September 10, 1997

The Ottawa Citizen
1101 Baxter Rd.
Box 5020, Ottawa, Ont.
K2C 3M4

To the Editor:

Apparently Paul McKay has such low faith in human achievement that he would pull the plug on the most efficient form of energy ever harnessed on earth. In his article "Hydro's nuclear dream ends" (Sept. 8), his central argument - reminiscent of Energy Pr obe doctrine - is that nuclear reactors are "inherently unmanageable" due to a strict set of operating requirements. Consequently, we should throw our hands up and walk away, from all reactors, everywhere.

It may be surprising to Mr. McKay, but there are people who have spent considerably more than "a few weeks on the Internet" researching this subject, who believe that such challenges are surmountable. Indeed, harsh operating regimes exist in a number of technologies, within the chemical industry, the automobile industry, and the space industry for example. Each of these industries employs engineers and scientists charged with the task of solving the problems and improving the product, as does the nuclea r industry.

The root of Mr. McKay's dilemma is probably his exaggeration of the issues. This is not surprising, since here we have the same scribe who four months ago branded CANDU reactors as "bomb factories" in this publication. The fashionable bomb motif continu es, as this time he would have us believe that "sustained nuclear explosions" are at the heart of every nuclear reactor. Containing this "explosive force" is therefore the challenge, he says, and small wonder that we are inept to meet this challenge.

It is a grave matter that such ludicrous drivel is widely believed. In point of fact, nuclear reactors have nothing to do with "sustained nuclear explosions" and "explosive force", figuratively or otherwise. At the heart of a nuclear reactor is a very e fficient heat source, just like in a coal or oil station, but thousands of times more potent. Water is heated to high temperatures and pressures, just like in a fossil station, in order to produce steam as efficiently as possible. Many unique challenge s accompany the harnessing of nuclear fission, and each challenge is met and overcome by men and women skilled in the appropriate fields of science and engineering.

Mr. McKay proposes energy conservation as a partial replacement, with a disparate mix of wood, propane, and natural gas filling the gap. Any analyst would agree that conservation is crucial, but there is a limit to what can be economically conserved, and then more megawatts are needed. In this latter category, Mr. McKay is naive, in that he argues for province-wide private generation, mostly from industries that would generate both heat and electricity for their own use, and sell surplus power to the gr id (a concept known as cogeneration). The potential for 15,000 megawatts is quoted, which is an academic abstraction with little bearing on the practical, reliable supply of electricity.

To give some perspective, this figure represents half of Ontario Hydro's current supply capacity. How reliable would this huge potential be, collected piecemeal across the province from hundreds of entrepreneurs, each with their own priorities and sched ules? Obviously, some form of backup would be required, and this responsibility would fall squarely on Ontario Hydro's shoulders.

Mr. McKay is also glaringly inconsistent here. If he thinks we are too inept and inexperienced to manage a nuclear reactor, how does he think we will manage a province-wide network of private energy sources, all chipping in to a grid larger than that of many countries?

The wise bet is on a prudent mix of conservation, cogeneration, and a hefty weighting of clean fossil, hydraulic, and nuclear power sources. CANDU nuclear reactors are a viable candidate for the mix, currently generating enough revenue annually to equal the four decades' worth of federal R&D funding invested in them. All this, and the technology is still at the toddler stage of development, having the potential to burn a diversity of fuel types, and even its own waste products - the ultimate environment al technology.

Certainly Paul McKay is fashionable, as all corners of the anti-nuclear cottage industry are now touting "clean" fossil-fuel technologies like gas turbines. These fuel sources are only clean relative to traditional fossil fuels however, and not nuclear p ower. Writers like Mr. McKay would do a service by standing back from the bandwagon and addressing what a healthy mix of reliable, clean, baseload power would really look like.


Jeremy Whitlock