Presentation by Jim Harding, PhD
Why Nuclear Power Is Not A Way to Create a Sustainable Society
By Jim Harding, Ph. D.
Presented at “Planting the Seed: Development and Sustainability of Natural Resources in Saskatchewan”, 6th Annual NRT Conference, SIAST Woodland Campus, Prince Albert, March 12, 2009
WHAT DOES SUSTAINABILITY MEAN?
The use of the term “sustainability” grows rapidly and is becoming a catchphrase for everything from “green products” to sustain profitable markets, to changing technologies to better sustain eco-systems. Some confusion comes from the term “sustainable development”, created in 1987 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development. Many government and corporate bodies have defined sustainable development as sustaining development, with “development” defined as perpetual economic growth. But this isn’t the fundamental meaning. In its Overview the UN report says that “sustainable development” means humanity meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.[i] In a nutshell, sustainable development is about inter-generation justice; learning to think about “seven generations”, as some Indigenous cultures would put it. There are several aspects to this, the most challenging being reconciling human development with ecological carrying capacity and the limits to growth; and tackling glaring and growing global inequalities, and, as part of this, attending better to meeting basic human needs. Protecting watersheds and biodiversity is paramount.
At the end of its Overview the UN says that its report is about supporting “development that is economically and ecologically sustainable”.[ii] This couldn’t be clearer. If “sustainability” is twisted to mean sustaining economic growth that is ecologically unsustainable, it turns into its opposite and loses all intended meaning. Perhaps, to remind ourselves, we need to use the term “ecologically sustainable development.” Meeting needs today in such a way that this doesn’t jeopardize the capacity of people to meet their needs in the future will require changing both technology and economy so that eco-systems, upon which human need-fulfillment depend, are protected and, yes, restored. Quickly phasing-out all industrial toxic waste streams including radioactive wastes is vital to this.
We still haven’t turned the corner on this. In the short term, the global economic crisis may even distract us from the challenges of sustainability, of which the climate change crisis is clearly our biggest. But this economic crisis presents a great opportunity to rebuild our economy with job-supplying sustainable technologies, which is the least we should demand when public moneys are being used.
IS NUCLEAR POWER SUSTAINABLE?
The nuclear industry is trying to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) even has a website “Nuclear energy and sustainable development”, where it presents itself as being sustainable. But is it? Remember “sustainable development” is about us meeting our needs “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs”, and to do this, development must be both “economically and ecologically sustainable.”
The UN directly evaluated nuclear power in its 1987 report.[iii] Regarding economic sustainability, it said nuclear “has not met earlier expectations that it would be the key to ensuring an unlimited supply of low cost energy”; its costs have increased rapidly “during the last 10-15 years, so that the earlier clear cost advantage of nuclear over the service life of the plant has been reduced or lost altogether”. It continues that “nuclear provides about one-third of the energy that was forecast for it 10 years ago”. The economics of nuclear have eroded further since this was written. And, what about ecological sustainability? The UN report says “many thousands of tons of spent fuel and high level waste” will need to be isolated “from the biosphere for many hundreds of thousands of years that they will remain hazardously radioactive”; while emphasizing that “the problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unsolved.” Nothing much has changed, except that nuclear wastes continue to accumulate and the industry is trying yet another “public acceptance” campaign to try to convince us to trust them to carry on and manage their toxic wastes indefinitely.[iv]
Not surprisingly nuclear industry claims about sustainability are rife with confusion. In 1990 AECL’s President was invited to speak in the “Issues of Technology” engineering lecture series at the University of Regina. His confusing title, “Nuclear Power: The Clean Air Alternative to Sustainable Energy”, even suggested that, as an “alternative to sustainable energy”, nuclear was unsustainable. And it clearly is! Nuclear fuel, uranium, is non-renewable, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that there’s only 80 years of economically recoverable uranium at today’s demand. Any expansion of nuclear power will lower the time-span. If pushed on this, nuclear proponents respond that a new line of reactors could use spent fuel (plutonium) to produce electricity. The AECL’s ARC-1000 proposed by Bruce Power as possible design for Alberta and/or Saskatchewan could use spent fuel. This would be even more uneconomic and the reprocessing technology would create an even more dangerous radioactive waste stream for future generations. It would also make plutonium even more available for nuclear weapons.
The nuclear industry is primarily motivated to sustain itself rather than to help create a sustainable economy that sustains ecology. No matter how hard it tries to twist the meaning, it fails the test of sustainability.
IS THERE REALLY A NUCLEAR REVIVAL?[v]
The mainstream media constantly reports there is “nuclear renaissance”, a term created by the nuclear industry for promotional purposes. And Sask Party government officials regularly repeat this nuclear mantra. But is there a nuclear revival? In 2008 there were 439 nuclear power plants, operating in 31 countries, with 372 Gigawatts (GW) total capacity. This was five fewer plants than operated in 2003. In 2008 the proportion of electricity from nuclear, worldwide, dropped to 14 % from 16 % in 2005 and even higher before. In Western Europe there are now 146 nuclear power plants operating, down from 177 in 1989. In 2007 the European Union (EU) got 28 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, down from 32 % in 2002. And nearly half (47 %) of the nuclear-generated electricity in the EU is from one country, France. Half of the nuclear electricity produced in Asia is also from one country, Japan.
Will the construction of new nuclear power plants reverse this trend? According to the IAEA, the UN agency which regulates and promotes nuclear power, there were 35 new reactors under construction in fourteen countries in 2008. Eleven (11) of the 35 have been under construction for more than 20 years, and 15 of the 35 have no start-up date. The total of 35 was 18 fewer than were under construction in the late 90s. There are only 2 nuclear plants under construction in Western Europe, one in France and one in Finland. The French nuclear giant Areva is years behind schedule and well over budget in Finland, where, due to “general incompetence”, it faces losses of $ 2 billion dollars that will be passed to the taxpayer. (Along with Bruce Power and Cameco, Areva is on the Sask Party government’s Uranium Development Partnership.)
How accurate have industry predictions of a nuclear revival been? In 1981 U.S. President Reagan predicted a “nuclear revival”, but the major nuclear growth during his two term office was 37,000 more nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) had predicted that by 1990 there would be 1,000 GW worldwide nuclear electrical capacity, but the actual amount was just 260 GW. (Twenty-eight years later there is still only 372 GW capacity). Given there wasn’t a boom in nuclear power in the 1980s, we have to ask what role Saskatchewan uranium exported to the U.S. during that period played in freeing up or directly fueling the nuclear weapons buildup.[vi] In 2005, announcing massive new state subsidies in his Nuclear Power 2010 plan, U.S. President Bush again predicted a nuclear revival. But there will be no new nuclear power plants in the U.S. by 2010, and probably only one new plant by 2015. Even with all the promotional talk of a “nuclear renaissance”, in 2008 the NEA was only predicting from 447-679 GW of nuclear capacity worldwide by 2030. This was much less than it predicted to exist by 1990.
The nuclear industry has maintained its present capacity not so much through new nuclear plants as by extending the operations of aging reactors. There have been 110 reactor upgrades in the U.S. since 1977. In Ontario there have been long-terms shut downs and huge cost overruns in refurbishing reactors, and all remaining operating Candus will require expensive refurbishing or shutting down within a decade. It is little wonder that a private corporation like Bruce Power is looking for a new market in the West. The average age of the 119 reactors that have already been shut down worldwide was 22 years, whereas the reactors still in operation now average 24 years. Utilities want to increase the age of operation to 40 years, and even up to 60 years. Much of this cost would fall on taxpayers and the rest would fall on ratepayers.
Let’s be very “generous” and assume that all functioning nuclear power plants in the world could be upgraded to operate for 40 years, and, as part of this, that the public can be convinced to accept such costly measures, when cheaper energy options that don’t create a toxic waste stream or require water for cooling and can reduce more greenhouse gases are readily available. Then, how many nuclear power plants would have to be built for the nuclear industry to maintain the nuclear status quo? According to an analysis in the latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[vii], if we exclude 20 of the 35 reactors already under construction (the ones with a start-up date), there would have to be 70 more nuclear plants on-line by 2015 (that’s in six years) and another 192 more by 2025. That’s 262 new nuclear power plants by 2025, which would require one new plant every one and one-half months until 2015 and one every 18 days after that until 2025.
This is so farfetched that it is delusional. In addition to the 35 nuclear power plants under construction in 2008, the IAEA listed another 78 that are somewhere in the proposal and planning process. Even if these were all built and came on-line (which isn’t the way things have gone in the past), this would only be 113 new nuclear power plants, far short of the 262 plants required just to maintain the nuclear power status quo. What the industry calls a “nuclear renaissance” turns out to be a nuclear phase-out.
IS NUCLEAR ENERGY REALLY CLEAN?
The nuclear industry appeals to our concerns about global warming when it promotes itself as being the “clean energy”. You can’t avoid the ads. And advertisers know if you repeat something enough times it starts to be taken as “fact”. We hear “nuclear is clean” over and over, including from Sask Party government officials who reflexively say nuclear is the way to reduce greenhouse gases.[viii] But is it? Coal plants create a lot of carbon while they generate two-thirds of the world’s electricity. Nuclear plants don’t directly spew carbon, so the industry argues we should replace coal plants with nuclear ones. Sounds logical, right? Actually, calling nuclear “clean” is a play on words, a form of “greenwashing”. Much carbon is emitted all along the nuclear fuel chain, from the hard-rock mining to nuclear plant construction[ix], decommissioning and waste management, and therefore a “full carbon audit” must be done to draw any solid conclusions. Nuclear plants also emit a host of invisible cancer-causing radioactive isotopes, and even dust-mites show that being invisible doesn’t make something “clean”.
2,500 nuclear plants would have to be operating by 2050 for it to play the same relative role in electrical generation as coal does today. This would require a nuclear plant being built somewhere every week.[x] As well, we’ve seen this isn’t going to happen. Anyway, would it solve anything if all these plants were built? An International Energy Agency (IEA) scenario with nuclear power expanding four-fold and requiring 32 expensive new nuclear plants yearly until 2050, would only reduce total carbon by 4%, while we need a minimum of 50% and likely 80% cuts by then. Because of this, 300 international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) called for the removal of nuclear power from the list of ways to reduce carbon under the Kyoto Protocol.[xi]
A 2008 Stanford University environmental engineering study compared several alternative fuel sources for the U.S. transportation system and the ability of these to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. The best options, in rank order, were electricity from wind, concentrated solar, geothermal, tidal, photovoltaics (solar), wave and hydro. Nuclear power and coal (even with carbon capture) ranked poorest after bio-fuels. So-called “clean coal” emitted at least 60 times more carbon and air pollution than wind. Nuclear emitted 25 times more.[xii] Rather than being “clean”, nuclear is an obstacle to carbon reduction. The choice is not “nuclear versus coal”, but between these polluting technologies and the new sustainable energy ones.
HOW “GREEN” IS HARPER’S STIMULUS PACKAGE?
It’s hard for supporters of Prime Minister Harper to grasp how a call for a $15 billion cut to spending during the 2008 federal election turned into a $40 billion stimulus package, and big deficit. Polls show most Canadians think it’s about keeping power. However, if this helps restructure Canada so the economy is more ecologically sustainable, something good could come of it. Energy policy remains our biggest challenge; however, only $2.4 of $40 billion stimulus over two years is allocated for this. Half goes for “green infrastructure”, primarily for retrofitting and energy efficiency, which is always good. A closer look shows nothing to reduce massive greenhouse gases (GHGs) from transportation, through expanding public transit.[xiii]
The remaining $1.2 billion, for “green energy”, is a pittance compared to the $54 billion U.S. President Obama allocated. ($6 billion would be required to match the U.S.) And most of U.S. spending is for renewable energy, which will immediately reduce GHGs. It’s most noteworthy that when the final U.S. stimulus bill was being negotiated there was such strong public protest over the $50 billion for loan guarantees for nuclear and coal in the Senate version that it was removed. What about Canada? Though called “green energy”, the spending went to sustain the non-renewables which create GHGs and radioactive wastes. $400 million went to help the oil industry develop its controversial carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. There’s even a hint of further corporate tax write-offs. The powerful Alberta tarsands lobby has clearly succeeded in getting Harper to help it lower its costs to remain profitable during the economic downturn. Another $350 million goes to the already heavily subsidized AECL, mostly to develop its Advanced Candu Reactor (ARC), which is one of the designs the private company Bruce Power is proposing building on the North Sask River.
And what of the renewables? They are absent! Harper’s stimulus package didn’t even extend the Eco-Energy Program that has provided 4000 MW of renewable, mostly wind, capacity since 2007. (This is equivalent to four large nuclear plants.) As one of the highest inland wind regions in Canada, and with less-costly wind providing more than five times the employment as nuclear per amount of electricity produced, Saskatchewan communities would have benefitted from this program.
Independent research consistently shows renewables are the most cost-effective way to “green energy”.[xiv] With a father who was an accountant for Imperial Oil, and Harper’s first Calgary job in the mail room of Imperial Oil, I realize the Prime Minister has “oil in his blood”.[xv] So, when his government funds carbon-capture or nuclear and ignores renewables in its “green energy” stimulus package, we’ll just have to learn to see a brownish green.
IS NUCLEAR POWER REALLY AFFORDABLE?[xvi]
The Ontario nuclear corporation Bruce Power is now running a high-profile PR campaign along the North Saskatchewan River – from Lloydminster to North Battleford to Prince Albert. It’s circulating a 24-page flier “Saskatchewan 2020 – Clean Energy. New Opportunity” saying it wants to provide us with “clean, reliable and affordable electricity”.[xvii] I’ve already discussed why nuclear isn’t clean. But is it reliable and affordable? The answer will not be found in Bruce Power’s fliers but in how it runs its operations elsewhere.
In Ontario, Bruce Power is behind schedule and over budget refurbishing two reactors. The promise to have one reactor online by 2009 won’t be met. Ontario’s lucky electrical consumers get to pay half of the first $300 million cost overrun, which is already at $237 million. After that they pay one-quarter. What a deal: a private corporation gets to profit using the public grid while being guaranteed public backing for going over budget. Bruce Power has already raised the possibility of a partnership with the Sask Party government and/or SaskPower for its guestimated $10 billion dollar project, and there’s no reason to believe similar economic risks wouldn’t be borne by us.
But there’s more. Bruce Power’s plan of two large, expensive reactors on our small grid has been criticized for making the grid vulnerable and requiring costly back-up power. Bruce Power showcases New Brunswick as a workable example of having a large nuclear plant on a small grid. But it fails to mention that the Point Lepreau plant is shut down to undergo a $1.4 billion refurbishing, and that this is behind schedule and already costing the taxpayers an extra $90 million. Nor does Bruce Power mention that when it tried to get the refurbishing contract its proposal was $ 450 million higher that the AECL’s, the one accepted, and that BP wanted to run and profit from the plant for 20 years.[xviii]
What might be in store for us? Bruce Power says it’s considering three reactor designs here. One, AECL’s ARC-1000 exists only on paper and yet has already cost us hundreds of millions in Harper government subsidies. Westinghouse’s reactor also exists only on paper. The French company Areva’s EPR reactor is the only one being built, and, as already said, is three years behind schedule, $1.6 billion over budget and the Finnish government is presently seeking $3.8 billion in damages.
I hope you get the picture. Taxpayers pay front-end subsidies. We pay again for cost overruns. We pay for other sources of electricity when nuclear projects don’t start on time or shut down for costly refurbishing. And then our kids will pay again for costly decommissioning and futuristic nuclear waste management. All the while there are cheaper and safer renewable options. Bruce Power’s track record elsewhere suggests we should be very skeptical about becoming another guinea pig for the costly nuclear industry. Nuclear power would be neither an ecologically nor economically sustainable energy option for our dear province.
Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental studies (University of Waterloo) and justice studies (University of Regina). He resides on the Crows Nest Ecology Preserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley and writes a column on “Saskatchewan Sustainability” for the weekly chain R-Town News. He is author of Canada’s Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System (Fernwood, 2007).