Sunday, September 09, 2007

Nuclear power debate about to heat up

Nuclear power debate about to heat up
The big push to mine Alberta's tarsands has put nuclear power back on the political agenda in B.C.
There's not likely to be any change in the provincial government's no-nukes stance. Politically, any B.C. party that advocated nuclear power would get stomped. Pragmatically, the province has a lot of other options, from the Site C dam to wind power.
But a proposed nuclear-power plant in northwest Alberta, about 140 kms from the B.C. border, is likely to spark a new debate on the safety of the atomic energy
After all, if the government maintains the position that nuclear power is unsuitable - and too risky - for B.C., how can it quietly accept a plant not all that far away from Fort St. John and Dawson Creek?
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld inadvertently highlighted the problem, reacting to the Alberta proposal with a response that probably wasn't in the talking points provided by staff. Not my issue, Neufeld said. B.C. has no authority over development in Alberta.
Anyway, he went on, the project isn't that close to B.C.. "It's well over 100 kilometres from the border and the wind generally blows from the west," he said.
That's not exactly reassuring. The idea that something might go wrong, but it's OK because the wind would probably carry any radioactive clouds toward Saskatchewan falls short of seeming like a foolproof safety plan.
The Alberta project, with a $6-billion price tag, is still far from a sure thing. (The project would supply energy to allow extraction of oil from the tarsands, as well as other uses.)
But the scheme is likely to start a useful debate on nuclear power, and energy supplies generally. And the Alberta project will likely force the B.C. Liberals to be clearer about their reasons for banning nuclear energy.
If the reasons include safety concerns, then some people in the province's northeast will be asking why the government isn't taking a stronger role in questioning the Alberta plan. NDP leader Carole James has already said B.C. should oppose the plant.
This should be an interesting debate. Nuclear power has some drawbacks. If something does go wrong, the consequences can be bad. Opponents point to Chernobyl, where the 1986 explosion released radioactive fallout over a wide area. The disaster killed 56 people and is expected to cause 4,000 additional cancer deaths.
Chernobyl was a product of the crumbling Soviet state - poorly designed, badly built and negligently managed. But widespread use of nuclear power would risk similar incidents in other failing countries.
Still, there hasn't been a single fatality in nuclear power plants since then, despite some 430 plants around the world. A lot of people have died mining coal and producing oil and gas for thermal plants in the same period.
An immediate nuclear problem is what to do with the 20 to 30 tonnes of radioactive waste each power plant produces in a year. The material remains dangerous for thousands of years, a dangerous legacy.
While nuclear power has some big drawbacks, so do the alternatives, especially given the new focus on global warming. Coal pollutes and produces large amounts of greenhouse gasses. Oil and gas are cleaner, but expensive, and also major sources of carbon dioxide. Getting the oil, gas or coalbed methane from the ground also creates problems.
There's great potential in wind and tidal and small hydro. Conservation and greater efficiency are important.
But globally, the demand for power is projected to increase by 2.4 per cent per year. That means a doubling of existing electrical production by 2037. Without nuclear power, an awful lot of coal, gas and oil are going to be burned to keep the lights on.
The issue isn't just heating up in B.C. The U.S. has asked Canada to join a new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to encourage nuclear development and manage the risks. The Harper government has said if it will sign on; the next meeting is less than two weeks away.
Expect lots of attention on the nuclear industry in the next year.
Footnote: The other issue waiting to hit the headlines is uranium mining in B.C. The government has banned nuclear power, but is fine with uranium mining. Neufeld says there aren't likely any worthwhile deposits, but several companies have staked claims and are raising money for exploration and development.


Anonymous said...

As many people have noticed CANDU reactors have never had a serious accident. I think it is time for Vancouver Island to solve its power dependancy with a reacto in the north mid island.

Anonymous said...

If nuclear waste remains dangerous for hundreds of years, then all we're doing is exporting 99% of the risks into the future and therefore you can't just compare the death toll to date from using nuclear to that of other fuel sources like coal and oil and conclude that the former is safer.

Also, we're going to face some very interesting dilemas when we decide to embrace nuclear power as the way to meet our energy needs without aggravating global warming, while insisting that Iran and other states with scary leaders don't have the right to use nuclear technology to meet their own energy needs. And how about the greatly expanded risks of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists, rogues and anarchists once we decide to develop a global nuclear industry to maintain the lifestyles to which we now feel entitled?

Sounds a lot more like out of the frying pan and into the fire to me. Seems we've all forgotten why we worked so hard on all those nuclear non-proliferation agreements in the first place.

Do we really need to come face to face with a Bin Laden who's armed and nuclear before we're willing to consider giving up the SUVs and paring down the lavish, wasteful lifestyles to something more closely resembling what the majority of people on this planet would find luxurious?

Anonymous said...

A couple more points to add to the discussion.

One of the issues associated with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is the idea that uranium exporters should have a responsibility to deal with the nuclear waste. I don't quite understand the logic here (since this is not done in many other industries) but a number of countries that import uranium for power now want to force the exporting countries to take back the waste uranium later.

A second issue not addressed is re-processing of spent waste. Simply discarding uranium that has gone once through the power cycle is incredibly wasteful. Historically it was easier just to temporarily store the waste material and the nuclear powers have discouraged reprocessing as it is a crucial technology in weapon proliferation and therefore one that they don't want non-nuclear weapon states to possess.

Canada could address both above issues by developing a reprocessing capability. This would substantially reduce the amount of material needed for disposal and provide a proliferation-safe outlet to send partially-spent fuel.