FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
To stop the global climate crisis, we need emissions-free energy more than ever – and for all its risks, atomic power seems like a necessary evil
In 2011, Gordon Dalzell, one of New Brunswick’s most prominent environmental voices, sent a letter to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. For over two decades, he and the other members of the Citizens Coalition for Clean Air pushed for air-quality accountability from industries including Irving Oil – which runs the country’s largest oil refinery two kilometres from his house in Saint John – but they spent a lot of time fighting nuclear power, too.
In the letter, Mr. Dalzell opposed renewing the license for the power plant in Point Lepreau, which today provides 30 per cent of the province’s electricity. He cited the breakdown at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan, which had happened only a few months earlier. The world had watched in horror after an earthquake and tsunami set off a chain of reactions that resulted in three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive materials.
Mr. Dalzell feared a natural disaster might cause a similar disruption, and expressed dismay that money might be spent on refurbishing the nuclear plant instead of developing renewable energy. And then, in all caps, he stated that the renewal hearing should be “amended to a decommissioning hearing” – in other words, he wanted the plant shut down for good.
Like Mr. Dalzell, I’ve long thought the risk of nuclear power – communities being exposed to radiation, either from plant accidents or waste – outweighed the benefits. I was freaked out by the idea well before HBO debuted its bleak yet curiously popular miniseries, Chernobyl, a dramatization of the April, 1986, disaster in Ukraine that remains the most infamous such incident in human history. Both the accident and the government cover-up led to public terror about nuclear power that hasn’t entirely subsided. Mr. Dalzell mentioned that meltdown in his letter, too.
In the case of Fukushima, 170,000 people within a 371-kilometre radius were evacuated, and 50,000 people still can’t go home. Many of those who have been given permission to return are too frightened to do so. Continuing decontamination will take at least 30 years, probably more. It seems like a pretty good reason not to want to increase Canada’s production of nuclear energy.
And yet, we might have no better option. The effects of climate change have become a regular part of the news cycle. In past decades, this spring’s flooding in Quebec and Ontario would have been described as once in a century; now, it’s almost expected. Last summer, a heat wave killed dozens in Montreal. Out west, people are bracing for a third consecutive summer of costly wildfires.
Some people point out that the causes of these floods and fires cannot be blamed on any one thing, yet climate scientists contend that the growing frequency of such disasters is to be expected as CO2 levels rise. And so events such as these, at home and worldwide, have caused me to wonder just how the threats posed by greenhouse gases stack up against those of nuclear power. I started to reconsider my position last fall, when my climate change anxiety evolved into a constant internal screaming, with the release of a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was focused on humanity’s time frame for honouring the 2015 Paris Agreement, and what happens if we don’t.
A reminder: 185 parties, including Canada, agreed to cut down on pumping excess carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere before the Earth’s temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above what it was in preindustrial times. The IPCC report, which was put together by 133 authors citing 6,000 scientific references, gave us a 12 year window to cut emissions enough to remain below the 1.5 degrees threshold. Or else.
We have an opportunity to limit the effects of climate change, but that requires dramatically reducing carbon emissions, starting now. Nuclear energy doesn’t create any. And so I began to wonder if it is, in fact, a reasonable solution to slowing down a warming world.
The little I knew about nuclear energy I learned in high school, more than two decades ago. I needed a refresher, and you might, too: Nuclear energy is the result of a process called fission, in which an atom is split into two. The only naturally occurring element that can sustain a nuclear reaction is uranium. It’s plentiful in Canada, mostly Saskatchewan: We export 22 per cent of the world’s supply, second only to Kazakhstan and ahead of Australia.
The allure of nuclear fission is that it creates millions of times more energy than any other fuel source, without releasing carbon dioxide into the air. The drawback? It also produces unstable nuclei that begin to decay and become radioactive. What we call nuclear “waste” is the radioactive byproducts of nuclear reactions: used uranium, as well as the machinery and other materials that have come into contact with it.
Poorly handled radioactive materials can cause burns, cardiovascular problems, and cancer. Most frightening is the possibility that the systems put in place to manage the technology might fail, as in Fukushima, allowing radiation to escape.
Such threats are why some people find it easier to embrace renewable energy – solar, wind, water, geothermal and biomass (any organic matter, like wood). But while freshly captured wind and solar energy are beginning to be cost-competitive with natural gas, it’s still prohibitively expensive to store renewable energy for when it’s cloudy outside, or the air is still.
Not to mention that renewables aren’t free of controversy. Right now, two hydro-electric dams – the proposed Site C in British Columbia and the under-construction Muskrat Falls in Labrador – are opposed by those who fear the potential effects on farmland, wildlife and Indigenous territory.
So while Canada’s renewables program is growing, it’s not the only solution to the emissions problem.
Which brings us back to nuclear.
There are four working nuclear power plants in the country: three in Ontario and one in New Brunswick, all dating back to the 1970s. Together, they produce 15 per cent of Canada’s electricity.
Overseeing Canada’s nuclear activity is a matrix of organizations. At the top of the chain is the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which regulates it all, including research facilities like those that produce isotopes used in cancer treatments. Also at the federal level is the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is in charge of disposing highly radioactive waste.
Ensuring day-to-day safety is the responsibility of staff at individual power plants. Some are run by private companies, like Ontario’s Bruce Power. Most are overseen by energy corporations in the provinces that have plants: NB Power and Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
In 2015, the panel Dr. Al was part of submitted a report to the federal Ministry of Environment that declared the Bruce peninsula a suitable DGR spot for Ontario’s low-and-intermediate level waste. That was just one step in a long, complicated approval process, one that must consider both societal and scientific concerns. Nearby communities need to be on board: in 2004, a number of municipalities near the Bruce site agreed to host the repository and began receiving money from OPG “in recognition of its role in providing a benefit to all of Ontario with a safe and lasting solution for the waste,” OPG’s Mr. Kelly said.
The annual total payout is about $1.3-million, with the majority going to the biggest municipality, Kincardine. Half the money is kept in trust, pending approval of the DGR, while half goes directly to the municipality directly.
If the repository is approved, the municipalities get the trust monies and the full annual payment as long as it’s accepting waste. If the DGR is not approved, the payments stop. And getting to that approval requires Indigenous consent.
Visiting Darlington convinced me that those who run it are doing everything they can think of to minimize risk. I also realized that trusting nuclear power is really about trusting the scientists and engineers who work with it, and the governments that oversee them. And given how often governments have hurt or deceived them, Indigenous communities can find that trust hard to come by.
In Finland, executives at Posiva, the power company building Onkalo, have admitted that their early approach was to announce plans to build the DGR, rather than to seek permission. That bulldozer approach has been the default experience for North American Indigenous communities throughout the last half of the 20th century.
“The nuclear industry came to our territory and we were never asked,” said Randall Kahgee, a member of Saugeen First Nation on Bruce peninsula. He’s referring to the plant now run by the private company Bruce Power, which was built by the Ontario government beginning in 1970.
“We’ve never been part of the planning, or any of the decisions made in the last 50 years, to see that site expand to where it is today, the largest nuclear operating facility in the world,” he said.
Many Indigenous communities are rightfully suspicious of, or outright oppositional to, DGRs. In Nevada, the Western Shoshone Nation believes years of unwanted nuclear testing has increased cancer rates in its community, and has fought against a proposed DGR for years. In 2012, then-U.S. president Barack Obama defunded the project, but the Trump administration has vowed to make it happen.
Three of the five areas that the federal NWMO is considering for its own DGR to hold Canada’s high-level waste are in Ontario’s far north. In Migisi Sahgaigan, between Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, one person compared an information session to his ancestors being given blankets contaminated with smallpox.
OPG began consulting Bruce Peninsula communities about the DGR in 2000. By then, people in Saugeen and neighbouring Nawash First Nation had spent decades stewing over a “long list of concerns and fears” about the effect of nuclear power generation on Lake Huron and the animals, humans and land nearby, said Mr. Kahgee, who was chief of Saugeen from 2006 to 2014.
“We appreciate that some of those fears might be uninformed, but they are legitimate fears, and those fears have to be addressed,” he said. Early on, it didn’t look they would be – Mr. Kahgee felt as though his community was treated as an “afterthought” by OPG.
But like Posiva in Finland, OPG soon realized that bully tactics don’t work as well as they used to: there, after intense backlash, Posiva made a years-long commitment to education, eventually giving communities veto power to reject the idea. By the end, potential hosts were actually competing for the DGR, in part because of promised tax revenues and jobs.
In 2013, OPG also promised Saugeen and Nawash that the DGR absolutely would not be built without their consent. The company also made a second promise, to have a separate discussion about the lack of historical consideration the First Nations had experienced.
In turn, the Ojibwa nations agreed to start considering hosting the repository. Mr. Kahgee is a lawyer, and became lead advisor to Saugeen and Nawash in their interactions with OPG.
The first step was to ensure that community members – including elders, youth and members living outside the territory – were up to speed on the basics of nuclear power, what a DGR is, and what agreeing to host one would mean. This year saw more detailed sessions attended by OPG engineers and scientists, allowing community members to ask more complicated scientific questions.
“We see this as a forever project,” Mr. Kahgee said. “And it will be our people that will forever shoulder the burden of that project.”
The underlying theme of his community’s discussions, Mr. Kahgee said, is stewardship of the environment, particularly Lake Huron. Stewardship, he said, requires action, and so the nations want to finalize a decision by the end of this year. Because of that deadline, the First Nations are hybridizing the Ojibwa preference for consensus decision-making with a Western-style vote.
If Nawash and Saugeen do agree to play host to a DGR, it will be at least a decade until it can open. The repository OPG is hoping for is designed to hold Ontario’s accumulated low-and-intermediate waste, and what its province’s power plants are expected to produce over their lifetimes: right now, the last plant scheduled to be operational in Ontario is Bruce, which should shut down around 2060.
In other words, this multidecade process doesn’t account for any increase or extension in Ontario’s nuclear capacity. If one emerges, it will require a new plan for waste disposal.
Maybe, though, the future of nuclear energy will involve less waste. Without a doubt, any new reactors built in Canada will have to be smaller than Darlington and those like it, which are phenomenally expensive and take forever to set up, especially now that governments pay attention to community concerns.
“Nobody’s going to want to invest in a large-scale power plant … except maybe the Chinese and the Russians,” said Brett Plummer, the chief nuclear officer of NB Power.
What he and others in the industry are excited about are Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs. It’s a fairly self-explanatory name: the reactors are much smaller than existing plants, and designed to be moveable. They might even be nimble enough to be deployed in remote and rural communities that currently rely on dirty, expensive diesel generators.
The idea of SMRs isn’t new, but in past decades, no company or government has been willing to be the first to try one, Mr. Plummer said. “The environment’s different now because of the standpoint of decarbonization,” he said. “I think there’s a renewed interest. There’s people willing to invest.”
That includes the Canadian government, which late last year released a “roadmap” to SMRs, outlining how it sees industry, governments, utility companies and others working to make them a reality. For its part, NB Power has partnered with two companies with SMRs in development. Each has committed $5-million of its own money to establish a footprint in New Brunswick, and in return been given $5-million in federal seed money to develop its projects.
One of them is Moltex Energy. Rory O’Sullivan, the company’s North American CEO, spent much of his career in carbon-free energy, mostly constructing wind farms in his home country of Ireland. Now he’s developing an SMR that sounds kind of magical (I’m being hopeful here, not facetious).
The name Moltex comes from the type of fuel used, uranium converted into molten salt. Because it’s a liquid, it stays more stable at high temperatures than pellet uranium. That makes it much safer – Mr. O’Sullivan said his team has yet to figure out a way to cause an explosion at all.
Here’s the exciting part: He also believes the Moltex SMR could virtually eliminate high-level nuclear waste, including the stuff waiting for permanent storage. Apparently, spent CANDU fuel pellets have a lot of potential fission reactions left in them, just not enough to be drawn out by such big reactors. It’s more than enough energy, though, to be turned into molten salt.
“We’re sensitive to say you can eliminate everything,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “But you can make a very big difference.” The amount of waste left over would be significantly less and significantly less toxic, radioactive for a few hundred years, rather than a million.
The biggest challenge is funding – because nuclear power is so heavily regulated, private industry rarely gets involved. Mr. O’Sullivan thinks making the Moltex SMR a real contender will take a couple of hundred million dollars, which will require commitment from federal governments. His talks with both the Canada and Britain are continuing.
The other challenge is time. The Moltex SMR could be delivering electricity to homes in New Brunswick in less than a decade. That’s a short timeline, if the goal is to set up a nuclear power plant. But remember, the IPCC only gave us until 2030 to cut emissions by 45 per cent if we want to stay under 1.5 degrees of warming. That’s a place we’ll have to get to without the Moltex reactor.
Year after year, Canada is consistently in the top 10 countries for electricity usage per capita. Individually, we use more than the vast majority of the world, including our southern neighbours in the United States. As I learned more about nuclear energy – and considered the problems with fossil fuels, and even renewables – it reinforced how easy it is to forget, or ignore, where all of that electricity comes from.
Electricity is a small miracle, maybe a big one, and producing it comes with a long list of costs. Yet even as humanity comes to grips with the urgency of reducing emissions, its appetite for that miracle continues to grow. That paradox is why I’m not the only person whose climate change worries have driven them to reconsider nuclear power.
One significant about-face came from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 50-year-old non-profit takes policy stances on various public health issues. For decades it underscored the risks of nuclear – plant safety, waste storage, and the risk of uranium leaking into the weapons trade – while downplaying its role in reducing carbon emissions.
But in November, UCS released a report which raised “serious concerns about our ability to achieve the deep cuts in carbon emissions needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change.” It found that about a third of plants in the U.S. were either scheduled to close, or unprofitable, and recommended increasing fossil fuel emissions charges in order to make nuclear more cost competitive with coal and natural gas.
UCS played down the shock at its new stance, saying it had never been totally against nuclear energy, and that it still worries about weapons. But the statement was a big deal to many in the energy and environmental sections. “It’s hard to imagine a group with stronger historic anti-nuclear bona fides,” read a Boston Globe editorial. “The organisation deserves great credit for having the courage to take this step,” wrote one columnist in New Scientist.
And then there’s Gordon Dalzell, the New Brunswick environmentalist. Last fall’s IPCC report worried him as much as it worried me. “You have to look at this from a future point of view,” said Mr. Dalzell, a retired social worker with four grandchildren. “If we don’t reduce the amount of CO2 and greenhouse gases, the planet as we know it is going to be at risk. So I took a fresh look.”
He pored over the “report cards” the federal nuclear safety commission gives each power plant, and learned more about the Point Lepreau plant’s safety protocol, and the SMR project with Moltex. And in March, he began telling people that he’d changed his mind.
“As a society, we really have to consider nuclear and renewables integrated together if we’re going to decarbonize,” he said. “We’re running out of time, really.”
The timeline is what keeps me up at night, too. I’m definitely less afraid of Canada’s nuclear industry than I was before, and I’ve been convinced that nuclear waste is no scarier an energy byproduct than the emissions caused by fossil fuels. Hitting the Paris targets means net zero emissions by 2050, and the new generation of nuclear reactors sound like they could help a whole lot.
But the 45-per-cent-by-2030 deadline comes first, and technology can’t make up for the work that people need to do themselves.
By people, I mean Canadians, and those in other wealthy places who use more of the Earth’s energy while poor regions suffer more from climate change. Cutting emissions means simply using less of the energy that causes them. Nuclear power isn’t nearly as frightening as our refusal to accept that.
Source: The Globe and Mail