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Opinion: SMR announcement a big win for the Estevan area

A lot of work remains before Estevan can be home to Saskatchewan's first small modular reactor.

There's still a lot of work that remains, but the Estevan area has taken a big step forward in its quest to land the province's first small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear facility.

Premier Scott Moe announced Thursday that the government was officially looking at just the Estevan area for the first reactor in Saskatchewan. The premier pretty much let the cat out of the bag a few weeks earlier when he said it would "quite likely" be in Estevan, but now it's official: if it goes ahead, it will be near the Energy City, and not the Elbow area, which was our competition.

Needless to say, he received a pretty good reaction from the audience that heard the announcement at the Estevan Chamber of Commerce's 120th anniversary bash.

We've heard a lot of talk about SMR technology in recent years. Some people are skittish about it. They get nervous the moment they hear anything about nuclear reactors. Other people down here are going to be opposed to anything that isn't coal-fired power.

Additional consultations will now take place. SaskPower will have to decide whether the facility will be on the shores of Boundary Dam or Rafferty Reservoir. And we'll have to play the waiting game.

The review stage is expected to take five years, meaning we'll likely find out sometime in 2029 whether this project will receive the green light. There's a lot to be reviewed for a project with such a high price tag and with its environmental impacts, but five years will seem like a long time to those waiting for this to happen.

If this project is approved, it's going to take several more years to build. The construction phase will be long, but we can at least look forward to more than a thousand people being in the area during that time. It will be the most people in our community since 2014, when we had the twin benefits of the oil boom and the construction of the CCS facility at the Boundary Dam Power Station happening simultaneously.

Once the first unit is finished, it sounds like attention will shift to a second, so all of the labourers will be hear for a long time.

Once it is operational, an SMR will create a lot of jobs. Not as many as we currently have working between the Boundary Dam and Shand Power Stations, as well as the Westmoreland Mining Holdings LLC, but thankfully other industries are being considered as options.

We also have to remember that this is just the beginning. The provincial government is going to need to find options to not only replace coal-fired power generation should the day come in which coal is no longer an option, but to meet the electricity needs of a growing province.

The Elbow region might be smarting from losing out on the initial SMR construction, but these reactors could be located there eventually.

We recognize there's going to be some apprehension about this project. The moment you say the word nuclear, they're going to think about Chernobyl. There's a stark difference between conventional nuclear power and small modular reactors, and this is not the nuclear power that the province investigated in 2008-09.

When you do your research from actual qualified sources, you see the differences between the large nuclear reactors and what we're looking at here.

There will also be people who want to see coal power remain a catalyst of our area, and won't support any other power options. But what happens when coal, at least conventional coal, is no longer available to us?

We've said it before: we're proud to be a mining community and all that coal mining has done for us. But we might not always have that choice. And so we then have three choices: stick our head in the sand and hope this uncertainty somehow passes, eschew other options and hurt the future of the community, or pursue other options.

The government chose wisely by going with Estevan to be the home of the first SMR(s). We have the transmission infrastructure. We have the skilled labour force. And there would have been serious consequences for our economy within the next decade if the government went with Elbow.

There's a lot of work that remains, and this is far from a done deal. But it's an encouraging sign for our community at a time when we needed great news.