Positive Energy

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Thursday September 14, 2000

On September 14, 2000 a group of Canadian environmentalists published a news release on the web:


The document is signed by several people giving their names and affiliations, so I assume that it still represents their beliefs. I read this document for the first time a few weeks ago (around 2004 October) and smiled. If I had read it in 2000 I probably would have agreed with every statement, and cheered the writers on. However, now I know better. A while ago I decided to learn everything that I could about energy use in our society. I wanted to give people good advice about their energy choices. At the time I thought I would end up telling people about hydrogen and wind mills. Boy, did I get a shock! I found out that wind mills are weak, that hydrogen is difficult to transport and dangerous [see hydrogen for details], and that CANDU power is the cleanest, safest, and most reliable energy source available. I just was not prepared for this and it has taken me some time to adjust to my new role as a CANDU proponent. So a word of caution for all - be ready for big changes when you seek the truth.

I thought it would be interesting to analyze this news release document, explaining how I see things now. This analysis follows. I have quoted some of the key sentences from the news release with my viewpoint shown below. What a difference a bit of studying makes!

Quote: "Despite massive subsidies, the Canadian government's crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), has been floundering in its attempts to sell CANDU reactors."

My view: This statement implies that AECL is wasting a lot of Government money. I don't see it that way. The funded research at AECL has produced the CANDU reactor, an example of Canadian engineering excellence that rivals the Avro Arrow. The investment has been modest compared to military spending, for example, and has paid us all back handsomely. Canada has spent one-tenth as much as the US, and one tenth as much as Europe, to develop a uniquely Canadian design that is now viewed on a world scale as the best approach for using nuclear energy safely. Thousands of jobs have been created associated with CANDU reactor use in Canada and abroad, lots of inexpensive electricity has been generated making the Canadian economy stronger as a result of improved productivity, and a feasible response to the global warming crises has been proven. This just might make it possible for civilized life to continue. In my books, the investment has been a life saver. I, for one, am very thankful that it has worked out so well.

Quote: "
Nuclear power has entered a period of sustained decline for a number of reasons: its high cost, the threat of catastrophic accidents, the inherent connection to nuclear weapons proliferation, and environmental problems such as routine radioactive emissions and long-term radioactive waste management."

My view: Well, to start with, nuclear power is not expensive. See:

Levelised Unit Electricity Cost Comparison of Alternate Technologies for Baseload Generation in Ontario

This report shows that the costs are:
  • Current technology CANDU (Candu 6) = 0.06344 $/kWh
  • New technology CANDU (ACR-700) = 0.05306 $/kWh
  • Gas = 0.07285 $/kWh
  • Coal = 0.04772 $/kWh
This report was written before the recent doubling of oil prices.

The life cycle cost of nuclear power is about the same as the cost of oil generated power when the carbon dioxide pollution from oil is ignored. What cost do we associate with carbon dioxide caused global warming that will destroy civilization and perhaps all mammalian life? Oil always gets a big break in these cost comparisons. In contrast the nuclear power costs include levies for decommissioning and site restoration, and long term used fuel management. These issues are addressed up front. So, for one technology we account for everything, and for the other we ignore a world destroying problem, and then we state that the second one is cheaper. Well, I value civilized life at a price slightly above zero, so I see nuclear power as inexpensive when I make this comparison. You could even call them similar and still be on solid ground, but baldly stating that nuclear power is expensive just shows that you have not done your arithmetic or you are lying.

The threat of catastophic accidents is another fiction. There is no such threat. The nuclear power industry has been in operation for forty years now. The worst accident possible took place and it was not catastrophic. 31 people died and about 250 were treated for injuries and recovered. That is not a catastrophe. Ten thousand coal miners die every year. So which industry poses a major threat - nuclear with 31 dead in forty years, or coal with 400,000 dead. People who constantly see a threat where the numbers say there isn't one are either incompetent or manipulating.

And why do environmentlists in Canada parrot the American line about an association between nuclear power and nuclear weapons? The CANDU reactor was designed to operate in a manner that has no military value. The CANDU reactor uses uranium as mined, no enrichment needed. Enrichment is the process that refines uranium into a more radioactive state as pure uranium. With enough enrichment uranium can become explosive. CANDU technology avoids all this. It takes unenriched uranium and causes it to be less usable for weapons. This is the opposite of what you want to do for military use. [For a detailed explanation see The Future of Nuclear Power.] So there may be issues about nuclear weapons and nuclear power in other countries that use other reactor technologies, but this does not apply in Canada. Again I wonder if the authors just don't know this, or are they trying to mislead me?

Routine radioactive emisssions - good grief! Coal fired electricity plants release twice as much radioactive material as do CANDU reactors, and hospitals in the middle of our cities release much more than that. So why do we only talk about radioactivity associated with reactors? And all this released radioactivity is so low that you can hardly even see it in a pie chart that breaks out the components of the natural background radioactivity that surrounds us all the time. So I don't see what the issue is here, and again I get the feeling of being manipulated. Surely the people writing this stuff know that routine emissions from CANDU reactors are insigificant. If so, why are they implying otherwise?

And the final kicker - long term radioactive waste management. The uranium oxide fuel put into a CANDU reactor is configured in a manner that causes fission to take place. This configuration supports fission for a short time, until the byproducts of the reaction build up and stop the process. This approach uses about one percent of the energy originally held in the fuel. So the used fuel taken out of a CANDU reactor still has a lot of value as an energy source. The means for reusing this fuel are known and have been demonstrated. As a result, the used fuel from a CANDU reactor is a valuable product that can be recycled to continue producing energy. The environmentalists label this valuable product as "waste" in order to cast a negative light on it. But it is not waste. It is a valuable asset. The soot and carbon dioxide that is jetting out of coal fired electricity plants and killing the planet is waste, a waste of all our hopes and dreams. When people call valuable assets "waste" I have to wonder what is going on.

Quote: "
The government of Canada has embarrassed itself internationally by being a prominent supporter of nuclear power in the CDM, along with a few other countries, notably China, France, and Japan."

My view: I think the Canadian government did the right thing here. Promoting Canadian technology that produces lots of energy at a very low cost and with no greenhouse gas pollution looks pretty good to me. And being associated with China, France, and Japan, the economic powerhouses of the future, also seems like a good move. I don't see anything in this that justifies the word "embarrassed". Standing up for what is right - namely clean energy - is something that Canada can be proud of.

Quote: "
1. The global climate change crisis is in large part due to deforestation and emissions from transport fuels. Nuclear power does not affect these problems."

My view: This quote is confusing and wrong. It is confusing because it introduces the issue of deforestation and this has nothing to do with the use of nuclear power. Of course we all know that generating electricity from uranium fission will not teach people to value forests over cattle grazing. However, we also know that replacing a coal fired electrical plant with a nuclear one will reduce the amount of soot and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and this is a step in the right direction. I am sorry that the nuclear industry cannot also correct all the problems in agriculture, but one can only do so much! On top of this the quote is wrong. Nuclear energy can reduce the amount of coal and oil burned to fuel transportation. Cars, buses, trucks, and trains can operate using electric motors that are recharged over the grid from nuclear stations. Ships can be powered with nuclear engines as we see being done in nuclear submarines. Furthermore, our homes and buildings can be heated and cooled using electricity thereby eliminating another huge source of carbon dioxide. So nuclear energy can lead to a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide, along with other safey benefits. Ten thousand miners die annually digging coal. The nuclear industry could produce as much energy without killing anyone each year. That alone is enough of a reason to switch. The environmentalist's willful refusal to recognize these benefits prolongs a great deal of pain and deprivation every day of every year in our poor world. I don't like that.

Quote: "2. Even with emission credits, nuclear power is simply too expensive to replace current fossil-fired electricity generation on any meaningful scale."

My view: Nuclear power is inexpensive. Not using nuclear power kills the planet. Which alternative would you choose?

Quote: "3. Nuclear power would simply substitute other environmental problems for emissions of greenhouse gases (risk of catastrophic accidents, routine radioactive emissions, and the still unresolved problem of long-term radioactive waste management). Nuclear power is therefore not a form of sustainable development, as mandated by the Kyoto Protocol."

My view: All these fictions were debunked above. Nuclear power using known uranium reserves can produce power at today's rate for a hundred years. And we have similar reserves of thorium for another hundred years. If we reuse the spent fuel these time frames can at least be doubled. If we don't make this change the global warming disaster will make further thought about all this moot. So I guess nuclear power does substitute one problem for another - it substitutes the problem of staying alive for the problem of evolving a new life form that can survive on a hot world.

Quote: "
4. Nuclear power carries the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and is also for that reason not a form of sustainable development."

My view: Debunked above. CANDU reactors minimize the proliferation risk down to an acceptable level, and proposals for extending this protection are being acted on.

Quote: "
Nuclear power has been promoted as a way of helping developing countries, but in reality it tightens the chains of debt, dependency and environmental degradation."

My view: China is expanding its coal mining industry. Everyone in China wants a stove, refrigerator, TV, lights, and heating. They also want cars. They will build these things whether we want them to or not. If they power them with coal everyone dies. If they power them with nuclear generated electricity there is a chance that we might live. What kind of degradation do you want: hopeless global warming caused by coal, or hopeful uranium management?

Quote: "
The high cost of nuclear power precludes investment in more appropriate forms of conservation, efficiency and renewable energy."

My view: Nuclear energy does not have a high cost. It presents us with an acceptable cost for producing energy today, and the recent studies that prove this were completed before the price of oil doubled. A tax on soot and carbon dioxide pollution would change this balance. Upgrading the safety standards of the coal industry to a level comparable to the nuclear power industry would also make a difference.

Quote: "
Nuclear power is unsafe, uneconomic, and un-sustainable. It is no solution to the global crisis of climate change."

My view: Wrong. It is safe, economical, sustainable, and a significant factor in the solution of the climate change problem when combined with forest cover protection, ocean life protection, and reduced military adventurism.