Welcoming input from regional community groups: a roadmap for nuclear success

By Mellissa Winfield-Lesk | May 4, 2022
Diversity in engineering project teams

Saskatchewan has the largest deposits of high-grade uranium in the world. Committing to clean energy is a win-win situation that will help fight climate change and foster regional economic growth and job opportunities.

Government-owned SaskPower is currently advancing a small modular reactor (SMR) development project as part of Saskatchewan’s 2020 – 2030 Growth Plan [2019] . Along with building an SMR meeting stringent safety standards, the company is also taking major formative steps by welcoming input from First Nations, Métis, community officials and other various stakeholders prior to making a siting decision and starting the approvals process.

As an energy producer, SaskPower understands fossil-fuel based, utility scale energy generation and transmission, but issues specific to nuclear power raise an entirely new risk profile. These issues require sophisticated solutions to not only produce power, but to safely manage its byproducts and to acquire community support.

As we take a closer look at SMRs and evaluate their deployment, we must also recognize the value of a regional evaluation process (REP) that encourages meaningful engagement with local communities as a fundamental part of the nuclear energy transition.

What are SMRs and why do they work?

Grid-scale SMR reactors are modular, simply designed, and have passive safety features that make them ideal for wide-scale deployment. They’re particularly well-suited for utility-scale power providers that have rich resources but no prior nuclear experience, as is the case with the province of Saskatchewan.

One of the most significant benefits that SMRs offer is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) compared to conventional coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. Electricity generation is the source of 20% of the province’s GHG emissions, the majority of which are a result of burning carbon-intensive fossil fuels .

SaskPower is on track to meet its goal in reducing GHG emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, with plans to be emissions free by 2050 or earlier. To get there, it will need a range of supply options, including nuclear power from SMRs. Although a decision on whether to build an SMR won’t be made until 2029, planning is already underway.

It’s an ambitious goal, attracting a lot of attention and interest, but not without local community concerns.

Required or not, SaskPower understands the value that local community and traditional knowledge will bring to the siting process and welcomes the participation of local stakeholders

The Impact Assessment Act

In 2019, Canada passed the new Impact Assessment Act, which makes decisions on projects by determining whether they are in the “public interest.” However, the Act does not explicitly require early engagement with community and Indigenous groups at a regional level, and it does not require feedback from the public regarding potential impacts of a project on our health, environment and cultural or socio-economic values before an impact assessment begins.

Required or not, SaskPower understands the value that local community and traditional knowledge will bring to the siting process and welcomes the participation of local stakeholders to inform project siting and prepare for the impact assessment process and thus inform th ‘public interest’ determination. Hatch developed a unique regional evaluation process (REP) to capture this local input.

What is an REP Process?

An REP is a proactive approach that combines best practices from a number of impact assessment practice areas and jurisdictions. The goal is to work directly with Indigenous people, organizations, and regional stakeholder representatives to ensure that concerns and aspirations related to the SMR Development Project are understood and considered.

This process promotes early resolution of issues prior to entering the regulatory phase of the project. Projects like this face increased public scrutiny and concerns with unchartered regulatory processes. Long-term planning and deep community relationships will help to build a foundation of trust and the social capital necessary to tackle difficult questions and project decisions in the future, that need to be supported by local stakeholders.

This process promotes early resolution of issues prior to entering the regulatory phase of the project

The REP developed for SaskPower will primarily serve as an engagement tool between SaskPower and local stakeholders potentially impacted by the project. It will ensure these groups can give feedback and provide input to relevant processes and project principles. It will also keep them connected with other key stakeholders, including provincial and federal regulators. It will provide certainty that Indigenous and regional stakeholder interests are understood and considered.

It will serve as the primary way to communicate and provide consistent project information in a timely way; and it will help to minimize regional biodiversity impacts by optimizing project siting and mitigating risk to watersheds, environmentally sensitive lands, and at-risk species.

The REP that Hatch developed for SaskPower’s SMR Development Project can be adapted and applied to other high-risk, high-profile, new technology projects. Its unique approach to replacing transactional public participation will enhance project outcomes and can establish meaningful long-term relationships within the communities in which they operate.

What’s next

SaskPower and Hatch look forward to continued partnership as they plan for nuclear power in Saskatchewan. This year, we look forward to diving deeper into the siting of the first potential SMR and kicking off the Regional Evaluation Process. For further information about SaskPower’s project and to find information on engagement opportunities, visit saskpower.com/nuclear.

Contact Hatch to learn more about how we’re navigating these changes and bringing community involvement to the forefront of nuclear energy. You can also join the conversation with SaskPower, the IAAC and CNSC at the Hatch sponsored IAIA22 conference breakfast session in Vancouver on May 6, 7:30 a.m. PDT.