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Canadian nuclear plans under scrutiny as Japan's crisis unfolds

Blog - March 18, 2011 - By Ed Whittingham

The sights of the twin earthquake and tsunami disasters in the Tohoku region of Japan have been unforgettable. Like so many, I have watched the videos that have emerged with a mixture of despair and morbid fascination, the latter feeling triggered by images of the sea at its most powerful and destructive. In an age when technology seems to offer us humans mastery over our natural environments, the sight of a tsunami wave literally swallowing a town whole is a troubling reminder that we can be as subject to the whims and fancies of the Earth as the next species.

While the tragedy of these natural disasters and discussions of the colossal effort required to reconstruct (or 復興 in Japanese, literally "restore and revive") initially dominated headlines, the unfolding Fukushima nuclear crisis quickly elbowed its way to centrestage.

A nuclear crisis unfolding

The spectre of one or more of the reactors releasing large and prolonged amounts of radiation plays on our fears in the same way that the earthquake and tsunami do, in that if it happens we don't control the full consequences — nature does.According to media reports, Japanese authorities recently increased the severity of the crisis to five out of seven, recognizing severe damage to a reactor core, the release of large quantities of radioactive material within an installation, and a high probability of significant public exposure. The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant now parallels the American Three Mile Island disaster in the 1970s. Workers at the nuclear plant continue to put their health and lives at serious risk in a frantic battle to keep damaged reactors and spent fuel rods cool to avoid a full-scale meltdown.

The spectre of one or more of the reactors releasing large and prolonged amounts of radiation plays on our fears in the same way that the earthquake and tsunami do, in that if it happens we don't control the full consequences — nature does.  

I don't want to heap scorn on misery by second-guessing Japan's reasons for developing nuclear power decades ago. As the only country that has suffered a nuclear bomb attack, Japan's energy planners at the time did not decide to build nuclear power plants blithely, nor were they lax in their risk management planning. On the contrary — I have often marveled at how seriously Japan takes emergency preparedness, without which the casualty rate from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would have been far, far greater.

Yet as we watch the drama unfold, we would be reckless not to consider the implications of Japan's nuclear crisis for our own energy system.

Lessons for Canadian decisionmakers

We don't need nuclear in Canada to get to low-carbon power, so even a low-probability risk isn't worth it, as we watch in real-time what the magnitude of that risk can be. Canadian energy planners and politicians, particularly those in Ontario who are pushing for a nuclear renaissance, must draw lessons from the Fukushima nuclear crisis. In short: we should be planning to phase out nuclear power, not aid its rebirth.

The Fukushima crisis is a reminder of nuclear power's inherent risks, which remain despite even the most sophisticated emergency preparedness and planning. Separate from safety concerns, the economic case against nuclear is strong. Nuclear power is extremely capital-intensive relative to other sources of power, it takes over a decade to get a plant built, and its output is very inflexible — meaning that nuclear power plants are not able to follow the ups and downs of the electricity system demands, and as a result they pose challenges to the integration of increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources. Nuclear plants come in huge units, so units go down for repairs and maintenance, big blocks of power are off line and that power has to be made up for from somewhere else, which can be a big problem when repairs go over schedule and budget as has been very common in Canada. Meanwhile, disposal of nuclear waste remains an intractable problem.

All this, before you factor in safety and liability issues. The federal government's Nuclear Liability Act limits financial liability of any nuclear reactor operator to $75 million. Stephen Harper is proposing this be raised to $650 billion, but it is unclear how far that would go toward properly compensating for damage were a plant near Toronto to emit high levels of radiation.

Linda Keen, who was president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission from 2001 to 2007, said with respect to the Pickering nuclear plant, "Population growth means the risk has increased.... To be honest, I don't know how you'd vacate the Pickering area alone in the event of an emergency." Were evacuation in the area feasible, it seems Keen of all people would know.

"Population growth means the risk has increased.... To be honest, I don't know how you'd vacate the Pickering area alone in the event of an emergency."

— Linda Keen, former president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety CommissionNow, I don't mean to be alarmist. Proponents of nuclear in Canada argue that our plants aren't susceptible to earthquakes, and that nuclear is a better alternative to high greenhouse gas-emitting coal-fired electricity. While the risk of earthquakes here is indeed low, there are still other risks, and first among them in my mind is the possibility of a terrorist strike against a nuclear facility. Should we accept a risk profile that may be low probability, but highly catastrophic?

Weighing the benefits against the risks

It could depend on the benefits — including how important nuclear is to our efforts to fight climate change. David Keith, one of Canada's pre-eminent thinkers on climate change solutions, argues that we have a few big "hammers" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy production: nuclear, wind power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). He suggests that while you can be against one of them, you can't be against all three and still be serious about tackling climate change in the very near term. Pembina agrees — we're pro-CCS, but at the same time we see greater value in concentrating on using energy efficiently and investing in renewable energy sources, including wind, that cost less than nuclear.

And we're not alone in that view. Shell reports that the wind industry grew by 28 per cent per year between 2003 and 2009, and 2010 was a record year for renewable energy in general, with $243 billion invested globally. Meanwhile nuclear has been in sharp decline since Chernobyl. The market is clearly making up its mind on the low-carbon electricity question.

All energy systems have trade-offs, and there are downsides to wind, biomass and solar as well. The question we need to be asking is this: are the risks associated with nuclear acceptable, when other viable options exist? 

Canadian nuclear under scrutiny

We can expect that question to be front and centre in Ontario in the coming weeks, as public hearings are due to start on Monday  on the proposal to build new reactors at the Darlington nuclear station. It's a critical time to reconsider the role nuclear power plays in the province, and the willingness of Ontarians to carry the risks — financial and otherwise — when the province has an abundance of less expensive and lower-risk energy alternatives available, and has recently established itself as a national leader in developing those alternatives.

The bottom line is we don't need nuclear in Canada to get to low-carbon power, so even a low-probability risk isn't worth it, as we watch in real-time what the magnitude of that risk can be.

Japan's crisis hits close to home

Though these events are happening far away in Japan, they still hit close to my home. My wife Yuka is Japanese, and we are raising our two kids in a bi-cultural environment. Fortunately, Yuka's immediate family members — including her brother in Tokyo and mum and sister near Nagoya — were untouched by the earthquake and tsunami. While a cousin who is a medical doctor was working at a hospital in Sendai when the quake struck, he luckily was unhurt, though his house suffered damage.

I also have many Japanese friends, from the years that I worked and studied in Japan and from being an active part of Banff's Japanese community, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the town's permanent population. My household and many others in town have gone through a kind of suspended animation as we try to pull together a valley-wide fundraiser for relief work tomorrow. While it seems like a token gesture compared to the magnitude of the disaster, helping out in some way is emotionally so important for this community.

My brother-in-law in Tokyo wrote on Wednesday that he's experiencing "social unease" for the first time in his near-50 years as a result of the Fukushima crisis. We can make intelligent energy choices today so that no one else has to experience the same unease, or outright suffering, in the future. Let's also do everything we can to help out our Japanese friends in their time of great need.

Ed Whittingham

Ed is the Executive Director of the Pembina Institute. He has served in an advisory capacity to companies, industry associations, government bodies and research networks on sustainable energy solutions.

d sanden — Mar 28, 2011 - 09:51 AM MT

Alberta -> nuclear power
2. Nuclear -> replace coal grid power
Reason: a) coal IGCV less CO2 than gasoline/diesel transport wells2wheels b) after bootstrapping IGCV technology in AB, roll out across america using low CO2 grid power for max GHG improvement
Regulatory commissions should frame any coal approvals in such a way that investors give coal a higher regulatory beta (approvals can be reversed without penalty).

David F — Mar 21, 2011 - 02:45 PM MT

Nuclear is one of those necessary evils in the world. It gives us what we want but as long nothing gets in its ways. Like a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Unfortunately, these are realities in parts of the world. That is why I have never been comfortable with the risk levels of nuclear energy I do not care how unlikely. There simple is so little reprieve when something does go wrong.

Using the cost argument is fine nuclear is expensive but wind is not that easy of the capital expenditure wallet either. I really want to know how much it costs to build a kW of generation from a specific source, which brings in the issue of capacity factors and scalability. Renewables will only be able to deal with this issue once we start pushing the envelope on storage technologies like hydrogen.

The issue of baseload is the big problem here. At the end of the whole discussion about the risks and dangers of nuclear energy, there is still the demand, the expectation of always on power. Until this ingrained notion of having high baseload 24-7 is dismissed, the need for large centralized generation will only persist. All we can do is try our best to makes existing and new faculties as safe and ‘risk proof ‘ as possible. Then cross our fingers that everything will work out.

Pam Challoner — Mar 20, 2011 - 03:36 AM MT

I am so glad to hear your extended family is safe. We are still in Hokkaido and we are fine.
Thank you for this excellent article. A number of the factors you mention combined with our insatiable desire for power and all that it enables leads us to support nuclear power as a reliable option.
The issue I now see is that we do not have the experience, knowledge, technology or resources to control the terrifying, global and long-lasting consequences of a major nuclear accident when one does occur. If some feel they do have the experience, knowledge, technology or resources to control a major nuclear accident I certainly hope they called TEPCO a week ago.
In the case of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami our inability to control the consequences of a nuclear accident robbed the 7,197 dead, 10,905 missing, and nearly 400,000 living in temporary evacuation centres (as of March 19, 2011) of an immediate, effective and essential response to this immense natural disaster.
I am in full agreement with your brother in-law and my vote goes to non-nuclear energy sources.

Bo Causer — Mar 19, 2011 - 06:36 PM MT

Great article Ed. Japan's got the technology to go solar and wind in a major way, and much of the population supports the idea, as you probably know. It's just really expensive at the moment, but I have a feeling the Fukushima experience will lead to a major re-think of energy supplies. There's also geothermal, so there are options. It takes the population to decide and push for change though. If we leave things up to governments and corporations alone they aren't necessarily going to make the choices that people want, but rather the choices that people don't protest significantly about. There's a difference. And that's equally true for Japan and Canada. Keep up the good work.

vb — Mar 18, 2011 - 06:18 PM MT

Nuclear dangers are dramatic when they happen. They do happen, but we have to note - the technology in question is 40 years old and it took a massive quake AND a tsunami to cause this damage.
For Canada, I'm thinking particularly for the energy demands of the tarsands. In a geologically stable area, far from tsunami waves and large populations, using the latest pebble reactor technology - - could save incredible amounts of carbon entering our atmosphere over the next century (while we mine this awful resource as fast as we can, as we currently seem to be doing- but that's another subject)
Renewables should be maximized. Biomass CHP, Wind, Solar, and above all - conservation. Only where appropriate - use nuclear. I think northern Alberta is perhaps the only place in the world where it may be appropriate, and then only after extensive research beyond what this layman has done.

deepgreendesign — Mar 18, 2011 - 06:45 PM MT

The GE engineers that developed the TEPCO installation did not approve of the design ( this may be false information, I have asked GE directly ) of the back-up systems architecture.

Nuclear is a dicey game, but, in all these articles I read, I do not see the alternative balance of energy generation.

Baseload generation is required to run Ontario. I am not a nuke advocate, in fact, I am a designer and have been involved with AE design.

The realities for AE, GHG's and nukes is a tricky game. A tough balancing act.

My biggest objection to nuclear is the private model and private-public model.

TEPCO has been faking reports for years. Can Canada afford this level of ethical operation of its nuclear facilities?

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