Nuclear Power: Good Past, Strong Future
An Op-Ed by Jeremy Whitlock
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Ontarians have been put on notice that around 24,000 megawatts of new electricity supply (or conservation) will be needed over the next two decades. This is equivalent to 80% of the province's current grid capacity.
Since it takes the better part of a decade to plan and build large generating plants, the Ontario Power Authority (www.powerauthority.on.ca) urges the debate to begin soon over how to fill the impending generation gap.
As a backdrop to this debate, the North American public is increasingly aware of the need for effective environmental stewardship.
Fortunately, in Canada we have spent the last 50 years developing a technology that can supply baseload electricity more efficiently than almost anything else on earth, with minimal impact on the biosphere.
CANDU reactors already supply 15% of Canada's electricity, including half the needs of the country's industrial and economic engine, Ontario. Remarkably, they do this while creating virtually no air pollution and a relatively small amount of solid waste, with an operating cost among the lowest of the available generating options.
This achievement was not reached without great ingenuity and effort. Over the past 50 years Canadians have funded nuclear technology R&D to the tune of over $6 billion through the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Other observers have tripled this estimate in terms of present-day dollars. Has this been a worthwhile investment of public money? Let's examine what Canadians have gained (for details see Economic Impact of the Nuclear Industry in Canada, Canadian Energy Research Institute, 2003, www.cna.ca/english/files/study/CNAStudySept16-03.pdf):
This does not mean that nuclear power is a panacea for the world's energy supply problems. Rather, it will play an important role in a necessarily diverse strategy that must also include clean fossil systems, renewable sources, and efficient demand management.
Nor does it imply a perfect development record to date. It is, however, very much a Canadian scientific and engineering success story resulting in a world-recognized engineering marvel, with a safety and environmental record that is second to none.
Despite a relatively low level of waste production, many observers remain concerned about both the amount and safety of nuclear fuel waste. In terms of volume, it would surprise many to learn that a single CANDU reactor can provide electricity for half a million homes while producing only a 10-foot cube of solid used fuel per year.
The compact and inert nature of this used fuel makes it easily managed, and its radioactivity easily isolated from the environment. Currently the used fuel from nuclear generation is stored at the reactor sites; the total volume from four decades of production would cover a single soccer field to a depth of just over four feet.
A technology has also been developed for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel. The approach has been found to be technically sound by both an independent panel of experts and a federal Environmental Review panel.
This plan, one of several undergoing further technical and public review by the federally-appointed Nuclear Waste Management Organization (www.nwmo.com), would isolate the fuel deep within the Canadian Shield. Moreover, since radioactivity naturally decays with time, this material becomes less toxic than natural uranium ore after about 500 years of isolation.
An advanced reactor design (CANDU-ACR) has recently been developed that maintains the traditional advantages of CANDU, with innovations that lead to lower capital cost and other efficiencies. Combined with its already low operating cost, this gives CANDU a market edge over advanced fossil systems. The ACR promises economic, environmentally sustainable energy not only for industrial growth, but also future developments such as hydrogen production for fuel cells, and full-scale Athabascan oil-sand extraction.
In the long term, nuclear power’s natural resources can be extended significantly, since nuclear fuel has a singular ability to create more fuel as it is used up. CANDU reactors are especially suited to advanced fuel cycles of this nature. In addition, many times more energy can be extracted from used fuel if necessary, although this is not a strategy currently under consideration in Canada.
As Ontarians decide how they will replace about half of their electricity supply system now reaching the end of its design life, it is important that all options on the table be considered fully and fairly.
Jeremy Whitlock is the President of the Canadian Nuclear Society (www.cns-snc.ca), a not-for-profit association dedicated to the enhancement of communication on technical and social issues involving nuclear science and technology. He is also a reactor physicist with Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ontario.
This article is based on an Op-Ed published October 22, 2003 in the Peterborough Examiner. Updated February 8, 2006.