Thirty Years After
March 28, 2009, marks the 30th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island. For those too young to remember, an incident at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middleton, Pennsylvania resulted in the first case of melted fuel in a full-scale commercial nuclear power plant. Although there were no immediate deaths or injuries, the accident triggered major changes in how nuclear power plants are monitored and regulated. More importantly, TMI caused many countries to rethink their growing dependence on nuclear power. It’s worth noting that there has been no nuclear power plants built in the U.S. or Canada since the TMI accident.
The TMI anniversary comes at a very critical time in our history. Climate change has become the bogyman in the closet. As a result, technologies once deemed too dangerous or two expensive are back on the table as an alternative to “anything but” energy sources that produce greenhouse gases.
Specifically, global concerns over the very real threat of climate change have sparked a renewed interest in nuclear power. President Obama has stated that it is unlikely that the U.S. will be able to reach its climate goals without nuclear power.
North of the 49th, Federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is promoting the idea of constructing a nuclear power plant to assist in Alberta’s oil sands production.
In Ontario, the recently unveiled Green Energy Act is focused primarily on the development of renewable energy. However, new nuclear construction is also part of the province’s proposed energy mix. If all goes according to plan, construction on two new reactors at Darlington will begin as soon as 2010.
Here’s the Catch 22. Using nuclear power for meet our base requirements for electricity assumes that the system also has ready access to rapid-fire generation when demand peaks. The key word here is fire. Fossil fuel plants generate power for peak demand, and the most effective of these plants are coal-fired.
The other issue is how we measure the full scope of the nuclear power chain. While nuclear power plants don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, the mining and production of nuclear fuel is very carbon intensive. From extraction, to processing and refining, the creation of nuclear fuel bundles requires large amounts of energy. Once created, nuclear fuel must also be transported using fossil fuels.
With so much at stake, it’s time for some very sober debate.
“Nuclear power creates more problems that it solves,” said Dr. David Suzuki in the preface to Green Power: Today’s Choice for Ontario’s Future. “Not only does it create waste that pollutes the Earth for thousands of years, but it also divest attention and investment capital away from a renewable energy infrastructure.”
According to Jack Gibbons, from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA), Ontario is at a crossroads. The province has committed to shutting down all of the province’s dirty coal generating stations by 2014. In addition, most of Ontario’s nuclear reactors will reach the end of their lives within the next 15 years.
“As a result, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to rebuild our electric power system from the ground up,” said Gibbons. “I’m an economist and I’ve crunched the numbers. The good news is that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the lowest cost options to meet our electricity needs.”
However, he says that Ontario’s energy planners have missed the mark when it comes to the cost estimates associated with new nuclear construction.
“Their cost estimates are less than half those of the experts at Moody’s Investors Service,” said Gibbons, “And we are all on the hook for nuclear's runaway costs, paying a nuclear debt surcharge on every kilowatt of electricity we use.”
As the saying goes, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps that’s why we celebrate anniversaries. They remind us of major milestones – both good and bad – and provide us with an opportunity to choose a new and better future.
(photos: Top - Members of Durham Nuclear Awareness at the gates of the low-level radioactive waste dump at Port Granby. Lower - burying the time capsule at the gates of Darlington in 1989 to mark the start up of the first reactor.)
Ontario’s Green Future is advocating a sustainable, affordable, responsible energy plane for Ontario. Check out www.ontariosgreenfuture.ca.
Green Power: Today’s Choice for Ontario’s Future is available for download from the David Suzuki Foundation website at www.davidsuzuki.org.
For more on the history of Three Mile Island and resulting changes to the regulation of nuclear power in the U.S., visit www.nrc.gov.
For an interesting and balanced third party look at nuclear power, visit www.nucleartourist.com.