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Woodlands County talks future nuclear energy

Discussion on how to deal with potential small nuclear reactor developments dominate discussion
Whitecourt West Coun. John Burrows said during the Jan. 31 council meeting that the municipality needs to include small nuclear reactors in their municipal development plan to prepare residents for the possibility that a developer may want to bring one to the county.

WOODLANDS COUNTY - Alternative energy, namely small nuclear reactors (SNRs), dominated much of Woodlands County councillors' discussion before unanimously giving the Woodlands County Municipal Development Plan first reading during their Jan. 31 meeting in Whitecourt.

A municipal development plan (MDP) is a high-level land-use and community-planning document providing broad direction for councils in guiding future development.

Councillors also scheduled public hearings on the bylaw for Feb. 27 at 7:15 p.m. at the Fort Assiniboine Legion and Whitecourt at the county's municipal office in council chambers on Feb. 28 at 9:45 a.m.

"If we are going to light the tiki torches and have the discussion, we should do it with this document because the conversation was going last years," he said. "That way, if and when a developer interested in building an SNR comes in, we will be ready to have proper discussions."

Community and planning services manager Joan Slootweg said work on revising the MDP, initially drafted in 2013, started in 2016 but stopped for a myriad of reasons, including county staff retirements, arbitration process with the Town of Whitecourt, internal corporate restructuring, the county's economic recovery plan and the pandemic. 

She added extensive work on the draft MDP and included two rounds of public engagement sessions in June 2022 and November 2023.

"The public engagement sessions were well attended and received, and we got some good feedback from our ratepayers," Slootweg said.

She said one of the key changes to the document was adding a new section on how farmland is categorized, developed and subdivided.

"It used to be based on soil classification. Now, we are looking at farmland assessment values and in the land-use bylaw, there will be more detail on how these parcels can be subdivided."

Slootweg also added that due to changes in the Municipal Government Act (MGA) and federal legislation, a section on reconciliation was added.

"We also added more context around the environment and responding to events such as flooding, wildfire, and development in more hazardous areas like steep slopes and flood plains, as well as more details in transportation, specifically about more information on airport operation, development and protection of surrounding lands," she said. "But I think the big thing about this MDP is we added an implementation task summary. Actual identified objectives, things we would like to do like area structure plans for areas such as the hamlets and who is responsible for that and a time frame when we would like to see that done."

Goose Lake/Freeman River Coun. Peter Kuelken said he appreciated the changes to farmland.

"How we need to protect it and define our plans for agricultural land," he said. "Because if we have a solid plan there, it will be very difficult for the province to override our responsibilities and how we do it."

Whitecourt East Coun. Jeremy Wilhelm asked about development in the flood plain, noting the municipality recently approved a development plan for a gravel pit in the Fort Assiniboine area.

"Wouldn't that be a restricted use under the MDP then?" he asked, noting that under the MDP, they are restricting development in flood plains, yet they have approved an industrial use in a flood plain.

Slootweg said for the most part, gravel pits fall under provincial jurisdiction, but municipalities do have a say in their location, adding that the details of gravel extraction in the area are included in more detail in Pride Valley Area-Structure Plan.

"At that time, the county determined the area it would be preferred for gravel extraction due to the high-value material," she said, adding another company looking to develop gravel on the flood plain. "Again, we asked them to do an area-structure plan to give us their plans for developing the operation."

Whitecourt West Coun. John Burrows noted he was concerned that SNRs were not included in the document, saying that at least five to 10 municipalities in the province are considering pre-zoning them.

"There is mention about alternative energy, but nothing about SNR," he said. "Because when you start talking about the N-word, that's a conversation that has to come out with residents, and it's going to take a long time because that word evokes a lot of emotion."

Burrows noted that, eventually, they would need to have those conversations as Alberta has limited electricity options, admitting that renewables have a role to play but that they would not get the province where they needed to be.

He added over half of Ontario's power is provided by nuclear plants, saying Bruce Power is looking to build another nuclear power plant.

"But they did it wrong and didn't do any consultation," he said. "There are some opportunities here, and I would like the council to have high-level discussions on it."

Red Willow consultant Vicki Dodge recommended against going into that kind of detail.

"It is important to be ready for what's coming down the road, and the MDP is a tool to help the municipality be ready for future development, but it is not at a level of specificity to detail what those opportunities are," she said. "What it can do is open the gates for consideration for where industry and other economic opportunities may exist and allow for those conversations to happen at a more appropriate level such as the area-structure plan stage." 

One of the reasons Dodge said planners do not go into that kind of detail is that it could date the plan in a particular industry does not get off the ground.

Burrows replied that they, as a council, also need more conversations on what kind of developments are allowed in flood plains and secondary residential housing on agricultural land and SNRs. 

He also asked if the MDP was not the place for them, then where did they belong.

Dodge said that in the case of the flood plain and SNRs, the appropriate document or level would be the area-structure plan.

She also noted that the developer bore most of the costs by having them as part of the area-structure plan.

Burrows replied that other alternative energies are briefly mentioned in the MDP, saying if the want was to keep the document high-level, SNRs should be included in the same vein.

"If we are going to light the tiki torches and have the discussion, we should do it with this document because the conversation is going last year. That way, when a developer does look at coming in, people will be ready for the conversation," he said. "If it turns out the community decides against it, so be it. That is the society we live in."

Whitecourt Central Coun. Alan Deane did not believe specific wording for SNRs was necessary as the existing language in the document was broad enough to incorporate nuclear power or any other alternative energy source which may come down the pike.

Regardless of the technology, if a developer came in with a proposal for power generation in the county, the public education campaign by the county or the developer would need to start immediately.

Whitecourt East Coun. Jeremy Wilhelm agreed to keep the language ambiguous and suggested inserting a clause stating that "traditional and alternative energy development encompass best management practices" in the MDP's section for objectives.

"That way, it includes the objectives some of the councillors are asking for while not pinning ourselves down to anything specific," he said.

Dodge also suggested that the municipality, under the implementation section of the MDP, could add a section for public education on various topics, going as far as to set an annual budget for the task.

Reeve Dave Kusch said he was hesitant to go that route, concerned about spending ratepayers' money for education sessions, public open houses, et cetera, to educate residents about technology that may never come to fruition.

Slootweg suggested passing the first reading of the bylaw as is, and after the open houses, she would incorporate the council's comments and those from the public and include them as an update for the council to consider.

Barry Kerton,

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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