Friday, November 11, 2005

Getting Clear About Nuclear

Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) recently released its final study, "Choosing a Way Forward." The 451-page document is the culmination of three years work, and represents this country's latest attempt at finding a long-term management solution for our stockpile of used nuclear fuel.

The NWMO's solution is a hybrid of previous recommendations. As its name suggests, Adaptive Phased Management (APM) will involve short-term storage at existing nuclear power plants, followed by an optional centralized above ground facility, and finally deep rock burial in a centralized vault. The NWMO recommendations come almost 30 years after Canada began searching for a site in earnest, and they carry a price tag of an estimated $ 24 billion.

If the federal government approves the plan, The NWMO will then become the implementing body, and commence the long road towards receiving regulatory approval. There's no hurry. If the feds approves Adaptive Phase Management, the NWMO estimates that it will take at least 30 years to begin the burial process, while monitoring will, "continue in perpetuity, based on a 300-year cycle."

The release of the NWMO study comes at a critical juncture for Canada's nuclear industry. The federal government recently tabled supplementary spending estimates which included a $ 60 million infusion of cash for Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. (AECL) for its work on the so-called "next generation", the Advanced Candu Reactor (ACR.) This is despite the fact that that AECL hasn't has a domestic reactor sale in over 30 years.

Meanwhile, increasing concerns about global warming and the health effects of smog have forced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to phase out coal generation. With the province's increasing energy demands pushing existing supply to its limits, the Ontario Power Authority's 20-year plan, which will be presented to the McGuinty government in December, is expected to include new nuclear facilities.

To top things off, there's the totally annoying ad campaign sponsored by the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA). For those lucky enough to have missed the ads, they feature the word "Nuclear" floating on a bed of fluffy clouds, in a smog free blue sky. As the letters in the word "Nuclear" are rearranged to spell words like "Clear", "Unclear" and "Clean", a voice over provides statements to help viewers "get clear about nuclear power."

Statement 1: Nuclear energy is clean.

Misleading. While nuclear energy doesn't directly create smog or greenhouse gases, it does produce deadly radioactive waste and hazardous emissions. In addition, nuclear power provides a base load of electricity during non-peak periods. In order to meet peak demand, it's also necessary to have a source of electricity that can be accessed quickly. Fossil fuel plants, the ones that do produce smog and greenhouse gases, are the primary way to meet this demand.

Statement 2: Nuclear fuel is managed in a safe, environmentally responsible way.

Again, misleading. The NWMO report makes it perfectly clear that nuclear waste has created a very big problem. According to the NWMO, we currently have accumulated almost two million used fuel bundles, or 36 thousand tonnes of uranium, which will remain deadly for at least one million years. While we can use our best available technology to manage this stuff, no one can guarantee that it will remain safe.

Statement 3: Nuclear energy provides dependable electricity that you can count on any time, all the time.

This one is false. By 1997, Ontario Hydro made the decision to shutdown eight of its 20 reactors because of poor performance and safety problems. Two reactors at Pickering have since been permanently shut down, while repairs on the remaining reactors have costs billions (see Statement 4).

Statement 4: Nuclear energy is an economical energy source.

Wrong again. Despite the fact that nuclear power once promised to provide, "power too cheap to meter", the cost of nuclear power, for both construction and maintenance, has created a crushing debt load for Ontario ratepayers. At the time that it was dismantled, the former Ontario Hydro left Ontarians with a stranded debt of $ 23.5 billion (which we continue to pay for every month on our hydro bills.) The bulk of this debt was due to cost overuns at nuclear power plants. Darlington, for example, which was estimated to cost a mere $ 3.95 billion in 1978, eventually cost $ 14.4 billion.

The hemorrhaging of cash doesn't stop there. Refurbishments at Pickering A, units 4 and 1, have cost $ 2.5 billion to date. In addition, the McGuinty government recently approved an additional $ 4.25 billion for rebuilding all four reactors at Bruce A.

Cheap? I don't think so. Reliable? Despite the nuclear industry's best efforts, you can't rewrite history. Clean? Just because its emissions are invisible, doesn't mean that they aren't harmful. And finally, there's the question of disposing of spent fuel, which according to the NWMO, will take at least a million years to answer in earnest. I hope that's perfectly clear.


Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Greenpeace Canada

Canadian Nuclear Association


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