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May-June 2009

Don’t fight the power

Jeremy Nelson

We need to talk about nuclear power. Now.

Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, became a convert to nuclear power during a visit with James Lovelock, considered by many to be the godfather of the environmental movement. During a day spent strolling through the fields around Lovelock’s home, the two spoke of many things, but returned again and again to nuclear energy, which Lovelock insisted was the only way to prevent catastrophic global warming.

Nuclear power: such a bright idea?

Nuclear power: such a bright idea?

For Moore, it was not an easy argument to swallow. Like many in the first generation of the environmental movement, he’d cut his teeth protesting nuclear power and nuclear weapons. “Next to nuclear warheads themselves,” he once said, nuclear power plants were “the most dangerous devices that man has ever created.”

But he had to pay attention. This was James Lovelock, the man who had created the Gaia hypothesis—the idea that the Earth is essentially a living creature—and whose research laid the ground for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, without which there might not have been an environmental movement. And he supported nuclear power?

As Moore listened, and Lovelock argued, he started to see why. Other than hydroelectric, what had done more to keep carbon emissions from skyrocketing? It wasn’t wind, it wasn’t solar, and it wasn’t hybrids—it was nuclear power. Without the electricity it had produced since the 1960s, global warming would have progressed much further, Lovelock argued, perhaps already passing a point of no return.

Moore became a convert. At first, some former colleagues chalked it up to greed—he has since worked as a consultant for nuclear power associations—but they soon discovered he was far from alone. Included in the ranks of pro-nuclear environmentalists are the likes of Steward Brand, founder of Whole Earth Catalog; Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a former longtime trustee for Friends of the Earth; Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel; as well as a host of others grouped under the umbrella organization Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy. Their message is simple: climate change cannot be stopped without more use of nuclear power.

In Canada, it seems, the message is starting to resonate. A new nuclear facility is planned for Ontario and potential for a second is being evaluated New Brunswick, while Saskatchewan and Alberta are both considering building their first nuclear power plants. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, the result would be staggering: Canada could get nearly halfway toward its Kyoto obligations by doubling its nuclear portfolio. But are new nuclear plants the only way out? Are they worth the risk? And have we really entered an era when being pro-environment might also mean being pro-nuclear?

Not long ago, the idea would have been absurd. Thanks to aggressive lobbying, mostly by progressive organizations, nuclear power looked bound for the scrap heap. In Ontario, home to most of the countrys nuclear power plants, Bob Rae’s NDP government had banned the construction of new nuclear facilities, leaving coal plants to fill the gap instead of maintaining existing nuclear stations. South of the border, no reactors had come online for more than a decade.

At first, global warming changed none of this. Fresh from successful battles against acid rain and the ozone hole, there was even reason for optimism among environmentalists. But as carbon emissions continued to rise and Kyoto Protocol targets fell by the wayside, it became clear that halting the growth of greenhouse gases would not be so easy: beyond the ever-growing number of cars on the streets and the meagre success of well-intentioned conservation efforts, there was the fact that most of the world, Canada included, was hooked on fossil fuels for electricity generation. And there are no quick fixes.

“We’ve tapped out hydro in this country,” says Steve Aplin, Vice President of Energy and Environment with HDP Group, an Ottawa-based management consultancy whose former clients include the Ontario Power Workers Union. Aplin, who runs a blog on Canadian energy issues, points to the Albany River, considered Ontario’s most viable undeveloped hydro site, as a perfect example of whats left: the river drops so gradually that damming it would flood large areas upstream—some of it First Nations territory. It could be done, but it would be expensive, politically untenable, and environmentally disastrous. And the gains would be slight—a few hundred megawatts at most, equivalent to one nuclear reactor like Pickering or a small coal-fired plant.

“Plug-in hybrids are going to be featured on the roads within 10 or 15 years,” Aplin adds. “If that’s happening, then we need an increase in generating capacity.” The same goes for geothermal heat pumps and tankless hot water heaters, the two most promising sources of CO2-free heating. They burn no natural gas, but can in some cases require much more electricity than conventional furnaces and hot-water tanks. In other words, even after conservation and improvements in efficiency, the future will require more electricity, not less. Together, three sectors—transportation, electricity, and heating—account for most of Canada’s emissions, but none can be addressed without a clean source of electricity. There are only three choices: wind, solar, or nuclear. Deciding what it will be has become one of the most important environmental questions of our time.

Whenever a new nuclear facility is planned, many people ask, why not just build wind turbines instead? The question seems so obvious, in part because it seems like the rest of the world is outpacing Canada on this front: just last year, for instance, Spain generated 40 percent of its electricity from wind power on a particularly breezy day. So why not us?

To answer that question, you just need to take a stroll to one of Canada’s most prominent wind turbines, located on the shores of Lake Ontario. This lone turbine sits not far from downtown Toronto, and isolated as it is, it should be an incredible comfort to a city where the smog is often thick enough to taste. But on those days— when heat and humidity trap smog, when tons of coal are shovelled into the furnace to power millions of AC units cranked to max—youd be lucky to see the blades make a single turn.

The shores of Lake Ontario, unfortunately, are just not all that windy—they produce, on average, Class 2 wind, which may sound quite good, but is actually the second lowest on the scale used to rate wind-power sites. (Compare that to northern Texas, home to North Americas largest wind farms, where the wind almost always blows at Class 4, often rising to Class 5.) Torontos turbine still produces electricity, and in educational terms, it’s an unqualified success: quiet, attractive, and no piles of bird carcasses at its base. But it does hint at the challenge facing wind power, especially in Canada: our best wind resources are simply not where most of us live.

“All this new wind requires transmission,” Aplin explains. “That’s not just expensive; it’s difficult. [Power companies] have to buy rights-of-way from property owners all along the route of those lines.” Such rights of way are costly at the best of times, but it can be crippling in places like Ontario, where the best onshore wind sites also happen to be the best places to put million-dollar cottages. And these Ontario sites are only moderately good. The best sites—off the coast of B.C. and Labrador, and on the Gaspé Peninsula—all happen to be in provinces that already get almost all their power from hydroelectricity. To connect them to hydro-poor provinces would require thousands of kilometres of new transmission lines.

“And what do you get when you put in all that effort, and pay for all of that?” ask Aplin. “You’ve got intermittent power, which you still need to back up.” It’s this need for backup that is proving to be the true undoing of both wind and solar power. While the technology continues to improve, the simple problem remains that if the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, the power doesn’t flow.

To illustrate this problem, Aplin checks another website he is developing, which provides real-time tracking of power production.

“Right now weve got close to 900 MW of wind power installed in Ontario,” he says, clicking a link. “If you look at the output from just today, well, at 2 oclock this morning, wind was putting out 310 MW of electricity, then at 3 o’clock it dropped to 268, and then at 4 oclock it went back up to 309.”

Fluctuations aside, it’s hard not to notice the gap between capacity and actual production. Unlike a 900MW coal plant, which will produce pretty close to that amount, a wind system only produces maximum power if every turbine receives peak wind, all at the same time. Needless to say, that never happens. To guarantee 900 MW of power from wind, every hour of every day, something closer to 2,700 MW of turbines would need to be built—an expensive proposition at a base price of $2.2 million per megawatt, not including the cost of buying land and laying new power lines.

And this is a small problem compared to those fluctuations. Forty-two MW is no big deal, but how about 420, or 4,200? It’s a lesson the residents of northern Texas learned the hard way last February, when a sudden drop in wind weakened energy supplies so badly that the state had turn off the lights on non-essential customers to prevent rolling blackouts. And this is in a place that gets less than 10 percent of its energy from wind.

Batteries seem like the obvious solution, but they remain much, much too expensive: the best on the market costs $3.7 million and provides just enough backup to power a few city blocks—about 500 homes—for seven hours. That’s why the only real solution at the moment is buying power elsewhere, or using coal or natural gas as a backup. In fact, big wind-power success stories like Spain and Germany are heavily dependent on both— and ironically, a lot of the power they buy comes from Frances nuclear reactors.

Canada has no France to fall back on—the closest we have is Hydro-Québec. All plans to phase out nuclear power call on provinces to buy more power from HydroQuébec. But “Hydro-Québec makes a killing selling power into New England,” Aplin notes. If the rest of Canada wants their electricity, we’d have to match their prices. “No one is going to do that.”

That leaves using natural gas as a backup. In fact, many plans to phase out nuclear plants, in Canada and elsewhere, involve building redundant gas-fired generators to use when the wind falls off, or when the sun doesn’t shine. Conservative estimates are that natural gas emits only about 35 percent less CO2 than modern coal plants, so calling it cleaner is a bit like trading in your Hummer for a pickup truck. Moreover, it makes the grid even more captive to oil companies and commodity speculators.

“So why not just add to your existing nuclear stations?” Aplin asks. The question is fair enough, given the benefits of doing just that: two of Ontario’s three stations— Darlington and Bruce—as well as New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau, all have enough room to increase the number of reactors on-site. This one change would all but eliminate CO2 from electricity production, allowing Canada to realize the full benefits of plug-in hybrid cars and other substitutes for fossil fuels. So why not?

One word: Chernobyl. The catastrophic meltdown of the Soviet reactor in 1986 continues to weigh on minds today. In Canada, it is the basis for a website and Facebook group called 30km.ca, which uses the Chernobyl evacuation zone to show what would happen if the Pickering reactor went up in a similar way. It is promoted by a mock newscast on YouTube, where the anchor talks about “widespread chaos,” “mass exodus,” and “a cloud of nuclear fallout not seen since the Chernobyl disaster,” before the screen abruptly shifts to a test pattern, stopping the announcer mid-sentence. On related sites discussion boards, it’s clear that the threat weighs heavily in many minds: “at least wind power wont melt my face” reads one post, while another, echoing Moore’s early statement, claims nuclear “will be the end of the human race one day.” While no residents near Chernobyl had their faces melted—that can only be caused by extreme gamma and neutron radiation right after an atomic bomb blast—the comments do show how Chernobyl remains the ultimate deal breaker. If there is a chance—any chance—that it could happen here, the nuclear option is off the table. Period. But could it really happen?

It was a question asked by a team of scientists, including Nobel laureates, after the incident—Western governments were worried about the same thing, given the large number of reactors close to population centres. Among other tests, the scientists modelled the size of the explosion to see if would have been held by the containment structures that surround North American reactors.

These containment structures are seldom talked about, but they mark a big difference between Chernobyl and most other reactors. Chernobyl was essentially a nuclear reactor with a low-rise office building perched on top. When it blew, there was nothing between the radioactive cloud and the population. In contrast, North American reactors are surrounded by steel-lined, prestressed, reinforced concrete walls over a metre thick. The panel studying Chernobyl found that even under the Chernobyl scenario—impossible in non-Russian reactor designs anyway—this wall would contain any explosion. The U.S. military decided it wanted to be sure, and in typical Pentagon fashion, flew an F-4 fighter jet into such a wall at almost 800 kilometres an hour. The result? The jet disintegrated on impact. The wall, on the other hand, sustained a six-inch dent. Theres a reason bomb shelters are made of the same material.

“Post-[Chernobyl] accident analyses indicate that if there had been U.S.-style containment, probably none of the radioactivity would have escaped, and there would have been no injuries or deaths,” notes Bernard Cohen, a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburg who studied the disaster extensively.

In fact, far from a Chernobyl, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island revealed what happens when an accident occurs in a non-Soviet reactor. The outer container was not even required: the partially melted core was held in the primary container surrounding the core, exposing plant workers to a small increase of radiation—the equivalent of a few additional X-rays—with exposure outside the plant not even reaching the level of a typical dental exam. There were no deaths.

Not ideal, but certainly less tragic than your average plane crash. More like a parking lot fender-bender. And just as it would be foolish to slap an “Apocalypse Averted” headline onto every non-fatal accident, it is unfair to exaggerate what happened at Three Mile Island. Cars are designed to withstand accidents. Thankfully, outside of the former Soviet Union, so are nuclear power plants. Yet a lot of opposition to nuclear power continues to raise the spectre of Chernobyl. Just last year, for instance, Greenpeace activists staged a “die-in” on the streets of Toronto with mock rescue workers treating radiation-sickened survivors of a Pickering explosion. While these tactics undoubtedly have an effect, it is probably growing more and more limited. After all, the fact that Pickering will not explode is more or less common sense: if a catastrophic meltdown was really possible, would successive governments, of every political stripe, allow thousands of motorists to drive by the reactors each day on Highway 401 or, for that matter, allow millions of citizens to live just a few kilometres away? It is easy to believe that a corrupt, totalitarian regime would do so, but not a government so obsessed with safety that today, every Ontario family must stick their children in special car seats until they turn seven.

That’s why for many citizens, the worry isn’t a meltdown—it’s the effect of low-level radiation and nuclear waste. This is a much more reasonable concern, because every year thousands of people worldwide will die from inhaling radioactive isotopes—atoms that have the “wrong” number of neutrons, making them unbalanced and likely to fall apart, damaging living tissue and sometimes leading to cancer. This may sound like a damning indictment of nuclear power plants, but it’s actually a damning indictment of going into your own basement: radon gas, produced by natural radioactive substances in soil, is found in almost every house. Every Canadian is exposed to radon to some degree, and it accounts for half of all the radiation were exposed to in our lifetime. But only a tiny percentage of us—a few hundred Canadians a year—will experience negative effects from it. In contrast, one-tenth of one percent of the radiation were exposed to in our lifetimes is attributable to nuclear power. Simple math demonstrates how low the risk is. Cancer patients are routinely exposed to far, far more radiation than the workers were at Three Mile Island.

But the dire warnings continue. A Greenpeace report released a few years ago said there were so many radioactive particles in the air around the Pickering and Darlington nuclear stations that young children and pregnant women should not live within 10 kilometres, and no one should eat fruits or vegetables grown nearby. To Greenpeace’s credit, it is true that a small number of studies, mainly from Britain and Germany, have found small increases in the rate of childhood leukemia and thyroid cancer among people who live near nuclear power plants. But it is also true that many more studies have found no effects, and some have actually found lower rates of cancer near nuclear power plants.

The problem is that cancers such as childhood leukemia and thyroid cancer are already so rare—in Canada, 5 and 12 in 100,000 respectively—that the statistics are unreliable. A handful of cases in any given sample could double the number, or just as easily halve it. Moreover, when cancer cases appear to increase, it usually just means weve gotten better at spotting them (the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a study attributing all increases in thyroid cancer rates to improved diagnosis).

Nevertheless, provincial authorities wanted a better test, especially in the face of Greenpeaces warning. In Darlington, the municipal health authority took a novel approach. Instead of just looking at rates of thyroid cancer and leukemia, they looked at all cancers. If the nuclear power plant was causing the cancer, you’d expect to see a pattern—increases in leukemia and thyroid cancers, small increases with other cancers loosely associated with radiation, and no increases in cancers that researchers knew were not caused by radiation.

They didn’t find that pattern. Their results “did not indicate a pattern to suggest that the Pickering NGS and the Darlington NGS were causing health effects in the population.” What’s more, when they compared their results to a control group—an area of Ontario with no nuclear power plants—they found an equally random pattern. It’s easy—intuitive, even—to blame nuclear power plants for health ills because they are so large and visible, but the reality is simply far more complex.

Yet many still dislike nuclear power, almost instinctively. Part of the reason undoubtedly has to do with its complexity. But passenger jets are also complex, and millions of us board them every day, despite the fact that statistically they are far more likely to kill us. Rationally, we know the thin aluminum shell can’t protect us from a crash, there aren’t any parachutes, and the thing is filled to the brim with highly flammable jet fuel. Nuclear power plants, in comparison, have walls more than a metre thick, multiple containment and safety systems, and emergency shutdown devices. They’re also less vulnerable to random flocks of geese. Yet we don’t trust nuclear power plants, and we do trust airplanes. Why?

The nuclear industry must take a lot of the blame here. It has operated behind closed doors for decades, failing to report problems that do occur and insulting the intelligence of the public with advertising that shows blue skies and children frolicking in fields of flowers, rather than levelling with us: this is complicated technology and it can be dangerous if not properly regulated, but here’s why you are safe, and here’s the absolutely staggering benefits of this sort of power. But instead, their PR has treated the public either as complete naifs or as opponents to be defeated, not as a constituency to serve.

Interestingly, France has taken a different approach. “Theres a famous story of an executive with [French nuclear giant] Areva who was having a meeting with locals who were concerned about radiation,” recalls Aplin. “She got them a bunch of radiation detection devices, and said, Here’s how to use them. Go up to the site, turn on the detectors, and wander around the site and tell me what you find. That’s what they did, and they found nothing that different from the background radiation.”

That sort of openness leads to confidence, which is why France has chosen nuclear power. In Canada, the story has been very different: just last December, there were two minor leaks at the medical-isotope-producing reactor at Chalk River—yet despite repeated calls from reporters, the leaks were not confirmed until late January. Although Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission are now reporting every incident, of any size, the public and media can’t help but wonder: if they seem to be hiding minor incidents, what else could they be covering up?

But if the nuclear industry is to blame, so are some environmental groups: not for opposing nuclear power—everyone has a right to do that, and to their credit, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and others have written proposals outlining how we could stop using coal and nuclear power (but not natural gas). Reasonable people can talk seriously about how realistic those plans are: how much they cost, how soon they can be accomplished, and whether the assumptions they make, about everything from importing Quebec hydro to changing human behaviour, are really realistic, especially given the short time frame to deal with climate change. This is a legitimate debate.

What is not legitimate is constantly raising the spectre of a “Canadian Chernobyl,” or claiming that a small uptick in a rare form of cancer is conclusive proof of the danger of nuclear energy. It just isn’t.

In the end, all of this back and forth may prove to be of little consequence because there are deeper forces in human psychology that are pushing us back toward nuclear power. The ultimate reason we get on the airplane is not only that we trust the pilots—it is also because there is a significant benefit to doing so: namely, that we dont have to waste three precious days of vacation time stuck in a car. In simple terms, most of us believe flying is worth the risk.

Soon, many people might believe the same about nuclear power. Partly this is because of a better understanding of the risks and how we can limit them. But mostly it is because the risk of not cutting global carbon emissions is far greater. No energy source is free of risk, but continuing to burn fossil fuels has become far more dangerous than even the worst-case scenarios for nuclear power. If fact, given what we now know about the numbers of premature deaths caused by airborne pollution, there is an argument to be made that nuclear was always the safer option. Climate change just clinches it.

While we undoubtedly have some lingering cynicism after years of hearing the nuclear industry over-promise and under-deliver, especially on costs and transparency, today much of the green-power industry could be accused of the same: solar power will get cheaper (honest!); a better battery is just around the corner (promise!); this time, people will take conservation seriously (we hope!); installing rooftop solar water heating is sexier than buying a flatscreen TV (really!). The question we must ask is: do we really have time to wait?

For all the warnings that our nuclear power plants are going to explode in a Chernobyl-like disaster, theyve kept chugging along. Yes, they are not perfect, and yes, they are expensive to build, but at last count, they were preventing about 85 million tonnes of CO2 from entering Canadian skies each year. If we believe the growing body of research that says we may have just 20 years to stabilize emissions, we can’t make wind power our first and only choice. To do so would require many variables to fall into place: finding sites for as many as 100,000 wind turbines, building them, securing rights of way for new transmission lines, and then hoping someone invents a more efficient and longer-lasting battery. There’s no room for error, and that’s a lot of variables, some with potentially staggering price tags, and all of which would have to happen in a very short period of time.

The better solution is to double Canadian nuclear capacity. It could be done on existing sites, and even though it would take 10 to 15 years to build, the grid connections would be simple. The moment we turned on these new plants, Canada’s emissions from electricity drop close to zero (a new nuclear power plant in Saskatchewan or Alberta would be enough to supply Western Canada). Keep building wind turbines and researching solar, but lets not mistake where we want to be in 50 or 100 years with where we need to be in just 10 or 20.

To build these plants does not mean that nuclear is perfect—it is not, and many of its early proponents did more harm than good by claiming that it was. But hard as it may be to admit, we also know that without it, we would be in a much bigger mess than we are in today. Climate change is far too grave a problem to ignore any solution. If we are remotely serious about stopping it, we must give nuclear a fair chance.

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