Seven First Nations strike historic deal on nuclear power

Seven Mi’kmaq communities in New Brunswick and the tribal organization that represents them are investing in two companies that want to build small nuclear reactors in the province, a controversial decision not all Indigenous leaders support.

The North Shore Mi’kmaq Tribal Council and the seven First Nations whose communities hug New Brunswick’s northern and eastern shores are making financial investments in both Moltex and ARC, via separate agreements.

One will see them receiving $2 million in share value from Moltex, and the other $1 million in share value from ARC.

Indigenous leaders who gathered with company officials at the Saint John Arts Centre on Monday morning said they had struck the historic, unprecedented deal to help avert a global warming crisis and to create jobs for young First Nations people, along with renewed economic activity in their communities.

“As a wise elder once told me, for many years, we’ve watched industry pass us by,” said Terry Richardson, the chief of Oinpegitjoig (Pabineau First Nation). “We’ve watched the trucks pass by our communities hauling minerals, hauling stuff, but no benefit for First Nations. Now, we’re at the table. We’re having benefit. And it will create wealth.”

Details remain confidential, but Jim Ward, the council’s general manager, said the news conference that the number of shares they receive would depend on future company valuations at the close of later funding rounds. The crowd erupted in applause when he recounted a recent trip with his two children to see the nuclear power station at Point Lepreau and they both told him afterwards they wanted to become engineers.

The deal was struck with the help of Saa Dene, a company that says it’s focused on Indigenous inclusion through economic and social participation in the global economy.

It conducted what it called “thorough due diligence” to ensure that Moltex and ARC's technologies and values “harmonized with Indigenous teachings of honouring and respecting the Earth,” according to a news release.

But the support for nuclear power also puts the Mi’kmaq at odds with the Indigenous community whose traditional territory includes Point Lepreau, home to the province’s only existing reactor.

Chief Hugh Agaki of the Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, whose traditional land includes southwestern New Brunswick, Passamaquoddy, and parts of Maine, is deeply opposed to more nuclear power, fearing the waste products that will last for countless generations.

Richardson and other Indigenous leaders counter that the only way the world will rid itself of fossil fuels is an all-hands-on-deck approach that would replace the dirtiest forms of energy with wind, solar and nuclear.

Agaki wasn’t available for comment Monday, but an elder who recited opening and closing prayers at the event in Saint John told the crowd people couldn’t ignore the threat of climate change.

“I live in a community that’s been impacted by sea level rising,” said Gordon LaBillois of Ugpi’Ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation). “There are at least two other communities in New Brunswick that are coastal that will be forced to relocate within probably the next 50 or 75 years. So when you talk about the four-letter word, ‘risk,’ there’s a price you pay to do something but there’s a greater price to do nothing.”

Since arriving in New Brunswick six years ago, the two companies have held meetings with all 15 First Nations and say they’re still open to forging agreements with the others that haven’t signed on. The North Shore council represents the communities closest to the Port of Belledune, where ARC hopes to set up a reactor in the next decade and Moltex wants to export its technology worldwide.

The two biggest Mi’kmaq communities in the province, Esgenoôpetitj (Burnt Church First Nation) and Elsipogtog (Big Cove First Nation) are farther south and haven’t signed on, nor have the six Wolastoq nations who live along the St. John River and consider Lepreau part of their overlapping territory.

Critics such as the Conservation Council of New Brunswick question the financial viability of the two projects. Arc wants to build a 100 megawatt sodium-cooled small modular reactor at Lepreau by 2030, and Moltex plans on building a nuclear waste recycling facility in the early 2030s and then a small modular reactor using different technology a few years later.

Moe Qureshi, the climate solutions manager at the environmental organization, pointed to a consultant’s report prepared for NB Power by the firm Energy+Environmental Economics, also called E3.

“I hope for the Indigenous people’s sake it is a money maker, but this is still an unproven, untested technology,” Qureshi said in an interview Monday. “It’s strange to put all that weight on it when you don’t have the numbers to back it up.”

The report suggested that small modular reactors, by the year 2035, would produce electricity at more than double the cost of wind or solar power.

“If they’re focused on research, that’s one thing, but to suggest nuclear is the lowest-cost, most reliable solution, it’s simply not true. The cost of SMRs is quite expensive.”

Rory O’Sullivan, Moltex’s CEO, insisted going green with nuclear power wouldn't come at too steep a price.

“We’ve done a lot of economic modelling to date and it shows this is a very competitive product against fossil fuels and even more so in a zero-carbon world,” he told reporters. “And of course, all nuclear technology is carbon free and is absolutely needed.”

In terms of future shares, O’Sullivan said his company would have to solicit far more money from willing investors, adding they would include both the private and public sectors.

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner