W hen one talks about nuclear power, the names Chernobyl and Three Mile Island inevitably come up. When you combine these glowing green spectres with extremely long-lived and toxic radioactive waste, you seem to have an energy sector with enough problems to justify taking it off the table for the good of humanity. But does this alarming picture actually represent the state of fission technology in the 21st century?
Many of these spectres turn out to be based more on misconceptions than on reality. For example, the inarguable disaster at Chernobyl was the result of Soviet inspectors who ran the reactor below minimum safety levels. While it is true that there was a critical design flaw in the emergency saftey systems, the Chernobyl meltdown would not have happened if it had been used as its engineers had intended. As for Three Mile Island, the ‘disaster’ amounted to a few dozen litres of radioactive steam being released into the atmosphere, which have never been linked to any health problems of workers or nearby residents. The real damage that resulted from Three Mile Island was to the reputation of the nuclear industry.
The Canadian designed and manufactured Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors, have been functioning since the seventies without any harmful problems. These CANDU reactors are physically incapable of melting down in the manner that strikes fear into the hearts of the public. Similar fears of the radioactive exposure caused by operational plants is completely unfounded. Your own body produces hundreds of times more radiation in a year than you would be exposed to even if you lived right beside a normally-operational plant for your entire life, and you are dosed with thousands of times more radiation every time you get in an airplane.
With some of the misconceptions out of the way, let us look at the advantages of the nuclear option. Uranium, the primary fuel used in nuclear reactors, contains an incredible amount of energy: for an average 1,000 megawatt (MW) power plant, CANDU nuclear production requires about thirty tonnes of fuel (a cube about two metres to a side). To produce the same amount of power in a high-efficiency hydrocarbon plant, you need about ten supertankers worth of oil. In a coal plant, you require a whopping 2.6 million tonnes of coal (about 2000 train cars!), which produces an incredible six million tonnes of CO2 per year. A 1,000 MW coal plant also releases 400 tonnes of poisonous airborne heavy metals, such as mercury, and 66 thousand tonnes of nitrous and sulphur oxides, which cause acid rain. This conservative assessment does not even include the associated mining and transportation emissions, which also produce millions of tonnes of CO2 and other deadly pollutants, leaving toxic sludge pools like Nova Scotia’s Sydney Tar Ponds. These toxic pools have remained for decades, more than doubling local cancer rates.
The critically important thing to know about the nuclear option is the fact that a nuclear power plant produces virtually zero CO2 emissions throughout its lifecycle. Like other green energy producers such as wind and solar power, nuclear power plants should be part of the global strategy to minimize emissions. However, solar and wind power suffer from a number of shortcomings that nuclear does not, such as dirty manufacturing practices requiring rare earth metals performed primarily in China. Both solar and wind power generation also require large surface areas for comparable generation. For ten MW of power, solar requires ten to fifty km2 of photovoltaic panels, and wind requires 50-150 km2 of high-efficiency turbines. The same amount of nuclear power can be produced in just one to four km2 of land. Furthermore, even Trudeau-era nuclear power plants produce constant power, while most modern wind and solar plants only produce when the sun shines and the wind blows. Last winter, England faced poor weather which caused their wind turbines to produce just four per cent of their potential output, forcing the government to buy electricity from the largely nuclear-dependant France. To overcome these problems with wind and solar generation would require immense energy storage capacity, but modern battery technology is incapable of meeting this need, and also requires materials available only from China.
Despite these advantages, no new plants have been built in North America since the seventies, stemming from overwhelming public NIMBYism (not in my backyard) and an extremely stringent regulatory process.
Modern reactors would bear little resemblance to the Pearson-era generators that are currently producing power so reliably, and the next generation of nuclear power plants could actually use radioactive waste as their primary fuel. Such new generators, such as ones under development by the Bill Gates-sponsored TerraPower, are actually more like ‘nuclear candles,’ producing clean energy while simultaneously processing hazardous waste. The Hyperion nuclear battery, for example, is a hot-tub sized reactor that produces power for about 25,000 homes, completely independent from the grid. The potential to provide green power to isolated communities and energy intensive industry without the need for transmission lines is already here.
Transmission lines are very vulnerable, as we saw during the 1998 ice-storm and the 2003 northeastern blackout. Nuclear battery technology could be vital in decentralizing our electrical grid and providing clean power without our current dependence on inefficient electrical lines, where four to ten per cent of all produced electricity (and associated CO2 emissions) is lost in transmission. This decentralization of power generation would make us safer from targeted attacks or ‘acts of god’, such as the 1989 solar storm which overloaded the grid in Quebec for nine hours.
It is clear that a future where all of our power is produced by green energy is within our grasp. Nuclear is the best option for replacing our main power plants, big CO2 emitters like coal and natural gas. These nuclear plants would work in concert with the variable wind and solar generators to provide all our energy needs. What is required is public support, and the first step is a willingness to cast off misconceptions and look critically at all the options on the table. The nuclear option is a good one, but what remains to be seen is whether we are smart enough to choose it.