There’s little love for nuclear energy in Canada, where reactors, mostly in Ontario, generate 15 per cent of the country’s electricity—only opposition and indifference. At least, that’s Jeremy Whitlock’s impression. The manager of non-proliferation and safeguards at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. says the industry is vilified one minute, ignored the next. A recent Pacific Basin nuclear conference in Vancouver was an example of the latter. It drew some 600 scientists and experts, but barely merited a mention in any of the local newspapers, TV or radio stations. There weren’t even any protesters, despite the relatively recent tsunami-inflicted meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in 2011. “Nuclear is a strange beast,” Whitlock opines. “You spend half your time wishing people would pay less attention to you, and you spend the other half wishing they would [pay more attention].”
Such is the strange relationship the world has with nuclear power. On the one hand, splitting the atom represents one of mankind’s greatest achievements. On the other, people tend to be deathly afraid of it—which is understandable, given its birth alongside the atomic bomb.
Yet, despite renewed safety concerns in the wake of Fukushima, there’s cautious optimism within the industry. As the world grapples with global warming, nuclear energy represents a bountiful, scalable and carbon-free source of baseload electricity, the always-on backbone of any power grid system. The same can’t be said for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which don’t work when the sun isn’t shining and the air is still. “A vote against nuclear is not a vote for renewables,” Whitlock says. “It’s a vote for natural gas [power plants].”
Moreover, new designs promise to make tomorrow’s reactors smaller, safer and more affordable, with experts saying the high upfront costs of today’s light water reactors is a key reason utilities avoid them. British environmentalist Mark Lynas grew up anti-nuke, but now says we’re going to have to learn to love nuclear “if we want to both keep the lights on and reduce CO2 emissions.”
The current antipathy toward nuclear energy has already led to some questionable public policy decisions. In the wake of Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to phase out all of the country’s nuclear reactors, which generate about one-fifth of the country’s electricity. In their place, Germany plans to boost its reliance on renewables such as wind and solar, to as much as 60 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2035, up from 25 per cent today. But, in addition to contributing to soaring energy prices that threaten to bog down Europe’s economic engine, the shift has so far led to an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions, as Germany burns more coal to back up those intermittent power sources—a situation that promises to get worse as more nuclear plants are taken off-line. “Germany has stuck up a lot of windmills, but it’s had to back it up with a lot of fossil fuels,” says Neil Alexander, the executive director of Saskatchewan’s Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, which focuses mainly on non-energy uses for nuclear research, including medicine. “It’s now known as the dirty man of Europe.”
In the United States, meanwhile, talk of a “nuclear renaissance” has also come off the boil in recent years. Back in 2009, there were pending applications to build 31 new reactors, but, as of last year, only five were going ahead. At the same time, many of the more than 100 reactors in operation, most built before the 1980s, are in need of refurbishment or are at risk of being shut down. Ron Oberth, the president of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries, says plummeting natural gas prices due to an unexpected boom in U.S. shale reserves are a key culprit, making gas-fired plants more economically attractive—at least in the short term. By some estimates, the cost per megawatt to build a natural gas-fired power plant is now one-sixth that of a nuclear reactor, with the two reactors currently under construction in Georgia estimated to cost about $14 billion.
Closer to home, Canada’s most nuclear-dependent province, Ontario, has similarly lost interest in nuclear for budgetary reasons. Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government recently shelved plans to build two new reactors at the Darlington nuclear station, arguing it can’t justify the $10-billion cost when there’s currently ample generating capacity. Critics, however, say the extra capacity is only due to stalled economic growth, caused in part by rising electricity costs resulting from the shift to pricier renewable energy sources.
There are, however, a number of countries who remain committed to nuclear power. China, for example, is in the midst of a massive nuclear push, with some 28 new nuclear power plants under construction. It’s not because the Chinese are more comfortable with nuclear energy, but because the alternative—adding more coal-fired power plants to the hundreds already planned—is even less palatable in a country where the air is quickly turning brown. Even the U.K. is set to build its first new reactor, at Hinkley Point, the first such project in the European Union since the mid-1990s. The British say the controversial plant is necessary to offset the closure of older coal-fired plants and nuclear plants, and will generate seven per cent of the U.K.’s energy for the next six decades.
The debate, then, isn’t necessarily whither nuclear, but how much and where. Japan is currently grappling with this question as it prepares to restart 48 reactors shut down in the wake of Fukushima—a decision that was controversial before Mount Ontake erupted last month, killing at least 51, and underscoring the island country’s vulnerability to seismic surprises. Yet, as bad as Fukushima was, the meltdown itself wasn’t particularly deadly. So far, no deaths have been blamed on radiation, although more than 100,000 people were evacuated. In the longer term, the estimates of radiation-related cancer deaths range widely from 15 to 1,500 people (because of the difficulty in determining what triggered a cancer), according to one recent study. But if body count is to be factored into decisions, one must also consider that some studies have linked CO2 emissions and global warming to as many as 150,000 deaths worldwide every year.
Part of the nuclear industry’s challenge, then, is to better educate people about radiation and the risks it actually poses. During the Fukushima meltdown, for example, thousands fled Tokyo, even though background radiation levels in the metropolis, albeit 30 times higher than normal, were nearly the same as during a typical day in London or New York, according to Bloomberg. The mere act of boarding a plane and flying across the ocean would have resulted in greater exposure because of the thinner atmosphere at 35,000 feet, experts say.
New reactor designs with better safety features could be key to winning over skeptics. That includes models with “passive cooling” systems that can stabilize a reactor core for three days even in the event of a power loss. “If there’s an accident, they will shut down,” Oberth says. “Things will cool because of gravity and not rely on pumps.”
Other new designs—or, more accurately, designs from the 1960s that have been resurrected—include molten salt reactors that are billed as essentially meltdown-proof because they already exist in a liquid state. Researchers are also working on reducing proliferation concerns by designing reactors that don’t burn bomb-grade materials such as enriched uranium. Some even burn the spent fuel of other reactors, thus helping to address the thorny issue of long-term disposal. Further innovation will come from small, modular reactors, which have the dual benefit of being cheaper to build—allowing utilities to gradually scale up their nuclear-generating capacity—and less dangerous if something goes wrong. “At the moment, there’s a huge range of new concepts that different organizations are working on,” says Alexander. “There’s definitely a renaissance in reactor design.”
There will, of course, still be risks—just as there are with fossil fuels (47 people died in Lac-Mégantic, and 11 aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig) and even solar (the panels are often made of toxic materials). The question is whether they are outweighed by nuclear’s benefits. Whitlock believes it’s a no-brainer: “Never before has there been a technology with so much promise that has been used to so little of its potential.”