Nuclear Power No Solution for Climate Change

Oped - Jan. 25, 2007 - By Mark S. Winfield, Hugh Wilkins

Published in The Toronto Star (Jan. 25, 2007), Windsor Star (Jan. 31, 2007).

Note: A similar Op-Ed was published in the context of Alberta.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn has become an increasingly vocal promoter nuclear power, most recently in a speech to the Economic Club in Toronto last month. Lunn has backed his proposals with statements that nuclear energy is "emission-free," produces "no greenhouse gases," and "there's no pollutants going out (with) the energy."

Unfortunately, none of these claims are true. So much so, in fact, that late last year Sierra Legal, acting on behalf of a coalition of environmental, public health, church and community groups and renewable energy developers, including the Pembina Institute, filed a false advertising complaint against the Canadian Nuclear Association under the federal Competition Act for a high profile advertising campaign that has been running for several years making similar claims. The nuclear association's ads have stated that nuclear power is "clean," "affordable" and "reliable."

With Minister Lunn suggesting nuclear reactors as an energy source for Alberta's oilsands, and the McGuinty government in Ontario poised to commit to the first new build nuclear power project in North America in more than thirty years, Canadians are looking for some clear answers on nuclear power.

Is nuclear energy clean? Contrary to Minister Lunn's claims, nuclear power, like other non-renewable energy sources, is associated with severe environmental impacts. Each stage of the nuclear energy production process, from uranium mining to power plant operation, generates large amounts of radioactive and otherwise hazardous wastes that will require care, in some cases for hundreds of thousands of years, for safety, security and environmental reasons.

The process also pollutes surface water and groundwater water with radioactive and hazardous pollutants. Water pollution from uranium mines and mills has been found by Health Canada and Environment Canada to meet the definition of a toxic substance for the purposes of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Canadian nuclear power plants have had routine and accidental releases to surface and groundwater of radionuclides, particularly tritium.

Significant releases of hazardous air pollutants, radionuclides and smog and acid rain-causing pollutants occur throughout the process of mining and producing uranium fuel for nuclear power stations. Greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, are produced at each stage of the nuclear energy cycle. Greenhouse gas emissions occur during the construction of reactors, as a result of the operation of equipment in the uranium mining process, the milling of uranium ore, mill tailings management activities, and refining and conversion operations. Greenhouse gas emissions also result from the transportation of uranium between milling, refining and conversion facilities and transportation required in the management of waste nuclear fuel and other radioactive wastes.

Is nuclear energy affordable? Ask Ontario electricity consumers, who are greeted with a "debt retirement charge" on their electricity bills every month to pay off $20 billion in "stranded" debt, mostly left behind by Ontario Hydro's perpetually over budget and under performing nuclear plants. That's to say nothing of the financial guarantees that would have to be provided by taxpayers for waste fuel management, decommissioning costs, and, in the event of a serious accident, any damage to the environment, public health or the economy over $75 million. It has been estimated that the economic damages from a major accident at the Darlington Ontario nuclear plant east of Toronto would be in the range of $1 trillion.

Nor, as its proponents claim, is nuclear power subject to "stable" fuel prices. The world price for uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants, has risen by a factor or more than six over the past five years.

Is nuclear energy reliable? Nuclear proponents point to their improved performance this year. Just don't ask them about the performance over the last couple decades. The Ontario CANDU reactor fleet, for example, has been subject to severe performance and reliability problems. Some Ontario facilities have had average operating capacities below 40 per cent rather than the expected 85 - 90 per cent range. Reactors expected to have operational lifetimes in the range of 40 years have turned out to require major refurbishments after approximately 25 years of service. Refurbishment projects themselves have run seriously over budget and behind schedule.

Nuclear energy's environmental, economic and reliability challenges, along with security, accident and weapons proliferation risks that are simply not shared by any other energy source, place nuclear energy in a unique category relative to all other energy supply options.

Canadians need to receive full and accurate information regarding the pros and cons of the various energy supply options that are available. They will likely want to think long and hard about the challenges and risks of nuclear power before they consider any proposals for the expansion of its role in Canada. Energy efficiency and low-impact renewable energy sources offer far safer, cheaper, more reliable and more sustainable options for meeting society's energy needs, and should be the focus of our future energy policies. Further development of these technologies is the key to making Canada more competitive in an increasing green global energy marketplace.

Hugh Wilkins is a staff lawyer with Sierra Legal (www.sierralegal.org). Mark Winfield is Director of the Pembina Institute's Environmental Governance program (www.pembina.org)


Mark S. Winfield

Mark Winfield was director of the Pembina Institute's environmental governance program until 2007.


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