to build the confidence of the nations and communities that will host their projects. Those that choose consent over imposition will be best positioned to accelerate their projects and ensure economic viability.   

Rather than being a deal breaker for new nuclear, consent provides lots of reason for optimism. The same elements of nuclear that appeal to industry and government are attracting leaders and businesses from Indigenous communities: the ability to produce clean, baseload, electricity and heat in rural, remote and industrial settings. Small modular reactors and their little cousin, the microreactor, not only offer tremendous opportunity for decarbonization, but for energy security in rural and remote areas of Canada that today rely on diesel. 

We are already seeing new kinds of business partnerships and relationships being advanced across the country. In New Brunswick, the North Shore Mi’kmaq Tribal Council and its seven First Nations announced significant equity agreements with SMR developers Moltex and ARC Resources, who are advancing the ARC-100s in New Brunswick, in September 2023. 

In Ontario, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation announced a partnership with Bruce Power in June 2023 to jointly produce, advance, and market new medical isotopes, which will be essential to support the global fight against cancer.

In Saskatchewan Kitsaki Management, Athabasca Basin Development, and Des Nedhe Group—all Indigenous-owned businesses with experience in the uranium supply chain—signed an MOU in May 2021 to jointly pursue SMR investments. 

The First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) received funding last Fall to establish a National Indigenous Nuclear Supplier Database to track Indigenous suppliers who are working towards or have already achieved nuclear certification across the country.

Natural Resource Canada has provided funding for an Indigenous Advisory Council to Canada’s SMR Action Plan, and both the Canadian Nuclear Association and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have Indigenous advisory mechanisms. 

And later this year the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, a consortium of nuclear energy producers in Canada, is expected to announce the site of its deep geological repository, for long term management of spent nuclear fuel, in Ontario. They have narrowed the list down to two areas in Ontario—Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace and Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce—and have adopted a consent-based approach to site selection.

In many ways, the nuclear sector has been able to learn from the mistakes, but also the successes, of other resource and energy industries over the past two decades. Industry isn’t the only actor to have gotten more sophisticated; Indigenous nations and businesses have too. Many are now proactively seeking partnerships, developing capacity in the supply chain, and proposing opportunities for nuclear development.    

The recipe is clear: if you can provide meaningful economic benefits and consider Indigenous perspectives in project design, consent can be earned. By embracing this philosophy, industry is learning that Indigenous partnerships are not hurdles to moving projects forward, but an asset. 

There are many paths to partnerships with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, but they are all built on a foundation of rights, respect and recognition. Effective relationship building and efficient regulatory processes needs to start from a position of rights implementation. A new nuclear age is providing the opportunity to get this right from the beginning and our ability to meet the energy needs of a decarbonized future depends on it.

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