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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


To the magazine Canadian Business regarding an article on the future of nuclear power in Canada:

(published 2003 December 29)

November 28, 2003

To the Editor,

Re: “New nukes - or none; Nuclear energy’s cloudy future” (2003 Dec. 8).

Matthew McClearn’s article touches most of the bases, but I felt it paid insufficient attention to the questions of (1) future electricity supply, and (2) CANDU performance.

Nuclear power reactors were invented to meet a need for abundant, clean electricity generation, with an added benefit, here in Canada, of a 100% domestic fuel source. Providing this kind of electricity, at cost to taxpayers, was the mandate of provincial crown utilities like Ontario Hydro (now Ontario Power Generation), with emphasis on both long-term security of supply and long-term levelized (vs. overnight) cost efficiency.

No nuclear designer ever promised electricity “too cheap to meter” (an urban legend that has proven too juicy to die), but the cost efficiency has certainly been achieved: with full life-cycle costing (including fuel acquisition, construction, operation & maintenance, mid-life refurbishment, waste management and decommissioning), Ontario Power Generation has shown that CANDU electricity is cheaper, per kilowatt-hour, than any other baseload option, except hydro dams.

The overnight cost, previous construction project debacles, current maintenance issues - none of these obliterate the fundamental ability of nuclear power to generate huge amounts of electricity in a cost-effective and environmentally respectful manner, in full accordance with the principles of Sustainable Development.

Moreover, as efficient as they are, what we have today are simply the Model-A Fords, steam locomotives, or Spitfires of nuclear reactors. We have only begun to tap this technology’s potential, and the exciting new breed of reactors, such as the Advanced CANDU Reactor described in your article, give some indication of where we are about to go.

Canada’s economic engine is powered by an electricity supply system built between the 1950s and 1980s. In Ontario the Independent Electricity Market Operator has warned of the need for 15,000 MW of replacement or refurbished capacity in the next 15 years. That is equivalent to half the province’s current demand.

Renewable sources, such as wind power, will find niche markets within this infrastructure, but they are not an option for large-scale baseload supply. The grid instabilities caused by over-dependence on these systems are a daily concern in Denmark, prompting German wind enthusiasts to think twice about the phase-out of baseload nuclear power in their own country.

Similarly, conservation will play a role in reducing the supply shortfall, but not by an amount that will delay the need for new construction or refurbishment.

Simply put, the options for large-scale, baseload supply in key jurisdictions like Ontario are fossil and nuclear. Both will be needed, but nuclear will have to play a major role if coal exits and natural gas retains its price volatility.

The public investment in nuclear technology is returned many times over by the economic performance of the domestic CANDU fleet. It doesn’t matter if you use AECL’s investment figure of $6 billion (actual dollars), or the inflation-adjusted value of $17 billion suggested by the professional anti-nuclear organizations in your article. These reactors sell $3 billion worth of electricity per year (almost $200 billion over their lifetime), and the business as a whole (including uranium exports) is worth $5 billion per year to the Canadian economy.

Add to this, savings (roughly $1 billion per year) due to avoided coal generation, two billion tonnes of CO2 avoided to date, thousands of lives saved from air pollution, millions of lives saved worldwide by Canadian medical radioisotope technology, and, behind it all, an exemplary safety and environmental record.

The nuclear industry suffers from being an easy rhetorical target. Hopefully, with increasing awareness of the need for both environmental stewardship and security of energy supply, Canadians will dig deeper and make sound decisions for their children's future.


Jeremy Whitlock

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