December 2005: Our Dangerous Energy Addiction

Nuclear power badly flawed as alternative to filthy fossil fuels
December 1, 2005

“It still amazes me that people don’t know that their power comes from nuclear reactors. It amazes me that many people drive past the Pickering plant on their way to work every day, and don’t know it is a nuclear reactor.”
--Elizabeth Dowdswell, President, Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)

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We are addicted to a cheap and endless supply of electricity on demand. But electricity is by far the costliest form of energy. In order to produce it in large quantity, we currently burn fossil fuels, dam rivers, and split uranium atoms in nuclear reactors. By nature, these infrastructure mega-projects are heavily reliant on the public purse. Unfortunately, the steeper cost by far is paid by the environment–whether it is in flooding entire watersheds, polluting the atmosphere, or poisoning the ground.

Of course, hardly anyone thinks about that when they turn on the lights or turn up the air conditioning. We prefer to live in denial–albeit comfortable and well-illuminated denial.

In Ontario, much of our electricity is generated using fossil fuels like coal, crude oil, and natural gas. Coal-burning power stations send mercury, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, chrome and nickel –all acknowledged carcinogens --into the atmosphere. One of the Ontario stations, Nanticoke, sent more than 7,640 tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere during the year 2000. This station alone is responsible for 6% of all of the atmospheric pollution in Canada and 13% of all of the pollution in Ontario.

The Ontario government says it is committed to phasing out these coal-burning power stations. But letting the lights go out is hardly an option. A recent agreement to transfer hydro-electric power from Manitoba to Ontario and reopen negotiations to cooperate on a new dam in northern Manitoba is designed to fill some of the gap.

But nuclear power, which currently provides 50% of Ontario’s electrical energy needs, is the real monster in Ontario’s energy closet. As NWMO President Dowdswell observes, we refuse to admit it. A 2002 survey by Natural Resources Canada concluded that “Canadians do not understand how their electricity is generated, with most (78%) holding to the belief that their homes are powered by relatively ‘clean’ hydro-electric power. Whether this is a function of ignorance or denial, it is clear that, unlike vehicle pollution, the environmental consequences of electric power generation have not yet been firmly established in the public's consciousness.”

We don’t want to know about nuclear power. It has a dangerous history.

Most of North America lost its taste for nuclear power generation after the Three Mile Island accident. On March 28, 1979, a sequence of events, including equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors, led to a partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core. Off-site releases of radioactivity were very small and there were no deaths or injuries to workers or members of the nearby community. But public fear and distrust resulting from this incident was so deep that there hasn’t been a commercial nuclear power station built in the United States since then.

Lately, the nuclear industry has been hard at work cleaning up its image. The modern nuclear reactors are more reliable, with more built-in safety features than their aging cousins built in the ‘70s, say the experts. Nuclear has new supporters including prominent environmentalists. In an article in MIT’s Technology Review, Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, accuses the environmental movement of having a quasi-religious aversion to nuclear power, which he suggests is now a mature industry unlikely to repeat the errors of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and our best bet for atmospherically clean, low-cost fuel.

Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and Gaia theorist James Lovelock wrote, in an op-ed for The Independent: “Even if [the Greens] were right about [the dangers of nuclear power], and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world. We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear --the one safe, available, energy source--now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”

If we needed more convincing, for the first time ever, the nuclear industry has been taking out prime-time television ads to make sure we get the message that nuclear is the clean fuel of the future. This is a whitewash of the deep and lingering problems of nuclear power generation.

To begin with, nuclear power is extremely expensive and heavily subsidized. Nuclear plants take a long time (as much as 12 years) to build, and cost billions. The original estimate for Ontario’s newest nuclear power station, Darlington, which began construction in 1984, was $4 billion. The cost, by 1993, was more like $14.4 billion.

Other reactors are getting old. One reactor at Pickering was recently refurbished at three times the projected cost. The Ontario government recently announced its decision to support the refurbishing of Bruce 1 and 2 reactors, at the projected cost of $4.25 billion. If past experience is any indication, this is a low-ball estimate. To further complicate matters, refurbishing, in all these cases, includes replacing deteriorated reactor tubes–a major safety issue, according to many experts in the field.

During its lifetime, Ontario Hydro (note the misleading name) amassed a $38 billion debt–a debt which Ontario households will be paying off for at least the next 15 years. Most of this debt stems from the costs of nuclear power. The nuclear industry is also being subsidized at the federal level. Over the summer of 2005, the federal government transferred $2.3 billion to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), a federally owned company, for environmental cleanup costs. It’s a system that shifts debt liability to future consumers and uses public funds to subsidize one form of energy production over another. But we energy consumers are choosing not to notice.

Unfortunately, all these eye-popping figures are soon eclipsed by the real cost: the accumulating radioactive waste in the form of spent fuel bundles. Canada has stockpiled 2 million fuel bundles (about 45,000 metric tons)--most of it in Ontario. They would fill up five hockey rinks from the ice surface to the top of the boards. Canada’s current nuclear reactors will produce 3.6 million bundles during the course of their average operation life of 40 years–make that another five hockey rinks. This spent fuel contains over 100 different radioactive isotopes. Some of them dissipate quickly. Others, like plutonium-239 (weapons grade plutonium) which has a half-life of 24,000 years, will still be around to poison the environment many thousands of years from now. This is a public liability of immense proportions.

Since 1977, various groups have been asked to study and report on the problem of this accumulating waste. The most recent group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), was set up in 2002. Its shareholders are the nuclear industry itself: Ontario Power Generation, Hydro Quebec, and New Brunswick Power. Critics point out that this is a basic flaw. Should a group with a vested interest in continuing the production of such waste be in charge of deciding what to do with it? It is unlikely they would be inclined to look for solutions that would phase out their own existence. This criticism has dogged the NWMO from the beginning of its mandate.

After three years of expert testimony and public consultations, the NWMO finally presented its report to the Minister of Natural Resources on November 3. It recommended a process called “Adaptive Phased Management,” which seeks to build in long-term flexibility to waste management storage. Sequential decision-making will allow for changes in the environment, changes in technology, and changes in society. There will be “ongoing involvement of citizens in the decision-making about how the [plan] is implemented.”

The estimated cost of disposing the Canadian waste is $24 billion. In the end, the waste is to be stored in a deep underground facility in a way that it would be monitored and remain retrievable over time.

This plan is a big improvement over the controversial U.S. disposal system, which will have all nuclear waste transported to site in the Mojave Desert 100 miles from Las Vegas to be irretrievably entombed in Yucca Mountain. But the criticisms remain.

“The NWMO must examine the whole cycle of nuclear waste, from production to disposal,” says John Bennett, Sierra Club Senior Policy Advisor on Atmosphere and Energy. “To not do so is looking at the problem without attacking the cause, and allows the nuclear industry to continue to push for the construction of uneconomic, unsustainable nuclear power plants.”

Environmentalists point out that the kinder, gentler, people-friendly adaptive phased management plan will legitimize an industry that has rightly been both loathed for its origins and feared for the scale and scope of its destructive abilities.

“The first priority should be the phase-out of nuclear power, not the phase-in of a radioactive waste dump,” says Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. “There’s no way to contain poisons that last a million years.”

Nuclear Waste Watch (NWW), a coalition of safe energy activists, proposes a different solution: “For the foreseeable future, radioactive waste management should be based on surface and/or near-surface monitored and retrievable storage--at least until a nuclear power phase-out has been achieved, the technical case for an alternative option (or options) has been thoroughly reviewed, and a social consensus has been achieved.”

Nuclear Waste Watch is also calling for a joint federal/provincial environmental assessment panel on the full range of waste options.The federal government should guarantee a full parliamentary debate and a free vote on the recommendations of the NWMO and the environmental assessment panel, says NWW.

Clearly, we need to change our thinking about electricity and its production. We need to be much more concerned about the appropriate use of electricity. We need to stop subsidizing nuclear at the expense of other decentralized, environmentally-friendly alternatives, including solar, wind, and geo-thermal. The solution to electricity problems lies in recognition, understanding, and commitment to change at all levels–not in increasing our reliance on nuclear power.

A million years of radioactive waste to run your air conditioner, to boil your water, to light up your supermarkets 24 hours per day! A million years of radioactive waste! Do we really want this to be our legacy to future generations?

(Marita Moll is a CCPA Research Associate and a sessional lecturer at Carleton University in Technology, Society, and Environment Studies.)