What's wrong with nuclear power?

Well, a lot, actually...

By Leila Darwish and Helen La, Sierra Club of Canada - Thursday, September 6, 2007

The current breakneck speed of tar sands development in Alberta has led to host of social, economic and environmental problems. Declining water quality, pollution-associated illnesses, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, a labour shortage and an enormous infrastructure deficit are only a few of the issues currently faced by Albertas government, industry and citizenry. In particular, one problem gaining increasing recognition is how to fuel the provinces overheated tar sands development without exhausting natural gas reserves and producing more greenhouse gases than any other industrial project on earth.

Many solutions to this problem have been proposed. For example, residents across the province have suggested the Alberta government slow the pace of tar sands development and put in place a plan to ensure long-term sustainability for Albertas people, economy and environment. Others have argued that Alberta must diversify its energy portfolio and prepare for a shift towards a post-carbon economy by investing in clean energy research and development. Finally, some people have proposed using nuclear energy to fuel unfettered tar sands expansion. Unfortunately, many of Albertas government and industry leaders are currently supporting the latter option. That is, instead of choosing innovation and conservation as a means to ensure a safe, healthy and clean energy future for all Albertans, these representatives have chosen to pursue one of Canadas most dangerous, polluting and inefficient energy options. Even more alarming is how quickly nuclear proponents have been mobilizing in an effort to build multiple reactors and have them online as soon as possible. Having been rejected already by tar sands companies that recognized the liability and unfeasibility of nuclear power in Alberta, nuclear proponents are currently campaigning to gain support and clientele in communities across the province.

Until recently, nuclear enthusiasts in Alberta received very little attention. After all, why would a province so abundant in energy resources need to consider this controversial energy source? Nuclear energy was not recognized as a clean energy source in the Kyoto protocol but it continues to be touted as a global solution to climate change. With the threat of nuclear energy looming in Alberta it is important that all the facts around this dangerous and dirty energy source are known.

Beyond the environmentally destructive mining of uranium, nuclear energy produces (both in extraction and production) large quantities of radioactive wastespent fuel from CANDU reactors contains over 200 deadly radioactive elements. Plutonium, for example, remains radioactive for over 24 400 years. These highly toxic byproducts make long-term storage a serious political and environmental catastrophe. There is not one safe and secure disposal option for the highly radioactive waste produced by nuclear power stations. And the history of Canadian (CANDU) reactors is plagued with problems, with many of them breaking down early or being decommissioned, as the costs of repairs are far greater than initial startup costs. It is also critical to note that accidents do happen, with 22 accidents occurring since the catastrophic incident at Chernobyl.

Plutonium can be released into the environment as a result of nuclear energy development. Concern over the harmful effects of plutonium is growing because of discoveries about the subtle effects of low-level radiation. Plutonium may be many times more dangerous than previously thought.

Besides, at every step of nuclear power generation greenhouse gases are emitted. Approximately 240 000 to 366 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide are produced every year from plant construction, uranium mining, milling uranium ore, road transportation, fuel fabrication, conversion and refining activities. Beyond these direct emissions, low-grade uranium mined from Saskatchewan is upgraded, largely in the United States, using coal fired powerthe most carbon intensive energy producer.

And then theres the fact that nuclear power has cost the Canadian public billions: Over a fifty-year period (from 1953 to 2002), government subsidies to Atomic Energy of Canada Limited totaled $17.5 billion (in 2001 dollars). Cost overruns on the last nuclear station to be built in Ontario at Darlington were in the billions of dollars, and debt incurred by Ontario Hydro in the operations of its power reactors amounted to over $35 billion dollars. Ontario regulators have determined that the Candu 6 reactor will cost about $2845 per kilowatt, meaning the planned Alberta plant would cost around $3.9 billion to run. It has been estimated by the industry-owned Nuclear Waste Management Organization that the waste will produce a cost of $25 billion dollars to manage it for only 300 years, and thats just a small chunk of the hundreds of thousands of years it must be stored and managed. Too often local governments and community members are only presented with the slick advertising and false promises of people who stand to gain substantially from fostering a nuclear power industry in Alberta. For these reasons and more, the Sierra Club of Canada is among several environmental organizations dedicated to ensuring that Albertans get to hear both sides of the nuclear energy debate.

The Sierra Club of Canada is a national environmental advocacy group made up of 10 000 members, supporters and youth affiliate members from across Canada with offices in Ottawa, Victoria,

Sydney, Corner Brook, Halifax, Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto.

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