Dirty, costly, and dangerous

Nuclear power’s second half-life

by Jim Trautman

February 2006

The nuclear option, believed dead only a few short years ago, has a whole new lease on life, thanks largely to a cosmetic make-over as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels. But as Jim Trautman shows, nuclear is no panacea for our energy woes.

WAS IT A coincidence, or part of a careful strategy, that saw the televisions of Ontario filled with pro-nuclear ads last summer? As gasoline prices headed for the stratosphere, television ads from nuclear power industry repeatedly reminded viewers that nuclear power was safe, it was clean, and it was cheap.

The nuclear power option, believed dead only a few short years ago, appears to have reinvented itself in good capitalist style. In the US, President George W. Bush has been singing the nuclear power song, and in Canada the lobbyists for the industry have been hard at work to push for new facilities under the guise a viable alternative to our looming energy crisis.

Canada has been onside for the nuclear option since the end of World War II, with Atomic Energy of Canada selling uranium and CANDU reactors around the world. The mining of uranium and reactors is big business for both private industry and the government.

During World War II, Canada’s contribution to the famous Manhattan Project – the program to build the first nuclear weapons – was significant. Canadian uranium made the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and with the end of the war, uranium was mined for the manufacture of nuclear weapons and fuel rods.

Remember the magazine, newspaper and television ads about how the mushroom cloud could be turned into a new, peaceful use of nuclear power? Comic books were distributed to kids in school, showing ships, airplanes, nuclear power plants-the wave of tomorrow, today. Nuclear power was to become the main source of safe, clean, and cheap power to light our new homes and factories.

With all of the positive press, the public had become convinced that nuclear power was the way to bring prosperity and cheap energy, with nary a mention of the real cost, nor of what to do with the massive amount of radioactive waste that was generated. But Ontario’s actual experience with nuclear power quickly gave the lie to claims that nuclear comes cheap-which makes it all the more audacious that these very claims have surfaced once again to fight the battle for the hearts and minds of voters. The true cost of a kilowatt hour of nuclear energy includes everything from construction, to ongoing maintenance, to debt-servicing to waste storage.

Through Atomic Energy of Canada, the federal government began to market CANDU reactors to the provinces and to other nations. Ontario was the one province that jumped on to the nuclear power bandwagon. The facilities at Pickering, located on Lake Ontario east of Toronto, and the Bruce facilities on Lake Huron are both owned by Ontario Power Generation and were constructed first. Ontario Power Generation is one of the largest nuclear power corporations in the world. These were followed in the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the oil crisis, with the plans to build a facility at Darlington. Darlington is a perfect example of how far off cost estimates for nuclear facilities can prove: $5 billion was the stated cost to construct Darlington and put it into operation, and completion was projected for late 1988. The facility was not completed, however, until 1993; by then the cost had skyrocketed to over $14 billion.

Ontario’s entanglement with the high cost of nuclear power was not yet over, however. For by the time Darlington finally came online, the facilities at Pickering and Bruce had been in operation for over twenty years and required numerous costly shutdowns to undergo maintenance.

The maintenance was-Ontarians were told -to be of a short duration and minimal cost. The Pickering reactors, which went online in 1970, are the oldest in Canada. When the facility was shutdown for maintenance, the first reactor was scheduled to restart in June 2000. The other three reactors would follow at six-month intervals. It sounded so orderly and easy. But once again, as with any nuclear project, reality tends to get in the way. The restarts were several years behind schedule, and the entire cost of the project skyrocketed to over $4.25 billion. This debt was, of course, socialized: it was up to the public, to Ontario taxpayers, to pay it. For several years now an $8 surcharge has been tacked on to the monthly electric bill so as to pay the debt incurred maintaining the nuclear facilities. When the surcharge will be removed is not known.

The other major claim repeated ad nauseam in the ads is that nuclear energy is good to the environment. Never mentioned is the waste from a nuclear power plant. Never mentioned is the fact that Canada and the United States have never been able to solve the problem of the massive amount of nuclear waste material we’ve already generated, which will continue to be highly radioactive for millions of years. Never discussed is what is to be done with the material.

The United States is constructing a facility deep under the Yucca Mountains, but it is decades away from completion. In September 2005, President Bush stated his intentions to push for more nuclear power plants in the United States. He claimed it will lead to a “cleaner, safer nation.”

Ontario appears to have embarked on the same road with the recent announcement that, due to the high cost of natural gas and other sources of energy, the solution of choice is to spend $40 billion on new nuclear facilities. When Premier Dalton McGuinty was elected he promised that the coal-fired plants would be shut down by 2009. Of course, in the rush of election promises, no real plan was devised to make up the plants’ output.

All of the nuclear reactors in operation will need to be overhauled or replaced�or several new facilities would need to be constructed�over the next 20 years. In addition, the 1,100 page report issued by the Ontario Power Authority in December 2005, which recommends the new $40 billion construction of nuclear plants, does not even include the cost of new transmission lines, fuel, operating costs, or the massive charge for borrowing the capital to construct twelve new reactors. The report does not discuss the fact that large electricity-generating facilities are more costly to construct and operate than smaller facilities. Nor does it discuss the fact that large facilities that transmit large volumes of electricity over long distances lose anywhere from eight to twelve percent of their electricity in transmission.

If the past overruns are any indication, the people of Ontario should expect a final bill several times higher than the $40 billion quoted. As a public/private partnership, the public can be expected to shoulder the debt while the private takes the profit.

NEVER DISCUSSED BY the nuclear “experts” is the question of waste. Nuclear power employs uranium (a non-renewable resource with perhaps only a twenty-year supply remaining) to create the heat to boil the water to turn the turbines to generate electricity. Waste is created in every state of the process, from the mining process to the milling, to the fabrication of the fuel bundles that run the reactors. That waste is presently stored on-site. After eighteen months the bundles of nuclear fuel have to be replaced and placed into storage. The bundles are “hot” in radioactive terms, and must be cooled for at least ten years in large containers of water. After a decade the material is removed into another sealed facility at the nuclear generating station.

In the course of a single year, at least 85,000 used fuel bundles accumulate and require to be stored. In the 30 plus years of operation of nuclear facilities in Ontario, 1.9 million spent fuel bundles—-45 thousand tonnes of nuclear waste—-have been created. Of course, the nuclear power industry loves to explain that it is not really “spent” fuel it can be reprocessed. But Canada has no reprocessing facility, and in fact the CANDU reactor model is simply not based on a reprocessing model.

The CANDU reactors have demonstrated very low production rates of electricity, large costs to construct and maintain and serious technical problems. Atomic Energy of Canada has been attempting to redesign the CANDU reactors with a newer model. But like every other project the industry touches, this redesign has run into technical problems and is years behind schedule. Politically, the nuclear power option has to be pushed, since the government and the private sector have sunk billions of dollars into it with very little return. Currently, there is only one CANDU reactor under construction in Romania.

Nuclear power is an option, but there is a dark and staggering cost to be paid. The public should weigh all the factors before allowing government and private industry to decide on their behalf. The bottom line is: local solutions are cheaper, cleaner, and safer than global solutions.

Jim Trautman is an investigative journalist located in Orton, Ontario.

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