Positive Energy

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Nuclear Energy Debate

The discussion of nuclear energy in Canada is complicated by everyone's strongly held views. The distrust, fear, and dislike that people have for the nuclear energy industry is pretty clear. I was a member of this distrusting constituency until I took a closer look. After a couple of years of investigation I now believe that the nuclear energy industry can provide important benefits to Canada and the world. The impression that this industry is dangerous and harmful is just not borne out by the cold hard facts. Even so, this negative impression persists on a global basis. So the interesting question here is how can an idea that is detrimental to our interests and not supported by the available information persist so vigorously?

Public thinking about this topic begins with nuclear fission weapons. All over the world people fear the use of these weapons. At the same time governments are acquiring them for their deterrence value. The military secrecy and disinformation campaigns associated with these political initiatives makes everyone doubtful and suspicious. The discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are two distinct debates, but they are linked in the public mind. This is particularly important for the Canadian CANDU reactor which is non-militaristic. If we separate the discussion into two debates - military weapons and public energy - the energy topic becomes a lot easier to deal with.

A book that treats the whole range of issues as one area of concern is:

"No Immediate Danger?"
by Dr. Rosalie Bertell
ISBN 0-88961-092-4

You may be able to find this book here:


Another factor that makes this debate difficult is our approach to ethics, corporations, money, and information. We use corporations to direct large scale operations such as uranium mining and electricity production. These corporations are entitled to the degree of privacy thought necessary for competition. However, in other industries we have recently seen these rules manipulated by dishonest individuals for private gain. This has really poisoned the whole discussion. So now, if you are employed by a firm and have something good to say about it everyone discounts your comments out of hand. If you are not employed by a firm and have something good to say about it everyone assumes you are secretly on the take. And if you are not employed by a firm and have lots to say that is negative everyone assumes that it is true based on these bad experiences elsewhere. It may turn out that humans do not have the moral stamina and intellectual sharpness needed to run a technologically based society. I must admit that it is worrying to see the degree to which science and rational thought are being displaced by fundamentalist dogma around the world. If it does turn out the humans cannot manage technology then the confusion that persists in the nuclear energy debate will be one of the high profile indicators of this failing.

I take the position that Canadians are honest enough and smart enough to engineer solutions which benefit the public. This includes pressure groups, independent investigations, government authorized regulators, shareholder class action suits, and every other kind of oversight to keep the industry on track and working for the public good. Such vigilance is needed to keep people aware of the thoroughness and quality needed for long term public benefit. However, if these counter forces get off track, leading to the reduction or end of the nuclear energy industry, then we all lose.

A web article that describes one person's ethical position concerning nuclear energy is:

The Ethics of Nuclear Energy

Previous debates about nuclear energy in Canada have involved people with very strongly held views, often in situations that created tension and led to shouting instead of talking. The pro-nuclear experts listed their unassailable conclusions, based on mountains of complicated facts, convincing everyone that everything was fine. Then we found out later that everything was not fine, and people felt cheated and duped. The problem here is that we are dealing with new things, and our understanding changes daily. Expert assessment that is correct today based on what we know today has to be modified tomorrow. This learning process has not always been academic and benign - there are examples such as Port Radium where a very high cancer rate has been associated with the handling of radium ore. But I would argue that the lessons are being learned. With today's radiation detectors, robotic equipment, waste handling procedures, and public scrutiny we are in a position to run a nuclear energy industry safely and efficiently. There will still be improvements, but the safety record in our nuclear industry can be exemplary, especially when compared with the alternatives such as coal mining and oil extraction.

The background information about Port Radium is listed here:

Impacts of Uranium Mining at Port Radium, NWT, Canada

The learning that is taking place affects more than our understanding of nuclear reactions. Mining, the process of getting the uranium out of the ground, is difficult. The way in which it is being done is improving, but often as a result of extreme pressure from interveners rather than a result of leadership from the corporations involved. Firebrands, such as Maisie Shiell, have been instrumental in establishing the proper handling of ore processing tailings.

Maisie Shiell

Issues with mine tailings are not restricted to uranium mining. In general mining is a messy business and the track record of our mining corporations has not always been admirable, as documented at:

Mining Watch Canada

So it seems that we cannot be complacent about the nuclear energy industry, or any other corporation based industry, when it comes to the handling of dangerous materials and where short cuts may yield a short term advantage. One can take the position that we have to shut down all mining because of this, or one can take the position that we have to be involved in the situation to minimize the problems. I support the second approach. In particular, given the alternatives of coal or uranium, the choice seems clear. Uranium requires fewer mines, causes less environmental destruction, leads to fewer miner deaths, and does not dump any carbon dioxide into the air. So we have to learn how to mine it safely, we have to improve our approach as we go, and we have to realize that our involvement in criticizing the industry is an act meant to improve the industry, not eliminate it.

The nuclear energy debate is continuing. People are dug into their set positions, yelling at each other across the barriers. The persistence of this "meme", this idea that nuclear energy is detrimental, is an intriguing phenomena. I have given my view here about why this is so. Others have also written about this. A good discussion can be found at:

When Memes Collide


The Impotence of Being Earnest

However, things are not static. One by one people are sizing up all the costs and benefits, looking at the alternatives, and coming to the correct conclusion. This is difficult for some because it entails the reversal of opinions that have been staunchly defended for a long time. One of the significant leaders who has signaled that a change is necessary is James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis. An outline of his position can be seen at:

Nuclear power is the only green solution


I believe that nuclear energy can be produced in Canada in a manner that greatly benefits the public. By promoting this idea I am not claiming that the nuclear industry is without fault. There are problems, there is a need for public scrutiny, and things can be improved both economically and technically. However, if Canadians decide to bypass the benefits of nuclear energy because of these problems then I am convinced that this will be a big mistake. We will pay dearly in terms of jobs and economic position, in terms of the environment related to global warming, and in terms of rational objectivity by allowing the irrational to determine our future.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Are We Safe Yet?

There is no question about the safety of CANDU reactors in operation. And we know how to store the nuclear fuel that has been used once. So the nuclear energy cycle is exceptionally clean and safe from the operational stage on. But what about the earlier stages of this process, the mining and refining steps? There are lots of handling, moving, processing, and storing tasks involved. How safe are these activities?

The first fact needed to understand this situation is that uranium itself is not dangerous. The mining and refining process extracts it as uranium oxide, a yellow powder. It is stored in 200 litre drums. If you stand beside one of these drums the radiation rate is about half that received from cosmic rays when you fly in a commercial airplane. So once we get away from the mine with the product things are OK. Some basic precautions are reasonable when handling this material, but the issues are manageable.

This leaves the mine itself as a point of concern. Some Canadian mines have exceptionally high grade ore. It contains a lot of uranium, and a lot of other elements that are dangerous such as radium and radon. In these mines robotic equipment is used to minimize the exposure of humans. Canada has not had any cases of radiation illness among its miners, so in this sense we seem to be doing a good job.

However, there are concerns about mine tailings, the stuff left behind after the uranium has been extracted. This waste material contains everything that is not uranium in the ore. When it was in the ground the uranium was decaying, as uranium does, leisurely breaking down into radium, radon, lead, and other elements. These byproducts could not go anywhere, and the ore has been there for a long time, so there is quite a build up associated with the uranium. These byproducts are dangerously radioactive. This is the stuff left behind when the uranium is extracted. It makes the tailings measurably radioactive. So the tailings from uranium mines need to be handled with care.

Uranium mines in Canada must be returned to a natural state when the ore is exhausted. In this natural state the radioactivity at the mine site must be the same as the general background radioactivity in that area. This is feasible, but takes some careful work to do it right. For this reason every mine has a bond posted that will provide enough money to do the clean up chores after the mine shuts down. Canadian mines are well regulated in this sense - provisions have been made up front for site restoration.

The tailings have to be stored while the mine is in use. We don't want people camping on them, and we don't want water washing through and spreading the solid material into unprotected areas. The tailing dumps are usually a controlled low area, sometimes a valley with a human-built dam at one end. Water is not allowed to run off. The water can evaporate, since this leaves the heavy products behind. When the mine stops operating the tailings can be put back into the mine itself, or covered where they sit with enough clay and rock to lower the radiation level to the background level. These closed sites then need annual monitoring to ensure that leaks have not begun.

Note that the overall radioactivity in an area is not increased by mining. The radioactive elements left in the tailings are just those that were there originally. If they are covered or put back into the mine there is no net change in the area.

My impression is that the nuclear power cycle can be run in a clean and safe manner. Instead of hundreds of mines extracting coal we have six mines extracting uranium. Just by being a lot smaller it is a lot safer. Instead of flooding thousands and thousands of hectares to dam rivers to a height sufficient for hydrodynamic electricity, we have a few tailing areas to manage. This is a much less destructive and safer process. Instead of floating thousands of tankers on the ocean with a certain percentage of them rupturing every year, we have a few trucks hauling a harmless yellow powder around. In total, the safety advantages of the nuclear energy cycle are compelling.



Uranium Mining Wastes

Include Radionuclides in CEPA list

Tuesday, May 18, 2004


Canada must begin the immediate construction of new CANDU reactors at the maximum rate that the nation can afford until we have eliminated the use of oil, gas, and coal. This includes the industrial sector, transportation (no more gasoline powered cars), home heating and cooling, and electricity.

Why do we have to do this?


(1) The Canadian worker needs a large supply of energy to remain competitive in a global economy. We live in a cold and a hot country - basic heating and cooling are needed to keep workers effective. We depend on machines and automation for construction and fabrication in a manner that allows our workers to receive a high wage. We live in a large country that requires extensive transportation. We have to move things around a lot so we can eat and dress appropriately. We have to move people to maintain family and cultural bonds. So even if we conserve and optimize, a Canadian future that includes a high living standard is a future that uses a lot of energy. We have to plan for an energetic future.

(2) Global warming is happening. Rapid global warming will cause massive death events (flooding of Bangladesh), wars (control of Iraqi oil), food shortages, and social disruption. Recent scenarios outlined by the US military have portrayed a grim future if environmental catastrophes overwhelm our political arrangements. Other changes are certain: the death of all coral reefs, the extinction of polar bears, extensive forest fires. We can't stop this process, but we have an intellectual obligation to stop contributing to it. We have to stop the dumping of industrial waste carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

(3) The primary human factor contributing to global warming is the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This insidious practice is worse than over fishing the cod stocks in Newfoundland, is worse than clear cutting the forests in BC, is worse than the destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs. It is the dirtiest and most offensive form of industrial pollution. It has to stop.

(4) The fastest way to replace oil, gas, and coal is to build CANDU nuclear reactors. The CANDU technology releases no carbon dioxide, none at all.

(5) This transition will also improve safety. Every year Canadians die in coal mines, are burned in natural gas explosions, and are poisoned in their homes by carbon monoxide from oil burning furnaces. During this same period there have been no injuries caused by CANDU reactors, and comparatively few deaths and illnesses in uranium mines. We need to switch to this much safer technology.

(6) The CANDU technology is an entirely Canadian product. I view it as an engineering marvel equivalent to the Avro Arrow. It is efficient, safe, cheap, and non-militaristic. This is the time, right now, to promote it and gain the advantages that it can deliver to our economy. We can make our workers productive based on clean, plentiful energy, and we can sell CANDU reactors to other places with all the ensuing trade benefits. The moment to act is now.

(7) The changes in the ground transportation sector are manageable. All roads, train tracks, canals, bus routes, etc. can stay as they are. The vehicles used on these routes have to convert to electric engines. For example, fuel cell engines that use zinc as the fuel would be clean, safe, and quiet. Zinc can be put in vehicles and oxidized there yielding electricity that will move the vehicle. The zinc oxide can then be returned to the fueling center where electricity is used to convert it back to pure zinc. This electricity comes from the CANDU reactors. Note that hydrogen cannot be used - it is too dangerous. Also note that electric power for air transportation is not feasible - the only improvement here would be to travel less by air.

That summarizes the argument. It is clear, simple, and feasible.


The Case for Nuclear Power in Ontario


"Defusing the Global Warming Time Bomb"
James Hansen
Scientific American, March, 2004

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Gasoline - Still Too Cheap

The price of gasoline is high now, staying high, and may get higher. We can do something about it, but we don't want to.

Gasoline prices wobble up and down, causing all sorts of consternation that sells newspapers. People are filling up and driving off without paying as an act of defiance. There are better ways to do this.

Gasoline is a minor expense item for a conventional household - about $2000 per car. Restaurants and movies cost twice as much, while rent or home ownership costs five times as much. The car receiving the gas depreciates by this amount, $2000, every year. So if you really want to be concerned about your expenses you won't put gasoline at the top of your reform list.

Gasoline is too cheap to begin with, which causes waste. The cost is low because ships can deliver oil all over the world without any concerns about piracy. The US Navy keeps the sea lanes open, at a cost that is not fully reflected in gasoline's price. The cost is low because we do not account for pollution. We pay for gasoline with itching eyes during smog alerts, and with shorter lives. The cost is low because we do not tax gasoline enough. The European approach indicates that higher gasoline taxes will be tolerated, but we don't like to tax the rich people who own cars. And the cost is low because oil is sold too cheaply. Keeping the price of oil low makes a few people rich, and makes the consideration of alternatives appear too expensive, which preserves the current social structure. All these factors are subject to change, in fact very rapid change, which can lead to improvements in our way of life. So it is possible to view gasoline prices as too low now, and the coming increases as an indicator of progress.

The gasoline consumer can react to these higher prices in various ways - the most obvious being car-pooling for going to work. This will reduce your gasoline expenses by forty percent, saving more than the recent price increases have cost. So the price increase could be an event that increases your wealth. The difficulty here is the social adjustment involved - schedule coordination, music selection, rekindling the art of conversation, being affected by other people's issues. It would be a big change, though I would argue a positive one.

And with a slightly longer term view, knowing that gasoline prices are heading in one direction, you can switch over to an electric car. Much cleaner to run, simpler to maintain, and more interesting to own. You will have lots to talk about during that drive to work.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Positive Energy

OK - this will be a discussion about energy - how we make it, use it, and live with the results. I want to promote an understanding of this issue that supports human life and the advance of knowledge. I want to focus the data available so that readers will have the information needed to make good choices. Objective, fact based, independent thinking will be the knife that cuts this pudding. Let the feast begin...