Mandryk: Despite SMR talk, Sask. Party gov’t coy on shuttering coal

Mandryk: Despite SMR talk, Sask. Party gov’t coy on shuttering coal

How committed this government is to getting the electrical grid off coal seems very much dependent on whom this government is addressing.

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Our transition from the coal age to the nuclear age remains a rather slow one — perhaps slowed by present-day politicking.

SaskPower and Crown Investment Corporation (CIC) Minister Dustin Duncan offered the blaring headline Monday that “Saskatchewan taps into 40 years of nuclear industry expertise and experience” by SaskPower and the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) joining the CANDU Owners Group —— COG’s first new members in more than two decades.

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Of course, joining COG to “gain access to research, technical workshops and peer groups focused on environmental and regulatory affairs, nuclear safety” isn’t exactly an earth-shattering development on the long and winding road to building those costly small modular reactors (SMRs).

But maybe give the Saskatchewan Party government credit for its cautious, can-do attitude in its transition from coal-fired electricity that pumps out greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Albeit a baby step, it clearly is a step toward transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Or is it? It doesn’t seem to be the giant leap we evidently need right now.

The unfortunate lesson from Alberta’s near rolling blackout during one of the colder days this past January is that our entire power grid, which Alberta had to tap into last winter, needs big baseload power sources beyond adding more solar and wind.

One might see Monday’s announcement as a small step toward solidifying that expensive commitment to SMRs. But let’s stop and listen carefully to the language:

“Leveraging nuclear expertise and industry experience is an important part of SaskPower’s SMR development work,” Duncan said in a news release Monday.

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“The insight provided by other Canadian nuclear utilities and key international nuclear organizations will be incredibly valuable ahead of our decision in 2029 whether to proceed with nuclear power from SMRs.”

And there it is — “our decision in 2029 whether to proceed with nuclear power from SMRs.”

Well, isn’t that commitment just a formality, given Monday’s “milestone” government SMR announcement?

One would hope so. But exactly how committed this government is to getting Saskatchewan’s electrical grid off coal seems very much dependent on whom this government is addressing.

For example, at the legislature last week, Independent Saskatchewan United Party leader Nadine Wilson — kicked out of the Sask. Party caucus three years ago over a squabble about her vaccine status —  noted “net zero decarbonizing transition of our energy grid will cost taxpayers upward of $57 billion” and SaskPower bills are still expected to increase by 175 per cent.

“I’d also like to know if the Government of Saskatchewan is going to shut down coal, and how soon?” Wilson asked last Thursday, describing abandoning coal as a “ridiculous plan.”

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“We’ll certainly be looking to ensure that we can run coal as long as possible,” Duncan responded in the legislature. “It’s unfortunate that a Liberal-NDP coalition in Ottawa has gotten us to this point. We’re going to run it as long as we can.”

As long as we can? Gee, isn’t “as long we can” until 2030? A Liberal-NDP coalition got us to this point? Wasn’t it former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper who was set to end coal-fired electrical generation in this country?  Didn’t the Sask. Party government support Harper’s policy?

Of course, Wilson’s Sask. United Party likely sees the southeast as its best chance for adding seats. And Duncan knows Estevan-area voters are edgy over the coal shutdown. There’s always more politicking in the legislature.

There was sure no talk about keeping coal going at Duncan’s Monday press conference with CANDU and SaskPower.

But as noted by NDP economy critic Aleana Young, your message shouldn’t alter based on who is in the room. It’s bad business.

For example, federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson noted BHP Billiton is already raising alarm bells that Saskatchewan’s coal-fired electrical generation for the Jansen potash mine doesn’t meet its global green requirements.

Because of issues like this, wouldn’t it be smart for the government to be consistent in its plan to move away from coal?

Sometimes it is. But, depending on who’s asking, sometimes it isn’t.

Murray Mandryk is the political column for the Regina Leader-Post and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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