[ RadSafe ] " Time to fire up the reactors? "

Jaro jaro-10kbq at sympatico.ca
Sat May 12 15:35:20 CDT 2007


Time to fire up the reactors?

After suffering a bad reputation for decades, nuclear power gets a boost
from the desire to cut greenhouse gases

ARTHUR KAPTAINIS, Freelance, May 12, 2007

"Nuclear is clean and reliable," runs the voice-over to a television image
of a blue sky, a fluffy cloud and a leafy green treetop. "It's been with us
for over 40 years, already supplies 51 per cent of our electricity and must
gear up now to power the years ahead."

It is hard to say whether this message from the Canadian Nuclear
Association - rarely seen in hydro-happy Quebec but ubiquitous in Ontario -
is having a significant effect on Canadian public opinion. But there is
little doubt that the energy source equated 25 years ago with core
meltdowns, toxic waste, carcinoma outbreaks, giant dandelions and mutant
livestock has been looking better lately.

Certainly, the nuclear nightmare has been overtaken in the scare sweepstakes
by the shrinking glaciers and rising tides implied by fossil fuel
consumption and global warming. Even if the shenanigans of Iran and North
Korea (plus a recent surge of nuclear interest in Turkey, Egypt and
oil-drenched Saudi Arabia) continue to surround the option with background

"We poll every three months," says Claudia Lemieux, communications director
of the industry lobby group. "The support for nuclear keeps going up."

That endorsement remains equivocal: While a predictable 93 per cent of
Canadians polled in March by Ipsos-Reid expressed a preference for "more
government commitment to non-carbon-dioxide-producing energy sources," only
50 per cent were interested in "more government commitment to nuclear

The duality can be heard in informed comment as well.

"If you just ask me whether nuclear energy is environmentally bad, I'm going
to say yes," says Matt Dobbs, a McGill physics professor who teaches a
course on energy and the environment. "But if you say, 'Given that you want
to generate so much power,' I would probably argue that in Ontario or
Alberta, the most environmentally sound way to do it is through nuclear."

The upward trend is not in opinion only. There are 28 reactors under
construction worldwide and 64 planned. Only 32 were planned in 2004. Many
new reactors are in Asia (five in China and seven in India), but little
Finland expects to put on line the largest reactor in the world in 2010.

As of this week, the energy grid of Romania is 18 per cent nuclear, with the
opening of the second of two CANDU reactors designed by Atomic Energy of
Canada Ltd. There are proposals also to build reactors in the American
south, bringing to an end the unofficial moratorium on U.S. construction
that followed the Three Mile Island accident (and public-relations disaster)
of 1979.

Ontario has committed itself to a 20-year, $40-billion reinvestment in
nuclear plants in tandem with a phaseout of coal-fired power stations.
Private money is refurbishing two idle reactors in the Bruce station on Lake
Huron. Ontario Power Generation (a utility descended from Ontario Hydro) has
applied to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for a licence to build new
reactors at the existing Darlington facility.

Critics of the plan cite the delays and grotesque costs that attended the
reactivation of Pickering reactors in the 1990s. Whether cost overruns
reflected poor economic planning or changing political demands from the
Ontario government is a matter of debate.

Quebec, with only one reactor, Gentilly 2 near Trois Rivieres, remains
relatively isolated from the issue. Hydro-Quebec will decide in 2008 to
renovate or decommission the unit after assessing the success of the current
renovation of the similar Point Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick.

All the same, there is wide expectation that the world will go nuclear.
Uranium prices, accordingly, doubled in 2006, as did industry expenditures.
The closing price this week of $120 U.S. per pound represents about a
16-fold increase from the lows of early 2001.

Since Canada has the third-largest potentially recoverable uranium resources
in the world, and the largest currently viable reserves, we are deeply
implicated in the new nuclear age.

The high-grade mines of Saskatchewan provide one-third of the global supply
of natural uranium. Most of the medical radioisotopes used around the world
are of Canadian origin, and AECL continues to market the famous CANDU
reactor, which uses heavy water as a moderator and thus can operate on
unenriched natural uranium.

None of this has altered the stance of anti-nuclear activists. Greenpeace
members occupied Premier Dalton McGuinty's office the day after the Ontario
announcement and various malcontents have filed a complaint about the
fluffy-cloud commercial with the Competition Bureau of Canada.

Gordon Edwards, the Vanier mathematics professor and longtime president of
the Canadian Council for Nuclear Responsibility, softens his tone a little
these days, but arrives at the same conclusion.

"Nuclear cannot really solve the greenhouse-gas problem and global warming,"
he says. "It can make a contribution, but the contribution it can make is
very small compared with the problems it itself creates, which in many ways
are comparable."

Despite the new spin added to the debate by global warming, and some
technological advances - engineers now speak of Generation III and
Generation IV reactors - the fundamental nuclear realities have not changed
much over the decades.

The energy potential of one gram of uranium-235 is equivalent to that of
between two and three tonnes of coal - a startling fact that should remind
us that nuclear plants spare the atmosphere of carbon dioxide both by
withholding smokestack emissions and by lowering transportation costs. Seven
uranium oxide pellets the size of pencil erasers supply the annual energy
needs of the average Canadian home.

Uranium mining does release radon gas and its tailings must be isolated from
water. But in most respects, the environmental impact is no greater than
from other types of mining.

Objections are focused on the back end, particularly on the waste that
remains after the electricity has been generated. Spent fuel - spent because
the fissionable uranium-235 atoms have split - is more radioactive than it
was on arrival and contains a smorgasbord of heavy elements and isotopes.

Some of these decay so slowly they are essentially non-toxic. The half-life
of uranium-238, the dominant isotope in uranium ore, is 4.6 billion years.
Others, like radium, curium and americium, are strongly radioactive and must
be stored.

For years, anti-nuclear advocates have pointed to the long half-lives of
some isotopes to promulgate the belief that radioactive wastes outlive the
containers they are stored in.

But just as there are half-lives, there are half-truths. More than 99.9 per
cent of the radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste will decay to stable
elements in only 20 years while they sit in the swimming pools adjacent to
reactors that represent the first step of the cooling-down and disposal

Another persistent canard regards the potential of waste to migrate through
water leaching after it is laid to rest. Geologists are aware of this danger
and choose formations that are both highly stable and remote from water
tables. Among the best-known is the proposed Yucca range in bone-dry Nevada.

Futurists can speculate that technology in 5,000 years will be equal to
whatever problems present themselves. But this is unnecessary: Current
disposal regimes will do. Jean Barrette, a McGill nuclear physicist, offers
this instructive remark: "Uranium mines have been underground for billions
of years. That uranium doesn't migrate anywhere."

The waste must be dealt with, and Canada has been much better at producing
it than storing it. About 1.4 million spent bundles - the accumulated waste
of 45 years - are either in those swimming pools (85 per cent) or in
above-ground bunkers (the rest). In 2005, the Nuclear Waste Management
Organization recommended deep underground storage, but there has been no
decisive response from two successive federal governments.

To Barrette, this inaction brings to mind the toxic fire of 1988 in St.
Basile le Grand. "If you store tires in a big pile," he says, "one day they
will catch fire."

John Q. Public might remain uneasy about reactors themselves, but most
authorities regard the accident hazard as acceptably low. Chernobyl, by far
the worst nuclear accident and the only one directly to cause loss of life,
is perceived as a lesson permanently learned.

"They violated so many regulations in that disaster, even Soviet
regulations, which were much lower than the Western world's at the time,"
Dobbs says of the 1984 explosion. "It seems completely avoidable."

No modern reactor would, like Chernobyl, lack a containment shell.
Post-Chernobyl reactors are designed to require positive action to heat up
the core. "If you do nothing," Dobbs says, "if somehow, every power backup
source and control system were to fail - the reactor would shut down, and
shut down very quickly."

Fossil fuel, nuclear advocates observe, with its attendant mining accidents
and pollution-related illnesses, is the truly lethal energy option.

Security is a bigger issue in the post-9/11 world. Edwards questions whether
those swimming pools, and the reactors themselves, are safe from attack.

It is interesting that The Anti-Nuclear Game, a 1990 book aimed at what
author Gordon Sims regarded as the irresponsible fear-mongering of the
nuclear resistance, cites the supposedly next-to-impossible prospect of a
jumbo-jet crash into a reactor during a meltdown as one of the few ways a
deadly accident could happen. While this scenario remains extremely
unlikely, it no longer sounds ludicrous.

Most experts still regard the extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from
spent fuel - called reprocessing when it is benign - as beyond the technical
means of gangsters and terrorists. (Building a bomb once you have the
plutonium is easy.) [not according to the recent N. Korean experience - a

Barrette is not so sure. "Technology gets more accessible," he says, arguing
that the closed market in parts is really all that keeps nuclear weaponry
away from those who want it.

"If people want to make mischief, want to get plutonium from a reactor, it
is extremely difficult to make a system where this is impossible."

This explains why the United States has forbidden the reprocessing of
nuclear waste for decades. France reprocesses waste, as does Britain and
Japan. Canada has no interest in reprocessing because of its abundant
uranium supply and because CANDU waste cannot be economically reprocessed.

Paradoxically, CANDU reactors can run on reprocessed waste from light-water
reactors. This has led to the proposal of two-reactor installations, with
the light-water waste feeding the CANDU.

None of this addresses the security objection. Now the Bush administration
is promoting something it calls the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which
would end the U.S. reprocessing ban and unite the reprocessing countries
behind a new technology that does not yield pure plutonium.

Add to this initiative the promises made of Generation IV reactors. These
reactors (expected in 2025) will be more economical because they produce
higher pressures and temperatures. They are also expected to be more
environmentally benign and impervious to misuse.

To the advocates of nuclear energy, however, there is no need to await new

"We feel that those adjectives describe the technology today," Jeremy
Whitlock, manager of non-proliferation and safeguards for AECL, says of the
vaunted Generation IV advantages. "The plan is to move the technology up a
notch in all areas, and at all points to keep the public onboard."

akaptainis at sympatico.ca

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