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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the July/August 1998 issue of the Peace and Environment News (PEN), a publication of the Ottawa Peace and Environment Resource Centre (PERC).


by Jeremy Whitlock

The title of this article is not a joke. It relates to one of the more serious issues facing governments and utilities today. Following this century's widespread development of hydraulic, fossil, and nuclear power generation, the question of "what next?" now looms in boardrooms around the globe. Electrical usage continues to rise, but at least in the Western world the slow recovery from recession has granted planners unprecedented time to think ahead.

Environmental stewardship plays an increasing role in this thought process; the new paradigm is palpable in Canada's recent commitment in Kyoto to a 6% reduction from 1990 greenhouse emissions by 2012. Over that time frame, however, the question of "what next?" doesn't just mean expansion, which in Canada is expected [1] to add another 8000 megawatts of supply in that period (the equivalent of nine Darlington-sized reactors); attrition of current assets is at least as big an issue.

Conservation initiatives should thrive in the new paradigm, and will reduce the pressure to build new capacity. So, too, will the rise in Non-Utility Generation, fostered by deregulation of the electricity industry. Even if the rate of increase were to be reduced by a factor of two or three, however, there will remain several thousands of megawatts of new supply needed over the next two decades in Canada, and many hundreds of times that around the world. What next?

Nuclear energy remains an option for the future. While political pressure has removed its 'favoured' status among Western utility planners, the fundamental advantages remain, and orders continue to be placed for new units around the globe. Canada's CANDU reactor is a leader in this tightened market.

The time has come, however, to stop thinking of nuclear energy as the "status quo" of energy supply planning; it lost that designation years ago. The time has also come to stop labeling energy options "green" because they are small and/or simple. Nuclear energy, for reasons explained below, truly is a "green alternative" facing utilities today.

Nuclear Energy is "Green"

A nuclear power plant is a clean-air plant. It emits no greenhouse gases, acidic gases, or particulates - linked to, respectively, global warming, environmental degradation, and tens of thousands of premature deaths in North America annually. While a nuclear power plant is not a "zero-impact" plant (nothing is), it is probably the "lowest-impact" plant available today, for the amount of energy produced.

The energy density of nuclear fission (energy available per kg of fuel) is the highest of any option today. This reduces both the use of natural resources, and the impact of resource extraction. One CANDU fuel bundle, about the size of a fire log, can power an average home for one hundred years. The same amount of energy would require 400 tonnes of coal, or 60,000 gallons of oil, or 10 million cubic feet of natural gas [2].

The high energy density also reduces the land use associated with energy production. It avoids the creation of huge storage reservoirs behind hydro dams, which destroy habitat (both human and creature) and leach toxins like mercury from the earth. It avoids the spacing of solar or wind generation units over thousands of square miles, for equivalent output. These passive sources of energy are ideally suited to small-scale or remote applications, but they become too unwieldy and uneconomic if the goal is to provide reliable power for large Canadian population centres.

The waste stream from nuclear energy is the most manageable of any option for large-scale electricity production. The waste is entirely contained at each plant, in physical form identical to the fuel that went into the reactors. Each 20 kg spent CANDU fuel bundle is a compact, highly inert package, containing all of the waste products created by over a million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This amount of electricity produced by coal would create 100 tonnes of ash, 1000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and 5 tonnes of acid gases, deposited in the atmosphere or in landfills. Natural gas is cleaner, but would still emit 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and 2 tonnes of acid gases [3]. Furthermore, a passive solution exists for the long-term disposal or storage of spent nuclear fuel, reducing its impact on the biosphere to near zero.

The fuel of nuclear energy is recyclable. Nuclear energy can, uniquely, create new fuel as it burns existing fuel, its own radiation converting "inert" rock into useable material. Under the right circumstances it can even create more fuel than it uses - a remarkable concept known as a breeder reactor. While not a breeder reactor, the current CANDU system can achieve "break-even" status using thorium as fuel, which is even more abundant than uranium in the earth's crust. Resource extraction is still necessary to feed these advanced fuel cycles, but their recyclable nature renders the supply virtually limitless. If desired, nuclear energy can even "cleanse" its own waste stream, recycling fuel through the system to remove long-lived radioactive products such as plutonium.

Nuclear Energy is "Alternative"

In the Western hemisphere nuclear energy can no longer be thought of as mainstream. The nuclear development of the 70s and 80's left a legacy of installed capacity (over 400 reactors; about 18% of global annual supply), but the future is clouded by politics and public misperception. At the same time, nuclear energy's technical advantages, including the above environmental benefits, have not disappeared, so it remains a viable option.

For Western utility planners, the fuel of choice is natural gas, followed closely by coal and oil in modern reduced-emission plants, and hydro squeezed from wherever it can still be tapped. In the public's perception, nuclear energy, as an option for new supply, has been marginalized to a level on par with solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and other "alternative" energy sources. Canadian federal funding of nuclear research and development has followed suit, dropping by over 50% in the last eight years [4].

Energy options are called "alternative" if they depart significantly from the status quo. The status quo is now fossil fuels, and despite vast improvements in fossil technology, nuclear energy is both cleaner and more efficient. The corollary is that we should retain the nuclear "green alternative" in the mix of supply and conservation options, for diversity will be fundamental to success in the new paradigm. We should resist the pressure from certain groups to narrow our view to their preferred list.

The agenda is all of ours, and must remain in our hands.


[1] "Nuclear Energy Data - 1997", OECD Nuclear Energy Agency

[2] "Nuclear Power and the Environment", Canadian Nuclear Association. Also: "Electricity Restructuring and the Natural Gas Industry," Natural Gas Supply Association (USA).

[3] "Full Fuel Cycle Emission Analysis for Existing and Future Electric Power Generation Options in Alberta, Canada", Alberta Department of Energy. Also: "Is Nuclear Energy a Good Choice for the Environment?", Canadian Nuclear Association.

[4] "A Study of the Incremental Economic Impacts and Environmental Benefits of the Canadian Nuclear Energy Industry", Ernst & Young Report, 1995.

Discussion welcome.

©1998 Jeremy Whitlock

Responses by Jan Heynen and Ziggy Kleinau, published in the October 1998 issue of the Peace and Environment Newsletter.

Author's response to the above two letters, published in the November 1998 issue of the Peace and Environment Newsletter.

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