Now that the world price of uranium is rising, proponents of nuclear energy are once again calling for Saskatchewan to step up production of uranium and perhaps build a fuel processing facility and nuclear power plant in the province.
This time around, their main argument is that nuclear power is a "green" option because it does not produce the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause climate change.
Nuclear's proponents do have a point. It's true that nuclear power does not directly emit GHGs. Ideally, it could provide an alternative to the use of fossil fuels, especially coal-fired power plants that are high emitters of GHG and pollutants.
Unfortunately, there are a great number of concerns about nuclear power that should be addressed before it can be classed as a green power source. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the nuclear alternative can be implemented in time to reduce GHGs emissions to meet the target dates of the Kyoto Protocol.
Following are some concerns about the nuclear option in brief. For a full discussion of the uranium/nuclear power option, visit the web site of the Toronto-based organization Energy Probe.
Coal powered electrical production is cheaper than nuclear and will probably be the main choice for power production in many nations, such as China, for years to come. The high capital cost of switching over to nuclear power facilities and the high level of expertise required to build, operate and monitor nuclear plants make it highly unlikely that nuclear power will be widely adopted in the near term, especially in developing nations.
Even if accepted as an option to coal and other fossil fuels, it would take decades to diffuse throughout the world. The Kyoto Protocol requires participating nations to significantly reduce GHGs emissions by 2012. It would take much longer than that to deploy the nuclear alternative. Meanwhile, options such as improved energy efficiency have a tremendous potential to reduce GHGs emissions in the short term, both in the developed nations that produce most of the worlds GHGs, and in China and India, the world's fastest growing economies.
Although uranium/nuclear has strong proponents in industry and government, it is not popular with the public, especially in the industrialized nations that produce most of the world's GHGs emissions. Right or wrong, the nuclear industry will have to win the argument that nuclear is the best option to fight climate change. Given the strong opposition to nuclear from the environmental movement, it is unlikely that argument will be won anytime soon. And even with general public acceptance of the option, nuclear faces the "not in my back yard" phenomenon: I may believe nuclear is okay, but I may not want a nuclear power plant or a uranium processing facility in my neighbourhood. This is exactly what happened when a uranium processing facility was proposed for, and rejected by, Warman, Saskatchewan.
Nuclear power plants do not produce GHGs, but it is not entirely accurate to say the uranium/nuclear fuel cycle is GHGs-free. There is considerable energy expended to develop uranium mines and mills, operate them, transport people and materials to remote mine sites, process fuel, build nuclear facilities, and transport and store wastes. Furthermore, nuclear power typically operates in tandem with other power sources that do produce GHGs. This happens for two reasons:
While the net GHGs output of nuclear is lower than fossil fuel power, to say that the uranium/nuclear option is entirely GHGs free is somewhat misleading. The same could be said for hydro, solar, or wind power. While all options should be assessed for net energy output, the sheer size of uranium/nuclear operations means a lot of fossil fuel energy use is involved.
The uranium/nuclear fuel cycle replaces one emissions problem, GHGs, with another, nuclear wastes. Scientists who study the environment agree that if we want a sustainable society, nature cannot be subjected to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust.
Uranium is naturally diffused in the planet's crust, but when we concentrate it to make nuclear fuel, it becomes extremely dangerous. That is why extensive precautions are taken to protect people and the environment from it. Given the products and wastes of uranium mining, milling, processing, and nuclear power production remain dangerous for thousands of years, nuclear wastes could become a problem on the scale of climate change were nuclear fuel to replace fossil fuels of a large scale.
The issue of radioactive waste should not be underestimated. In Saskatchewan, we still haven't cleaned up mines in the Uranium City area that were abandoned by the uranium industry decades ago. The public costs of doing so could be in the billions of dollars, Meanwhile, Canada's nuclear industry is generating toxic wastes with virtually no funds set aside for future clean up.
According to Energy Probe, Ontario Hydro has estimated its own nuclear clean up would cost $18.7 billion, yet just $420-million has been set aside for this purpose. Since 1995, Canada's auditor-general has described the totally unfunded radioactive waste disposal program at AECL, Canada's nuclear Crown corporation, as a violation of accepted accounting principles, not to mention the principles of sustainable or "clean" development.
And so far, the industry's waste-disposal plans have been rejected by two public reviews.
Nuclear has not fulfilled its promise of cheap, reliable power. The capital costs of nuclear power are massive. The unsupportable debt created by Canada's Candu reactors has already surpassed $10-billion, not including additional billions hidden in the federal debt after decades of public subsidy.
Every year we hear of high cost repairs to power plants and huge cost overruns. Meanwhile, about one- third of Canada's reactors are shut down-meaning that they are not producing either power or income. In Saskatchewan, the success of the uranium industry is built on a history of public subsidies that still constitute a significant portion of our public debt. Saskatchewan's uranium industry is profitable today because the people of Saskatchewan provided its start up costs.
In Saskatchewan, during the Devine era, we learned that mega-projects do not provide net benefits to the provincial economy. In the case of a nuclear power plant, most of the expertise would come from outside the province and most of the technology would be built elsewhere. Economists have shown that small made-in-Saskatchewan projects are more beneficial to the economy than large projects, such as a nuclear power plant.
In most developing nations, nuclear power represents a high cost option that requires imported expertise and technology, and the installation of high-cost power transmission systems. Nuclear mega-projects would involve these countries in additional foreign debt. In many cases, small-scale, locally produced power is a much better fit, one reason being that it does not require extensive transmission systems.
Recalling Murphy's Law-that if anything can go wrong, it will-let's not forget the consequences of an accidental malfunction of a nuclear plant are potentially disastrous, even catastrophic. It is prudent to remember names like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A major accident may never happen-but what if it does? As a result of Canada's Nuclear Liability Act, the nuclear industry is exempted for liability should a major accident occur, even if it is their fault. Citizens are not.
We also have to think of the proliferation of nuclear bombs. Canada's uranium/nuclear industry has already provided India with nuclear bomb ingredients and provided nuclear technology to Pakistan. The possibility of nuclear capabilities in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea was hardly welcomed by the United States, Canada, and Europe, the nations that proliferated these technologies in the first place. Expanding nuclear power will multiply the problems with proliferation throughout the world.
We should also consider the potential to use nuclear materials and wastes as terrorist weapons. In both cases, the possibility of an incident increases as nuclear technology spreads.
A cheaper and more effective alternative to an investment in uranium/nuclear is to invest in an energy path based on a mix of sustainable options. The most promising approach, especially in the short term, is a systematic plan to improve energy efficiency.
This can be accompanied by the development of a wide range of small, benign, affordable, socially acceptable, and renewable energy alternatives such as co-generation, wind, solar, and biomass conversion. Recently, SaskPower has found that new energy requirements can be met with natural gas, co-generation and wind power electrical production. It is also experimenting with options such as the gasification of wood wastes to produce electricity.
Energy efficiency has a lot of untapped potential here. In the residential area, for example, the Saskatchewan Research Council is currently undertaking a project to build a Factor 9 House, which will reduce energy use by 90% compared to a conventional house. Green commercial buildings are cutting energy use by 30-40%. Compact florescent light bulbs reduce energy use by 75% without compromising lighting. Deploying these options pushes back the time when new power facilities will be required. It may be that nuclear power will one day be affordable, reliable, and safe. If and when the issues are worked out, it could prove a welcome addition to the world's power options.