“Fukushima reminded the world that nuclear reactors are inherently risky,” said Greenpeace Canada nuclear analyst Shawn-Patrick Stensil. “That’s why Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Japan are all abandoning nuclear power since Fukushima.”
With the recent announcement by Quebec’s governing party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), that it will be scrapping a $4.3 billion dollar project aimed at refurbishing the province’s lone nuclear reactor, Gentilly-2, and instead spending $1.8 billion to dismantle the plant, Quebec is falling in line with increasingly popular nuclear decommissioning practices.
“Like all other CANDU [CANada Deuterium Uranium] reactor operators,” continued Stensil, “Hydro-Quebec realized about fifteen years ago that it would have to close Gentilly-2 unless it underwent massive repairs to continue operating;” repairs deemed hazardous and expensive.
“We have to take lessons learned by extra costs … during the refit of Point Lepreau, in New Brunswick … and the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe,” justified Quebec Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet at a news conference covered by the Toronto Sun.
The Point Lepreau generating station referred to by Minister Oullet was the first of Canada’s CANDU-6 nuclear reactors to be refurbished. An overhauling which was supposed to take 18 months, has faced three years of delays, is over budget by an estimated $1 billion dollars, and the reactor has yet to reestablish operating capacities.
Moreover, in late 2011, due to the continued preparations to finally reopen the plant, two radioactive spills took place, the first involving up to 6 liters of heavy water splashing onto the facility floor, causing an facility-wide evacuation, the second being the release of 23 barrels of water laced with the toxic chemical hydrazine in the Bay of Fundy.
In the 2011 Global Status Report on renewable energy, Canada was ranked as having the third highest renewable power capacities in the world, and while nuclear phase outs take some time- Japan and Germany will not be completely nuclear-free until 2030, it seems that Canada does have the resources to make such a transition possible.
Due to the high costs of refitting aging reactors, uneasiness regarding the environmental risks, and high renewable resource capabilities, Canada is at a nuclear crossroads of sorts. And since Canada produces 20 per cent of the world’s uranium, an essential component in nuclear fusion, its nuclear policy decisions are poised to have far-reaching affects on the global nuclear industry.
Nuclear power’s ‘environmental energy realism’
Nuclear power has been a commercial commodity in Canada since the early 1960s. Even with New Brunswick’s Point Lepreau’s economic and environmental setbacks and Quebec’s Gentilly-2 decommissioning, there are still three active plants in Canada, all in Ontario, which presently account for 15 per cent of Canada’s total energy needs.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), understanding the value of nuclear power requires “realism about energy,” in that “clean electricity from ‘new renewables’ –solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power deserves strong support. But the collective capacity of these technologies to produce electricity in the decades ahead is limited.”
Similarly to hydro, wind and solar energy, nuclear power is able to generate electricity free of any greenhouse gas emissions. “The critical difference,” from the viewpoint of the WNA, “is that nuclear energy is the only proven option with the capacity to produce vastly expanded supplies of clean electricity on a global scale.”
Therefore, advocates of nuclear power believe that when combined with “new renewables,” it makes up clean and comprehensive energy strategy. Research by the WNA goes as far as to contend that the use of nuclear power as opposed to fossil fuels “avoids the emission of over two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.”
Issues of radiation, waste and safeguards are also considerations of nuclear realism. The WNA posits that while radiation produced within the core of nuclear reactors is similar, but slightly more “intense” than natural, radiation exposure is negligible due to shielding within nuclear facilities, allowing people to live nearby without any adverse effects.
Moreover, using a combination of geological and “multiply engineered barriers,” the WNA’s “radiation scientists, geologists and engineers have produced detailed plans for safe underground storage of nuclear waste,” as well as power plants designed to safe-guard “against a release of radioactivity even in an improbably worst-case scenario.”
Fukushima and the end of a nuclear paradigm
Fukushima’s disaster has been rather discrediting to WNA’s theories of nuclear realism, shattering illusions of nuclear stability constructed by the nuclear industrial lobbies both in Canada, and in the other 29 countries currently operating nuclear power plants.
According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-2011, “on March 11, 2011, triggered by the largest earthquake in the nation’s history, a nuclear catastrophe of yet unknown proportions started unfolding in the world’s preeminent high-tech country: Japan… casting doubt whether even an advanced economy can master nuclear safety.”
“The Fukushima Daiichi disaster has proven that the nuclear industry’s theory of nuclear safety is false,” argued Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president in Greenpeace International’s February 2012 report entitled Lessons From Fukushima.
“We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power,” said analysts at the Swiss Investment Bank UBS in their assessment of a likely global impact of the tragic developments on Japan’s east coast.
“One lesson, which can be learned again and again from nuclear accidents is: The nuclear industry’s risk assessments fail to take institutional failures into account, while human and institutional behavior are the principal contributor to reactor accidents,” Gundersen continued.
Human and institutional behavior has been attributed in large part to the three largest reactor accidents in history, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima.
Fukushima has led to “the end of the nuclear safety paradigm,” suggests Greenpeace’s Lessons From Fukushima. “Nuclear safety does not exist in reality. There are only nuclear risks, inherent to every reactor, and these risks are unpredictable. In fact, an observed frequency based on experience is higher: a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once every decade.”
On average “about 85,000 tons of heavy metal spent nuclear fuel are discharged every year from nuclear power plants,” according to Nuclear Nonsense:
Why Nuclear Power is No Answer to Climate Change, a report co-authored by Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool and Dr. Christopher Cooper.
What follows are some forms that nuclear discharge can take. High-level nuclear waste, while only 3 per cent of total waste, makes up 95 per cent of all radioactive materials and will take at least 10,000 years before it reaches levels safe enough for human exposure. Uranium tailings, discharged from mines and mills, consists of the radioactive materials created during uranium extraction processes. Radioactive isotopes, an airborne radiation discharge, regularly enters the atmosphere small amounts during plant operation.
Finally, the greatest nuclear discharge comes from the catastrophic consequences that follow any large nuclear accident. For example, while research is still ongoing, the ocean surface surrounding the Fukushima site has been measured to have radiation properties approximately 365 times higher than the natural level safe for human exposure.
Moreover, according to Sovacool and Cooper, “reprocessing and enriching uranium requires a substantial amount of electricity, often generated from fossil fuel-fired power plants, and uranium milling, mining, leeching, plant construction, and decommissioning all produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gas.”
“We want to ensure Canadian environmental protection laws are respected before the Ontario government can proceed with new reactors,” said Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) Executive Director Theresa McClenaghan in a media release.
“No shovel should go into the ground until the need for, alternatives to, and environmental effects of new reactors are fully considered with meaningful public participation.”
With Quebec’s decommissioning, New Brunswick’s environmental and economic mishaps, and the CELA’s above-cited petitioning of the Ontario Power Generation’s overhaul of aging reactors in exchange for exploring greener technologies, the future of Canadian nuclear power in the post-Fukushima era remains uncertain.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently gauging whether public support is behind costly overhauls to Canada’s remaining nuclear facilities, or if Canada’s nuclear program should go the way of Germany and Japan and be decommissioned altogether.
Sovacool and Cooper argue that nuclear power is not the solution to the environmental concerns of a post-Kyoto world because nuclear reactors are still prone to environmental problems including “significant lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and irresolvable problems with reactor safety, [and] waste storage.”
Alternatively, Sovacool and Cooper contend that “renewable power technologies have environmental benefits because they create power without relying on the extraction of uranium and its associated digging, drilling, mining, transporting, enrichment, and storage. As a result, renewable energy technologies provide a much greater potential for substantial carbon emissions reductions than significant investments in new nuclear power generation.”
According to the 2009 Annual Review of Environment and Resources by Princeton University’s M.V. Ramana, nuclear power is by no means a guarantee of emissions reduction because “nuclear power tends to require and promote supply-oriented energy policies and energy-intensive development paths, a paradigm that drives climate change.”
“Societies organized in a fashion consistent with these demands will unavoidably increase fossil fuel use alongside the expanded use of nuclear power,” Ramana continues. “It is not possible to simultaneously support centralized generation and expect the growth of a large-scale decentralized and renewable electricity generation system that many see as neccessary to combat climate change.”