Canadian Consulting Engineer

Nuclear’s no answer

Click on the Globe and Mail's website link to the Canadian Nuclear Association and you'll find a row of smiling faces. There are images of children skipping on a hill, an ocean with waves gently lappi...

March 1, 2003  By Bronwen Parsons

Click on the Globe and Mail’s website link to the Canadian Nuclear Association and you’ll find a row of smiling faces. There are images of children skipping on a hill, an ocean with waves gently lapping against the rocks. Ah! The world is a happy place, we are assured, as long as we accept the benefits of nuclear power: “Clean, Safe, Reliable,” flashes onto the screen against a bright blue sky.

After a decade or two when Canada has shied away from building nuclear power plants, the industry is now on the promotion trail. Boosted by the Kyoto Accord, nuclear’s advocates have been spreading the word that atomic energy is desirable because, unlike fossil fuels, it doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, nor does it release nasty particles to clog up the lungs.

The majority of professional engineers are convinced. A survey published in November by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers showed that 67% of them favour more investment in nuclear power. Certainly, engineers have done well by the industry, which currently generates 14% of our electricity. Of the 25,000 people the sector employs, many are engineers, and many are employed by consulting engineering firms that help design the plants.

But is nuclear power such a wise choice? Should Canada continue to invest heavily in it rather than alternative sources of power? On three counts, I’d say No.

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First: cost. Nuclear power does not come cheap. Generating plants cost humungous amounts of taxpayer dollars to build. Even back in the 1970s and 80s Pickering’s eight reactors cost $4.5 billion. The plants are also expensive to maintain. Ontario Power Generation has found itself in a huge mess at the east Toronto plant where it struggles to get just one reactor up to safety standards and on line. Schedules have gone haywire and costs have ballooned to $1.2 billion (see page 46).

Second: nuclear energy is “clean”? Hardly. Each radioactive fuel rod bundle measures 50 centimetres long and weighs 23 kilograms. Ontario Power Generation alone produces 54,000 waste bundles a year — that’s 27 kilometres by my reckoning. The rods will be dangerous for at least 10,000 years. Then there’s low and intermediate waste consisting of by-products like filters, resins, mops and rags, etc. It takes 1,000 truckloads a year to move that material to the Bruce disposal plant on Lake Huron. In the U.S. the government plans to store its waste permanently underground in Yucca Mountain (see page 43). The Canadian government is still deciding what to do about the problem. It has devoted $400 million a year to it since 1999.

Third: safety. Aside from the threat of accidents and terrorism, an alarming aspect of nuclear energy is that western nations are enthusiastically exporting the technology to developing countries. As I write, North Korea is reactivating a nuclear power plant and will use the fuel to develop nuclear weapons. Other countries like Romania and China where Atomic Energy of Canada is helping to build nuclear reactors are not a present political threat, but they don’t have a great reputation for maintaining their facilities. If Canada, one of the richest and most circumspect of nations in the world, has problems with the safety of its nuclear reactors now, who dares to think what could happen to aging reactors in those other countries in the decades to come?

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