The 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