Friday, January 26, 2007

Nuclear Future

After more than a quarter of a century since the last nuclear generating station was commissioned in Canada, nuclear power is poised for a remarkable comeback. Until very recently, cost overruns, poor performance, and the irresolvable problem of waste disposal had shelved any new nuclear construction. But thanks to concern over climate change, our seemingly insatiable need for electricity, and our aging generating capacity, nuclear power is set to become our once and future source of electricity.

In Ontario, the McGuinty government has committed over $ 40 billion for new nuclear construction and the refurbishment of the province's existing fleet of aging reactors. In Alberta, the oil industry is promoting the construction of a nuclear power plant to replace natural gas in the processing of Fort McMurray's oil rich tar sands. Ironically, the McMurray reactor would boost the production of oil, a primary source of greenhouse gases.

All this nuclear buzz has prompted The Ethical Funds Company, Canada's leading manager of socially responsible funds, to review its position against investing in nuclear power. Twenty years ago, the company decided to exclude companies involved in uranium mining and nuclear power from its family of mutual funds. The company review was triggered by the "profound environmental, social and economic threats posed by climate change."

"We were motivated to conduct this review by recent claims that nuclear power can serve as a primary strategy for fighting climate change," said company Vice President Bob Walker. "In our view, these claims do not take into account the significant environmental, social and political challenges and risks associated with nuclear power."

The report, One is Too Many: Considering Nuclear in a Time of Climate Change, was based on sound scientific data compiled by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in its 2003 study, The Future of Nuclear Power. While the MIT data was chosen because the Institute and its researchers are not directly tied to the nuclear industry, the report was based on a pro-nuclear assumption. According to the study's introduction, "Nuclear technology represents an important option for the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants."

Despite its seemingly pro-nuclear bias, the data presented in the MIT study was sufficient for The Ethical Funds Company's to decide to continue excluding nuclear industries from its investment portfolios. This decision was based on five key issues.

Firstly, nuclear is financially unsustainable in an open electricity market. "Cost analysis indicates that despite decades of government support - and in the absence of future subsidies - nuclear power cannot compete with coal, natural gas or some renewable sources of electricity."

Secondly, while the actual risk of a serious nuclear accident is very low, the resulting devastation would catastrophic. Using the MIT data, an expanded industry could anticipate as many as four nuclear "core" damage incidents by mid-century. The report concludes, "One accident, in our view, would be unacceptable."

The third - and perhaps most profound - argument against nuclear expansion is the problem of waste disposal, which has yet to be resolved after decades of debate. Earlier this week, Stephane Dion did an about face on the federal Liberals decades long support of nuclear power. In a speech to the Economic Club and the Toronto Board of Trade the Liberal leader said,

"As long as I have not received a convincing strategy for the waste, I am not able to look Canadians in the eye and say, 'I'm comfortable with the waste,' I will not recommend it."

The fourth argument against nuclear power is its link to nuclear weapons. Simply put, you cannot develop nuclear weapons without access to the nuclear fuel chain. The report concluded that this is a risk that society and future generations should not be asked to bear.

Finally, there is no single magic bullet, whether it is nuclear or any other technology. What we need is a multi-faceted approach that includes conservation, renewable energy sources, and carbon capture and storage.

"There are technically achievable, more sustainable and less risky options for fighting climate change," said Walker. "Massive investment in nuclear power could divert resources from these options and leave us with environmental and social challenges for our children and grandchildren to clean up. All these factors continue to make nuclear power as unacceptable to us now, as it was 20 years ago."


The report, One is Too Many: Considering Nuclear in a Time of Climate Change, is available on The Ethical Funds Company . Follow the Features link to Sustainability Perspectives.

The Future of Nuclear Power, an Interdisciplinary MIT Study, can be downloaded from the MIT website.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coal or nuclear. Thats the choice. Alternatives clamor for attention, but only coal or nuclear are in the game.


January 29, 2007 9:28 PM  

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