Sanguine about Solar? Canada geese picket the Ontario Hydro’s Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.
Photo: Andy Clark / Reuters
Three Mile Island, 1979. Chernobyl, 1986. Tomsk, 1993. Fukushima-Daiichi, 2011. Accidents such as these challenge our complacency and set us soul searching about nuclear generating stations. Are the risks worth the benefits? And how real are the benefits, anyway? They elicit calls to build in costly safety features to already high-priced nuclear installations and to put the brakes on plans for nuclear expansion or refurbishment. (The Swiss government recently suspended plans to build new stations.) “In North America, nuclear is in full-scale retreat now,” says Tom Adams, an independent energy analyst based in Toronto.
People are divided on nuclear power, and views range across a wide spectrum. Some, such as U.S. President Barack Obama, hold that nuclear is climatologically preferable to carbon-belching fossil fuels with their globe-warming emissions. They believe that it can help slow climate change and that fuelling reactors with thorium instead of plutonium would make nuclear even greener. Others, such as Greenpeace members, some of whom recently disrupted Ontario hearings into a proposed new nuclear facility at Darlington, believe that no nuke is acceptable.
“There is no safe dose of radiation, and even the smallest dose can cause cancer and other health effects,” says Dr. Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, a University of Toronto lecturer in environmental health, who made a deputation to the Darlington hearings. She argues that nuclear installations create long-term environmental and health hazards for future generations and that the problem of nuclear waste disposal “has no safe solutions, despite millions of tax dollars and many years of research and consultations.”
Still others on the spectrum are nuclear “agnostics” who have no strong feelings either way and take a fence-sitting approach. But even nuclear power proponents admit that the costs of building plants are incredibly high: the $26 billion price tag on Ontario’s proposed nuclear renewal program sent the province’s energy minister into serious sticker shock.
As the Fukushima incident wreaks the latest round of radioactive havoc, it’s safe to say that nuclear energy operators will face greater scrutiny and tougher demands for safety precautions, which will boost costs in an already capital-intensive industry. “How far are we going to push modern safety criteria onto old reactors?” asks Adams. “How far do we grandfather the old safety designs?”
Even before Fukushima renewed fears, all signs said that the nuclear renaissance—spurred in North America by high natural gas prices in the middle of the last decade and in Europe by fears of reliance on Russian natural gas—was in decline. “Now it’s over,” says Adams, “It’s clear that existing nuclear technologies have no role to play in our immediate energy future in Canada, not when we have alternative options such as natural gas.” Or huge hydroelectric resources such as Labrador’s Churchill Falls.
Apart from the risk of accidents—whether by malfunction, quake, flood or terrorism—and the eternal waste-disposal issue, nuclear stations just cost too much. As far back as 2001, The Economist observed, “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.”
And according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based research organization dedicated to sustainability and energy efficiency, nuclear has become several times costlier to build since the start of this century and in a few years, nuclear will be several times costlier to run.
Safety is a component of those costs. Adams notes that the new generation of European pressurized reactors (EPRs) likely could have ridden out the March tsunami, “but the EPR is a very expensive machine.” Constructed in the 1970s, Japan’s Fukushima reactors are simple, cheap to build and cheap to run and deliver cheap power, much like the low-end North American cars of the early 1970s—they’re the Pintos of the reactor world. “Pintos were cheap A-to-B transportation but had very few safety features—maybe lap seatbelts but no airbags, roll cages or antilock brakes,” says Adams.
So if nuclear power falls casualty to rising costs, mounting fears and worsening performance, does this mean we’ll return to an even greater reliance on carbon-based energy and higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions? Or can we sustain life as we know it in a timely fashion with clean renewables such as wind and solar?
Some say the latter would require an unfathomable number of super wind turbines (which have public-acceptance issues of their own), giant solar farms and rooftop solar installations. Others warn of the intermittent nature of these sources: the wind does not always blow; the sun does not always shine; and the electricity produced when they do cannot be stored.
“We’d be exporting surplus power when we don’t need it at a loss and importing power when we need it at a premium,” says Adams. “I don’t see a practical way to provide power, at least in Ontario, without fossil fuels.”
If a small supplemental portion of our energy needs—say two per cent—were supplied by wind and solar, he says, that would be feasible, but even a 10 per cent contribution would entail high prices and frequent shortages. “Wind and solar have a long way to go before they become credible alternatives on a substantial scale,” says Adams.
Some are more sanguine about solar. Thanks to emerging collector technology, “Solar is going to be the game changer in the next decade or so,” says Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research and co-founder of the Toronto-based environmental group Energy Probe. “And as far as supply and demand goes, the fit is actually much better for solar than for nuclear.”
But don’t count nuclear out anytime soon. In Ontario, our most populous province (13.3 million and rising fast), nuclear supplies 53 per cent of electricity. “To put that into context, virtually every second lightbulb is powered by nuclear,” says Robin Forbes, manager of external communications for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. “That dependence factors into any questions about the future of nuclear, whether it’s starting a new build or maintaining existing infrastructure,” she says. “It’s simply too early to predict what the future of nuclear power will look like,” says Forbes, noting, however, that the lessons learned from Japan will certainly be factored into new safety standards.
But with several nuclear reactors permanently closed or under refurbishment, Adams predicts that in 10 years far fewer reactors than today will dot the Canadian landscape. “Hydro Quebec has proposed the refurbishment of its Gentilly-2 reactor, but thanks to public opinion, seems poised to shut it down,” he says, pointing out that current upgrades to other reactors are behind schedule and over budget. “It’s a terrible mistake to go down the road of refurbishment.”
If that’s the case, further nuclear development will have to wait for new applications capable of meeting stiffer safety requirements and competing with natural gas-fired generation. “A complete rethinking of nuclear technology is in order,” Adams says.
But for those concerned about the fate of the globe and the generations waiting to be born, even the best nuclear revamp will not do. “Canada has legal and policy commitments to sustainable development, which includes the health of the planet that we depend on and are a part of,” says Goldin Rosenberg. “It is imperative to support and strengthen the Green Energy and Economy Act instead of building new nuclear reactors. There should be no contributions from our federal tax dollars toward expanding nuclear power plants–only toward decommissioning them.”Ω
Nuclear energy in Canada
Apart from the small reactors used for research in universities,
Canada has 22 reactors for electricity generation, 17 of which are in operation,
according to Mississauga, Ont.-based Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.
New Brunswick: one reactor, Point Lepreau, operating but undergoing refurbishment.
Quebec: one reactor, Gentilly-2, slated for refurbishment but may close pending
Ontario:20 reactors, Bruce (eight, two undergoing refurbishment); Darlington (four); and Pickering (eight, two out of service).
Nuclear power supplies 53 per cent of Ontario’s energy.