Category Archives: nuclear

Alberta needs nukes

The closest thing Alberta’s likely to see to a mushroom cloud
is an unusual cloud formation like this one.
Photo credit: Flickr/Nicholas_T

Alberta’s being all coy about whether it’ll give permission for a nuclear-power plant to be built to power a major chunk of the energy-sucking oilsands operations. According to the Financial Post, a private consortium wants to build one and has a major customer (pretty definitely a global oil company) ready to sign up for most of the electricity it generates. But the provincial government is squeamish about whether to allow it.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach says the jury is still out on whether a proposed $6.2-billion nuclear plant will be built in oil-rich northwestern Alberta.

“We first have to decide whether we’re open to nuclear energy,” he said Tuesday in Edmonton.

“You don’t build nuclear reactors over an evening. These are important decisions . . . beyond one person, and we’ll structure soon the kind of public discussion that will occur in the province.”

Alberta uses about 9,000 megawatts of power now, but getting usable oil out of the oilsands is an energy-intensive activity, and forecasts are that demand will double in the next decade and a bit. The biggest energy demand is to produce steam, which separates sticky tar from the sand it’s mixed with in the ground.

I can understand having serious reservations about the technology — Ontario’s nuclear “fleet,” as it’s grandly called, has been an utter nightmare of billion-dollar repairs and slipped schedules as the reactors enter middle age — but that’s a management decision, not one of deep principle.

What baffles me, while principle is on the table, is that the Alberta government would have no problem with powering the oil-sands operations by burning natural gas and spewing carbon dioxide into the air — would indeed warn other provinces not even to whisper about the possibility that might be bad — but will go all twittery about a technology that’s been used successfully the world over, with the only significant problem (albeit a doozy) having been a consequence of gross mismanagement in one of the most corrupt and half-assed industrial regimes ever to befoul the earth when it was embarking on its final collapse.

Certainly, more, lots more, needs to be done to reduce the oilsands’ extractors’ voracious appetite for energy. But if we take as a given in the discussion that more power is needed, nuclear plants seem the only remotely sensible option.

You want nukes? Build ’em yourself, says U.K. government

Bravo for the British government, having decided that if anybody wants more nuclear power stations, he or she is going to have to build them without help:

“The government is not going to build a single nuclear power station,” Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling told a committee of members of parliament.

“We are not going to contribute to the cost of it,” he said, rejecting suggestions the government might have to give money to get companies to make the multi-billion pound investments.

“If the energy generators don’t want to build them, then there won’t be any,” he said.

All of the country’s existing nuclear power plants were paid for and built by the state, but none has been built since the power sector was privatised in the 1990s.

According to Wikipedia, the U.K. currently has 24 nuclear plants that supply about a fifth of the country’s power, though not a single one has been built since the British government privatized electricity.

The risks involved in nuclear power (mainly business risks, I mean, given the staggering costs — not environmental or BOOM! risks) are so great that stations generally require at least some government support, even if it’s only a publicly supported locked-in contract to buy the power. But it should be obvious that if the state has to kick in, it’s not a good way to serve consumers. Just getting rid of waste and decommissioning old reactors is guesstimated to cost 70 billion pounds.

The Reuters story goes on to note that the cheapest large-scale generation available in Britain is gas-fired power plants, suggesting that the alternative to state-supported nuclear expansion is greenhouse-gas-emitting gas plants. To even things out a bit, the state will definitely have to find an effective scheme to put a price on carbon emissions.

(Via Grist Mill.)

You can buy a lot of solar panels for the price of a nuclear reactor

Ontario nuclear plantThe Green Party of Ontario has a bad habit of emitting frustratingly vague news releases a few days after whatever they’re talking about has broken. They could do with a lesson from whoever’s whipped the federal Greens’ media apparatus into shape.

Nevertheless, although they have the luxury of not having to propose anything really specific, they often make good principled points. Today, apropos of not much, a statement on nuclear power:

“Nuclear power has been a money pit in Ontario, and with another $40 billion headed its way, it looks like the Liberals haven’t learned from past mistakes,” [Ontario Green leader Frank] de Jong says. “Besides the obvious safety issues, nuclear power is simply not competitive when you factor in subsidies, environmental costs or disposal costs. Instead of building more reactors at exorbitant expense, Ontario should phase out existing ones as soon as possible.”

“The Liberal government is squandering both money and opportunities,” said John Ford, GPO Energy Advocate. “Every billion dollars spent on nuclear is a billion not spent on conservation, retrofitting or developing renewable energy.”

Just refurbishing existing nuclear reactors costs billions and billions of dollars. I had a long face-to-face interview with de Jong during the 2003 provincial election campaign, and one of the things he said that’s stuck with me is that for $1.5 billion, the rule-of-thumb price of a new nuclear reactor generating maybe 750 megawatts of electricity (the whole province of Ontario uses about 25,000 on a hot summer day), we could outfit every detached home in the province with a solar-powered water heater and cut demand by the same amount, if not more.

Such a program might be difficult to administer and there are questions of equity with this specific idea — why should the government outfit detached homes, which are predominantly inhabited by the comparatively financially comfortable? — but the Ontario’s nuclear “fleet” has not historically been a paragon of efficiency and good management. The cost overruns and blown schedules that seem to accompany any nuclear work, at least in Ontario, are legendary.

You can buy a lot of conservation measures for $1.5 billion. If the government’s going to be in the electricity business, it’s a point worth reflecting upon.

(Photo credit: Untitled, Flickr/Bahman.)

No nukes! (Except maybe in Alberta, and anywhere else we can get them, really)

Missouri nuclear plantThe world lacks enough engineers and raw materials to consider replacing many of the hundreds of planned new coal-fired generating plants with nuclear stations, according to a science and technology fellow at the United States’ non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.

In a long but clearly written special report for the council, and an op-ed in the Washington Post, Charles D. Ferguson says nuclear power can’t be an answer to greenhouse-gas concerns, and calls for a carbon tax to bring the price of greenhouse-gas–emitting power sources in line with the costs of generating electricity with solar panels and windmills.

Ferguson specializes in nuclear safety, admittedly, and much of the special report has to do with storing and protecting nuclear power plants and their radioactive wastes, but he strongly argues that the question is really moot: the U.S. hasn’t opened a new nuclear reactor at a power plant since 1996, and none is on the drawing board. The Chinese and the Indians aren’t willing to pay the massive up-front costs of nuclear plants, and anyway, with 800 comparatively cheap and easily supplied coal-fired plants in the works, the very idea of replacing them all with nuclear plants is laughable.

From the Post op-ed:

But even the proper greenhouse gas price [that is, a carbon tax set at the right level] would not allow nuclear energy primarily to pull humanity’s feet from the global fire. Nuclear energy would probably show some growth but not on the scale needed to displace hundreds of coal-fired plants throughout the world. In the coming years, China, India, and the United States plan to build more than 800 coal-fired plants. If these plants do not capture greenhouse gases, they would swamp by more than five times the greenhouse gas savings from the Kyoto Protocol.

As a practical matter, building nuclear plants at the rapid pace required to match construction of the coal plants would initially tend to drive up costs and scare off investors. Also, only a few companies in the world can now make reactor-quality steel, concrete, and other vital components. And a rush to build would aggravate shortages in skilled workers and qualified engineers to safely run the plants.

This is the same phenomenon that’s driven the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project’s estimated price from $7.5 billion to $16.2 billion: now that North American pipelines are all the rage, they’re incredibly expensive to build.

So great. Even if we find ways of solving all the massive problems with nuclear power — the up-front expense, ongoing maintenance costs, the waste-disposal problem, security, and public skittishness — we couldn’t build enough nuclear plants to matter anyway.

Ferguson’s research conclusions come at the same time as Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservatives prepare for a serious discussion about how to power the planned massive expansion of the province’s oilsands operations, and nuclear power is supposed to be on the table.

Extracting oil from the oilsands is an extremely energy-intensive process, chiefly because the oil needs to be separated from the sand using steam largely generated by burning natural gas.

Nuclear power seems like a natural supplement or replacement for the gas here, in part because it might be possible to skip a step: nuclear stations generate power by using the reactors to boil water to make steam to turn turbines to make electricity, and perhaps nuclear stations in Alberta’s oilpatch could just apply the steam directly to the tarry sand the extraction operations take out of the ground. This step-skipping might make nuclear power markedly more efficient in the oilsands than it is elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the Calgary Herald reports that Albertans are pretty evenly divided on whether nuclear power is a good idea even in principle, despite the fact it’s used safely in jurisdictions around the world including, particularly, Ontario. Opposition gets significantly higher in the oilpatch itself, according to a poll the Herald vaguely cites, with 53 per cent of northern Albertans saying they oppose nuclear power and only 36 per cent supporting it.

But the Tories are talking about it, and the Herald includes this encouraging bit of open-mindedness.

The PC party’s renewed interest in nuclear comes as Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove — Premier Ed Stelmach’s top lieutenant — argues nuclear power is “a natural fit” for the oilsands and the only way to substantially cut emissions.

“It makes no sense to not look at it,” Snelgrove said Monday, noting he’ll vote in support of creating a committee to analyze the nuclear option and initiate public consultation.

“If nuclear energy is our best environmentally friendly source of energy, particularly with the oilsands . . . then I think we have to look at it.”

While Snelgrove noted he’s no expert on the issue, he said the provincial government must meet the “pollution standards” and expectations of the rest of the world.

Maybe we can’t build nuclear plants enough to replace all the coal plants the world seems to think it needs, but maybe we can build enough to replace some of the worst greenhouse-gas emitters. If so, Alberta’s oilpatch seems like a good candidate.

Photo credit: “nuclear reactor (MO)“, Flickr/lisaschaos