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Powerpolitics

Fuelling an unresolved debate

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Powerpolitics

Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from catatrophic climate change. But what benefits and risks does it pose?

Perennial association of the word “nuclear” with the noun “bomb” may be but one reason why the topic of nuclear power generation is so explosive.

It’s a hot issue these days because going nuclear is increasingly proposed as a partial solution to the greenhouse-gas dilemma that is contributing to the mega-problem of climate change.

Last spring Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, once rabidly against nuclear energy and now a Vancouver-based consultant, wrote, “Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”

At the moment, more than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the US are supplying nearly 40 percent of the electrical power south of the border; they’re devastating the environment and must be replaced.

Most scientists agree that scant carbon emissions result from production of power by way of nuclear plants. Nuclear energy, however, currently is providing juice for just 20 percent of electricity in both Canada and the US. Some 440 nuclear power plants, 14 of them in Canada, are currently humming along worldwide.

Nuclear aficionados, including a recently established Canadian group known as Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (Canada) Inc., or EFN-Canada, argue that it’s imperative that the public be sold on the virtues of power generated by nuclear plants. The group reasons the world is running out of oil and nuclear energy has become the “cleanest energy resource massively available to humanity.”

“Environmental opposition to nuclear energy,” the group says, “is the greatest misunderstanding and mistake of the century.”

Clearly, without public backing, politicians are gun-shy about pushing the nuclear button.

Power without Problems?

Nuclear power is reliable, efficient, and, most importantly, in the view of its boosters, less polluting.

This form of energy has been around for more than 50 years and, in fact, has a pretty good record in terms of injuries and deaths. France relies on it for nearly 80 percent of its electrical generation.

Catastrophic events related to nuclear energy production tend to be apocalyp-tically high profile. But hard numbers demonstrate the risks inherent in such power generation have been relatively negligible.

Incidents

Consider, the US Navy has been powering ships with nuclear reactors for half a century and has experienced not a single nuclear incident.

A reactor core meltdown in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania resulted in no deaths. The plant’s containment walls worked as they were supposed to.

Accidents

In a more devastating incident in 1986 at Chernobyl, north of Kiev, 56 direct deaths were attributed to the explosion of a nuclear power plant reactor. It was of poor design and lacked containment shells. More than 300,000 people also had to be relocated due to contamination of land, mainly in Belarus. No small matter.

Coal Comparisons

But University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus and author Bernard L. Cohen insists people have a knee-jerk reaction and needlessly get their knickers in a twist in assessing nuclear accidents. Think of how many workers die regularly in coal mine accidents (47 in 2006 in the US alone). Another factoid he offers up: one nuclear reactor meltdown would have to occur every two weeks to match the death toll from air pollution due to coal.

Indeed heavily polluting coal burning reduces American life expectancy by 13 days compared to nuclear dangers, which reduce it by 0.02 days. Or how about this? Being 25 pounds overweight reduces life expectancy by two years.

Cohen’s conclusion: “The media has driven the public insane with fear.”

Nuclear Naysayers

Others aren’t so sure. A US group calling itself No Nukes says there are darned good reasons why not a single new nuclear power station has been ordered in the US since 1978. Further, the nuclear industry was given a pass in referenda held in Sweden, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.

Cost

The nuclear option is not as economical as was initially advertised, given that construction and operating standards have been tightened in the wake of mishaps. Unforeseen technical problems have reduced reliability. Uranium prices are escalating– and it’s costly to decommission plants at the end of their life cycles.

Emissions

Nor is the production of nuclear energy spanking clean. Pollution in one form or another is produced every step of the way, from the mining of the uranium to the operation of the power plants. Moreover, the stuff emitted, such as radiation, is a whole lot scarier than garden-variety greenhouse gas emissions.

“No other energy source combines the generation of as wide a range of conventional pollutants and waste streams including heavy metals, smog and acid rain precursors, greenhouse gases, and radioactive wastes,” warns Mark Winfield, director of environmental governance at the Alberta-based Pembina Institute.

The environmental institute is dead-against an idea mused about in 2007 by natural resources minister Gary Lunn, who proposed fuelling tar sands development with nuclear power.

Greenpeace calls nuclear waste “the most dangerous form of pollution ever created.”

Storage

No one knows where to put the stuff. For a time, Canada was considering burying it under the Canadian Shield. But the plan lacked broad public support. In the US plans are afoot to bury it deep in the Nevada desert where underground nuclear tests have been conducted. Nevada isn’t thrilled–nuclear waste remains lethal for hundreds of thousands of years.

Security

Then there is the problem of security. Nuclear technology has military applications. While Iran promises that it’s enriching uranium with a view to civilian application–for the purposes of producing electricity–most grownups recognize the potential for Tehran to develop a nuclear bomb.

In an age of terrorism, nuclear technology is not something the public necessarily wants going global.

Energetic Debate

Many environmentalists say the nuclear option should just be phased out. It isn’t any more sustainable in the end than oil or gas because there’s also a finite amount of uranium on the planet. The only real environmentally responsible solution, they believe, is conservation and the use of renewable energy alternatives.

This debate, of course, will go on and become more frantic as time goes by and other fuels become scarcer–and as those fuels grow more costly, both in terms of dollars and carbon emissions.

“Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act,” declares British scientist and author James Lovelock, who calls himself “a Green.” The world, he says, simply doesn’t have the luxury of a thumbs-down on nuclear energy.

Tough choices loom.

Nuclear Nuts n’ Bolts

For nuke neophytes, here’s how it all works:

  • Uranium–most of it from mines in northern Saskatchewan, the world’s largest source of the material–is milled into a “yellowcake” powder.
  • The powder then gets turned into fuel pellets and placed in rods that are assembled to make fuel bundles.
  • The nuclear reactor relies on the process of nuclear fission within the bundles to transform water into steam.
  • The steam drives turbine generators to produce electricity.

Cost Comparison

Energy source/Cost per kilowatt hour

  • Nuclear $0.46
  • Coal $1.83
  • Natural gas $6.23
  • Petroleum $8.43
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