The Nuclear Option
When one talks about nuclear power, the names Chernobyl and Three Mile Island inevitably come up. When you combine these glowing green spectres with extremely long-lived and toxic radioactive waste, you seem to have an energy sector with enough problems to justify taking it off the table for the good of humanity. But does this alarming picture actually represent the state of fission technology in the 21st century?
Many of these spectres turn out to be based more on misconceptions than reality. For example, the inarguable disaster at Chernobyl was mainly found to be the result of human error on the part of zealous soviet inspectors, who ran the reactor below minimum safety levels. While it is true that there was a critical design flaw in the emergency saftey systems, the Chernobyl meltdown would not have happened if it had been used as its engineers had intended. As for three mile island, the ‘disaster’ amounted to a few dozen litres of radioactive steam being released into the atmosphere, which have never been linked to any health problems of workers or nearby residents. The real damage that resulted from three mile island was to the reputation of the nuclear industry.
Other reactor types, such as the Canadian designed and manufactured CANDU reactors, have been functioning since the seventies without any problems. These CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactors are physically incapable of melting down in the manner that strikes fear into the hearts of the public. Similar fears on the radioactive exposure caused by operational plants is completely unfounded. Your own body produces hundreds of times more radiation in a year than you would see living right beside an operational plant for your entire life, and you are dosed with thousands of times more radiation every time you get in an airplane.
With some of the misconceptions out of the way, let us look at the advantages of the nuclear option. Uranium, the primary fuel used, contains an incredible amount of energy. For an average 1000 megawatt power plant, CANDU nuclear production requires about thirty tons of fuel (a cube about 2 meters to a side). To produce the same amount of power in a high efficiency hydrocarbon plant, you need about ten supertankers worth of oil. In a coal plant, you require a whopping 2.6 million tons of coal (about 2000 train cars!), which produces an incredible 6 million tons of CO2 per year. A 1000 MW coal plant also releases 400 tons of poisonous airborne heavy metals such as mercury, and 66 thousand tons of nitrous and sulphur oxides, which cause acid rain. This conservative assessment does not even include the associated mining and transportation emissions, which also produce millions of tons of CO2 and other deadly pollutants, leaving toxic sludge pools like Nova Scotia’s Sydney Tar Ponds. These toxic pools have remained for decades, more than doubling cancer rates.
The critically important thing to know about the nuclear option is the fact that it produces virtually zero CO2 emissions throughout its lifecycle. Like other green energy producers such as wind and solar power, nuclear power plants should be part of the global strategy to minimize emissions. However, solar and wind suffer from a number of shortcomings that nuclear does not, such as dirty manufacturing practices performed primarily in China. Both solar and wind generation also require large surface areas for comparable generation. For 10 MW of power, solar requires 10-50 km^2 of photovoltaic panels, and wind requires 50-150 km^2 of high efficiency turbines. The same amount of nuclear power can be produced in just 1-4 km^2 of land. Furthermore, even trudeau-era nuclear power plants produce constant power, but the most modern wind and solar plants only produce when the sun shines and the wind blows. To overcome these problems and have complete wind and solar generation would require immense energy storage capacity, but modern battery technology is incapable of meeting this need. We could be faced with the same thing that happened to England last winter, when poor weather caused the wind turbines to produce just 4% of their potential output, forcing the government to buy electricity from the largely nuclear-dependant France.
Despite these advantages, no new plants have been built in North America since the seventies, stemming from overwhelming public NIMBYism and an extremely stringent regulatory process. Modern reactors would bear little resemblance to the Apollo-era generators that are currently producing power so reliably, and the next generation of nuclear power plants could actually use radioactive waste as their primary fuel. Such new generators, such as ones under development by the Bill Gates sponsored TerraPower, are actually more like ‘nuclear candles’, producing clean energy while simultaneously processing hazardous waste. The Hyperion nuclear battery, for example, is a hot-tub sized reactor that produces power for about 25,000 homes, completely independent from the grid. The potential to provide green power to isolated communities and energy intensive industry without the need for transmission lines is already here.
These transmission lines are very vulnerable, as we saw during the 1996 Quebec blackout and the 2003 northeastern blackout. Nuclear battery technology could be vital in decentralizing our electrical grid and providing clean power without our current dependence on inefficient electrical lines, where 4-10% of all produced electricity (and associated CO2 emissions) is lost in transmission. This decentralization of power generation would make us safer from targeted attacks or ‘acts of god’, such as the 1989 solar storm which overloaded the grid in Quebec for 9 hours.
It is clear that a future where all of our power is produced by green energy is within our grasp. Nuclear is the best option for replacing our main power plants, big CO2 emitters like coal and natural gas. These nuclear plants would work in concert with the variable wind and solar generators to provide all our energy needs. What is required is public support, and the first step is a willingness to cast off misconceptions and look critically at all the options on the table. The nuclear option is a good one, but what remains to be seen is whether we are smart enough to choose it.