Time to fire up the reactors?
After suffering a bad reputation for decades, nuclear power gets a boost from the desire to cut greenhouse gases
ARTHUR KAPTAINIS, Freelance, May 12, 2007
"Nuclear is clean and reliable," runs the voice-over to a television image of a blue sky, a fluffy cloud and a leafy green treetop. "It's been with us for over 40 years, already supplies 51 per cent of our electricity and must gear up now to power the years ahead."
It is hard to say whether this message from the Canadian Nuclear Association - rarely seen in hydro-happy Quebec but ubiquitous in Ontario - is having a significant effect on Canadian public opinion. But there is little doubt that the energy source equated 25 years ago with core meltdowns, toxic waste, carcinoma outbreaks, giant dandelions and mutant livestock has been looking better lately.
Certainly, the nuclear nightmare has been overtaken in the scare sweepstakes by the shrinking glaciers and rising tides implied by fossil fuel consumption and global warming. Even if the shenanigans of Iran and North Korea (plus a recent surge of nuclear interest in Turkey, Egypt and oil-drenched Saudi Arabia) continue to surround the option with background radiation.
"We poll every three months," says Claudia Lemieux, communications director of the industry lobby group. "The support for nuclear keeps going up."
That endorsement remains equivocal: While a predictable 93 per cent of Canadians polled in March by Ipsos-Reid expressed a preference for "more government commitment to non-carbon-dioxide-producing energy sources," only 50 per cent were interested in "more government commitment to nuclear power."
The duality can be heard in informed comment as well.
"If you just ask me whether nuclear energy is environmentally bad, I'm going to say yes," says Matt Dobbs, a McGill physics professor who teaches a course on energy and the environment. "But if you say, 'Given that you want to generate so much power,' I would probably argue that in Ontario or Alberta, the most environmentally sound way to do it is through nuclear."
The upward trend is not in opinion only. There are 28 reactors under construction worldwide and 64 planned. Only 32 were planned in 2004. Many new reactors are in Asia (five in China and seven in India), but little Finland expects to put on line the largest reactor in the world in 2010.
As of this week, the energy grid of Romania is 18 per cent nuclear, with the opening of the second of two CANDU reactors designed by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. There are proposals also to build reactors in the American south, bringing to an end the unofficial moratorium on U.S. construction that followed the Three Mile Island accident (and public-relations disaster) of 1979.
Ontario has committed itself to a 20-year, $40-billion reinvestment in nuclear plants in tandem with a phaseout of coal-fired power stations. Private money is refurbishing two idle reactors in the Bruce station on Lake Huron. Ontario Power Generation (a utility descended from Ontario Hydro) has applied to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for a licence to build new reactors at the existing Darlington facility.
Critics of the plan cite the delays and grotesque costs that attended the reactivation of Pickering reactors in the 1990s. Whether cost overruns reflected poor economic planning or changing political demands from the Ontario government is a matter of debate.
Quebec, with only one reactor, Gentilly 2 near Trois Rivieres, remains relatively isolated from the issue. Hydro-Quebec will decide in 2008 to renovate or decommission the unit after assessing the success of the current renovation of the similar Point Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick.
All the same, there is wide expectation that the world will go nuclear. Uranium prices, accordingly, doubled in 2006, as did industry expenditures. The closing price this week of $120 U.S. per pound represents about a 16-fold increase from the lows of early 2001.
Since Canada has the third-largest potentially recoverable uranium resources in the world, and the largest currently viable reserves, we are deeply implicated in the new nuclear age.
The high-grade mines of Saskatchewan provide one-third of the global supply of natural uranium. Most of the medical radioisotopes used around the world are of Canadian origin, and AECL continues to market the famous CANDU reactor, which uses heavy water as a moderator and thus can operate on unenriched natural uranium.
None of this has altered the stance of anti-nuclear activists. Greenpeace members occupied Premier Dalton McGuinty's office the day after the Ontario announcement and various malcontents have filed a complaint about the fluffy-cloud commercial with the Competition Bureau of Canada.
Gordon Edwards, the Vanier mathematics professor and longtime president of the Canadian Council for Nuclear Responsibility, softens his tone a little these days, but arrives at the same conclusion.
"Nuclear cannot really solve the greenhouse-gas problem and global warming," he says. "It can make a contribution, but the contribution it can make is very small compared with the problems it itself creates, which in many ways are comparable."
Despite the new spin added to the debate by global warming, and some technological advances - engineers now speak of Generation III and Generation IV reactors - the fundamental nuclear realities have not changed much over the decades.
The energy potential of one gram of uranium-235 is equivalent to that of between two and three tonnes of coal - a startling fact that should remind us that nuclear plants spare the atmosphere of carbon dioxide both by withholding smokestack emissions and by lowering transportation costs. Seven uranium oxide pellets the size of pencil erasers supply the annual energy needs of the average Canadian home.
Uranium mining does release radon gas and its tailings must be isolated from water. But in most respects, the environmental impact is no greater than from other types of mining.
Objections are focused on the back end, particularly on the waste that remains after the electricity has been generated. Spent fuel - spent because the fissionable uranium-235 atoms have split - is more radioactive than it was on arrival and contains a smorgasbord of heavy elements and isotopes.
Some of these decay so slowly they are essentially non-toxic. The half-life of uranium-238, the dominant isotope in uranium ore, is 4.6 billion years. Others, like radium, curium and americium, are strongly radioactive and must be stored.
For years, anti-nuclear advocates have pointed to the long half-lives of some isotopes to promulgate the belief that radioactive wastes outlive the containers they are stored in.
But just as there are half-lives, there are half-truths.More than 99.9 per cent of the radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste will decay to stable elements in only 20 years while they sit in the swimming pools adjacent to reactors that represent the first step of the cooling-down and disposal process.
Another persistent canard regards the potential of waste to migrate through water leaching after it is laid to rest. Geologists are aware of this danger and choose formations that are both highly stable and remote from water tables. Among the best-known is the proposed Yucca range in bone-dry Nevada.
Futurists can speculate that technology in 5,000 years will be equal to whatever problems present themselves. But this is unnecessary: Current disposal regimes will do. Jean Barrette, a McGill nuclear physicist, offers this instructive remark: "Uranium mines have been underground for billions of years. That uranium doesn't migrate anywhere."
The waste must be dealt with, and Canada has been much better at producing it than storing it. About 1.4 million spent bundles - the accumulated waste of 45 years - are either in those swimming pools (85 per cent) or in above-ground bunkers (the rest). In 2005, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization recommended deep underground storage, but there has been no decisive response from two successive federal governments.
To Barrette, this inaction brings to mind the toxic fire of 1988 in St. Basile le Grand. "If you store tires in a big pile," he says, "one day they will catch fire."
John Q. Public might remain uneasy about reactors themselves, but most authorities regard the accident hazard as acceptably low. Chernobyl, by far the worst nuclear accident and the only one directly to cause loss of life, is perceived as a lesson permanently learned.
"They violated so many regulations in that disaster, even Soviet regulations, which were much lower than the Western world's at the time," Dobbs says of the 1984 explosion. "It seems completely avoidable."
No modern reactor would, like Chernobyl, lack a containment shell. Post-Chernobyl reactors are designed to require positive action to heat up the core. "If you do nothing," Dobbs says, "if somehow, every power backup source and control system were to fail - the reactor would shut down, and shut down very quickly."
Fossil fuel, nuclear advocates observe, with its attendant mining accidents and pollution-related illnesses, is the truly lethal energy option.
Security is a bigger issue in the post-9/11 world. Edwards questions whether those swimming pools, and the reactors themselves, are safe from attack.
It is interesting that The Anti-Nuclear Game, a 1990 book aimed at what author Gordon Sims regarded as the irresponsible fear-mongering of the nuclear resistance, cites the supposedly next-to-impossible prospect of a jumbo-jet crash into a reactor during a meltdown as one of the few ways a deadly accident could happen. While this scenario remains extremely unlikely, it no longer sounds ludicrous.
Most experts still regard the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel - called reprocessing when it is benign - as beyond the technical means of gangsters and terrorists. (Building a bomb once you have the plutonium is easy.)[not according to the recent N. Korean experience - a fizzle]
Barrette is not so sure. "Technology gets more accessible," he says, arguing that the closed market in parts is really all that keeps nuclear weaponry away from those who want it.
"If people want to make mischief, want to get plutonium from a reactor, it is extremely difficult to make a system where this is impossible."
This explains why the United States has forbidden the reprocessing of nuclear waste for decades. France reprocesses waste, as does Britain and Japan. Canada has no interest in reprocessing because of its abundant uranium supply and because CANDU waste cannot be economically reprocessed.
Paradoxically, CANDU reactors can run on reprocessed waste from light-water reactors. This has led to the proposal of two-reactor installations, with the light-water waste feeding the CANDU.
None of this addresses the security objection. Now the Bush administration is promoting something it calls the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which would end the U.S. reprocessing ban and unite the reprocessing countries behind a new technology that does not yield pure plutonium.
Add to this initiative the promises made of Generation IV reactors. These reactors (expected in 2025) will be more economical because they produce higher pressures and temperatures. They are also expected to be more environmentally benign and impervious to misuse.
To the advocates of nuclear energy, however, there is no need to await new developments.
"We feel that those adjectives describe the technology today," Jeremy Whitlock, manager of non-proliferation and safeguards for AECL, says of the vaunted Generation IV advantages. "The plan is to move the technology up a notch in all areas, and at all points to keep the public onboard."