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THERE IS NO EASY WAY OUT ON ENERGY

The Hamilton Spectator: Dave Campanella - October 23, 2007

The most important and least discussed issue of the past Ontario election was the province's energy crisis. If Ontario remains on its "business as usual" trajectory of energy use, demand will soon dangerously exceed supply.

While the NDP and the Green party supported alternative options, both the Liberals and Tories prefer the easy way out by continuing to rely on nuclear energy as a major source of our electricity. These pro-nuclear parties adhere to the view that nuclear is cost-effective, reliable and an environmentally friendly option to fight climate change. Unfortunately, all of these claims are questionable.

Calculations that show nuclear energy to be cheaper than alternatives rely on favourable assumptions regarding construction costs and performance rates, as well as omitting costs of handling nuclear waste and decommissioning reactors. Ontario's past offers more experience.

The actual costs of constructing Ontario's five existing nuclear reactors were on average 100 per cent over the original estimates, the performance rates have been about half of what was expected, and unforeseen shutdowns meant increased reliance on coal plants. The $19.4-billion debt Ontario Hydro suffered, largely due to its nuclear investments, was then off-loaded onto consumers who continue to pay it off on every energy bill.

Such results are not isolated to Ontario. Globally, most investors and governments have been avoiding the technology. Investment in new capacity has dropped off steadily since peaking in the 1980s, with more megawatts of wind power now being added worldwide than nuclear.

The average age of the 442 reactors in operation in the world today now corresponds with the average age a reactor is shut down. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study concluded that with current policies nuclear power "is just too expensive" and The Economist found that it is "too costly to matter" as a potential energy supply option.

Because the full lifetime of a reactor, from initial planning to final decommission, could be over a century, committing to nuclear power for base load supply determines the future mix of the energy supply far into the future.

As revealed by the 2003 blackout, nuclear plants have difficulty reacting to emergency shutdowns. The U.S. has suffered from 51 reactor shutdowns that have lasted for more than a year. Additionally, a fire in a reactor after Japan's recent earthquake and the flooding of a reactor in India after the 2004 tsunami show that nuclear power is vulnerable, especially to increasingly erratic weather.

Nuclear advocates often describe nuclear power as "green" because the fission reaction that takes place in a nuclear reactor releases no direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) claims that nuclear energy "emits no pollutants into the air."

But life-cycle analysis, which include emissions from relevant uranium activities and reactor construction, show that Canada's nuclear system releases between 468,000 and 594,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In fact, so much energy is used during supporting processes that a recent study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes a reactor built today is likely to consume more energy, mostly carbon-based, during its lifetime than it produces.

Uranium mining to fuel nuclear power in Canada is also responsible for 100,000 tonnes of radioactive tailings, the leftover sludge, 2.9 million tonnes of waste rock, and associated contamination of groundwater and surrounding environments. Nuclear reactors are huge water users, with the Darlington and Pickering facilities alone estimated to use 8.9 trillion litres per year, and are sources of routine and accidental releases of radionuclides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and hydrazine into the air. "Green" nuclear power also generates radioactive wastes including highly toxic substances such as plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,300 years.

As of 2003, 1.7 million used fuel bundles were in temporary storage in Canada, and that number is growing. More than 50 years after Canada decided to develop nuclear power there is no long-term management plan in place. Although burying the waste deep underground has been proposed by Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and is the favoured response globally, no such facility yet exists anywhere in the world. Such facilities must be designed to last for approximately a million years and to secure the waste from the outside environment and from people who might use the material for weapons, or other destructive purposes. The NWMO estimates its proposal would cost $24 billion and take 300 years to be fully implemented.

Moving the radioactive waste from temporary storage at the different reactors to a central storage site would require 50 truck trips per month, for 30 years. The potential for an accident or sabotage during transportation, with resulting health and environmental damage, makes the plan risky. But most of the risk is deflected to future generations.

Better options exist. In order to ensure flexibility, many energy experts favour a diverse, decentralized energy supply combined with strong reduction of demand, and management programs. This is the "soft" path.

Nuclear energy, in contrast, is heavily centralized, has long lead times and high capital costs, requires remote locations, and relies on projections of rising demand to justify expenditures. It epitomizes the inflexible "hard" path option.

A sustainable energy future would be based on a diverse supply -- including wind, solar, geothermal, heat and power cogeneration, biomass, small hydro, natural gas, efficiency -- and demand management.

A recent study by the Pembina Institute has shown that investing $18.2 billion in Ontario between 2005-2020 could reduce projected energy demand by 41 per cent, and the vast majority of that cost would be recovered by consumers through energy savings.

The same study found that those energy savings combined with wind, solar, biomass, hydro, could meet 79 per cent of Ontario's projected energy needs in 2020. With improved technology and lower costs, that percentage would continue to grow, leaving little room for nuclear's inflexibility.

Institutions around the world are showing us how, with more aggressive and empowering policies. Spain has mandated solar photovoltaic and hot water heating in all new construction, California has set a target of a million solar roofs by 2017, and in Austria and Sweden over a quarter of energy is supplied through renewable sources. Germany has recently passed legislation requiring its public utilities to buy a fixed amount of renewable energy.

Yes, Ontario is at a difficult juncture in its energy future. But that juncture represents an opportunity for a new direction. Instead of choosing what we know doesn't work, let's learn from others' successes and try something that does. Instead of choosing the easy way, let's choose the smart way.

Dave Campanella is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo's environment and resource studies program and a current resident of Dundas.

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