The media is full of stories urging us to reduce the amount of C02 we generate. Both as individuals and a society we are told the future of the planet as we know it depends on a change of course. Exactly how we institute this change is open for debate.
Modern societies require huge amounts of electricity. Unfortunately, power generation is a significant source of C02. Therefore the question becomes how can we continue to increase electrical power generation while we also reduce C02 emissions?
Approximately 60 percent of the electricity in Canada comes from hydro-electric generation. Certain regions of Canada are blessed with potential to expand hydro-generation. Even though the decision to dam rivers is always controversial, only BC and Quebec are fortunate enough to have the luxury of considering this choice. Other parts of the country are not.
While important, wind, solar and tidal generated electricity will only remain supplementary sources in the foreseeable future. Even these so-called "green sources" of power have environmental footprints that still require study. So what are we to do?
Nuclear energy is the best available choice. It will increase production of electricity without a corresponding increase in C02 emissions.
Today the mere mention of the word nuclear can send some people running in fear. However a careful examination of the world's nuclear power industry does not warrant such a response.
If we want to expand power generation while maintaining our present lifestyle we must seriously consider nuclear power generation. Every discussion about nuclear energy always starts with safety.
The investigation in to the disaster at Chernobyl found it was a direct result of engineers turning off several redundant safety systems which pushed the reactor output to near 10 times its normal range. Excluding Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry in general and in Canada specifically has an excellent safety record over nearly four decades.
The first Canadian reactor came on line in 1971. Today we have 16 operational reactors supplying about 15 percent of Canada's electricity. Most of these are in Ontario with one in both Quebec and New Brunswick.
Globally there are approximately 450 nuclear reactors generating electricity. Combined, the world's nuclear reactors generate approximately 2500 TWh (a tera watt hour is one billion kilowatt hours) of electricity annually. If coal fired or natural gas facilities were used to generate this same amount of electricity the atmosphere would receive an additional 2.4 billion tonnes of C02 each year. Clearly, increasing the number of fossil fuel consuming generation plants is not a good option as they would add to C02 emission levels.
However the elephant in the room is nuclear waste. Presently in Canada there are about two million used fuel rods held under water in stable, secure interim storage facilities. This is equivalent to one soccer field five feet deep. Some will say this represents far too much of a danger while others are surprised to learn how little waste was actually generated by thirty five years of nuclear power generation.
Long-term management of the waste has been the focus of decades of study.
Two different government sponsored reports, the Hare report in 1977 and the Porter Commission in 1978 agreed that isolation of the used fuel in granite rock was the best option. In response the government created the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program (CNFWMP). This program was charged with developing the technology for long-term storage of our nuclear waste. In 1988 the CNFWMP submitted its generic (non-site-specific) proposal for long-term nuclear used fuel management to government.
This report initiated an Environmental Review process which took another ten years to complete. The proposal would have spent fuel rods placed in vaults 500-1000 feet deep in the granite rock of the Canadian Shield. The fuel would be encased in corrosion-resistant containers designed to last thousands of years. These containers would then be surrounded by bentonite clay to retard water migration. Finally the individual tunnels would be backfilled and sealed.
Keep in mind that even if the containment fails in a thousand years, at that point in time the level of radioactivity of the used fuel will be the same as the ore presently mined for fuel. Therefore this type of envisioned storage facility does not represent any new environmental risk beyond those already found near Saskatchewan's radioactive ore deposits.
It has been estimated the total cost of such a facility would be 9-13 billion dollars spread over the 75 year lifespan of the site. In fact electricity users in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick already contribute 1 percent of their electricity costs to a fund set up to pay for the storage of the used nuclear fuel.
Technically the problem of used nuclear fuel storage has been solved but politically the answer has remained unacceptable. If we are going to get serious about C02 emissions then we have little choice but to move ahead with development of increased nuclear power generation. There is no free lunch and those who would stop progress by demanding zero risk need to step aside and let the rest of us get on with implementing viable options to our present C02 emission problem.
Robert Wager is a Laboratory Demonstrator at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo BC
Globe and Mail Update
June 15, 2007 at 1:07 PM EDT