Canada’s nuclear nabob’s try to turn green

Norman Rubin

May 20, 2000

For decades, nuclear power has been a promising industry. First, it promised electricity too cheap to meter, and nuclear-powered cars and airplanes. Later, it promised safe, reliable and economic electricity. Today, those promises are hard to make with a straight face, and even harder to keep: More than one-third of Canada’s billion-dollar Candu reactors have stopped producing any electricity (or income), and the unsupportable debt created by Candu reactors has far surpassed $10-billion, not including the additional nuclear billions in the federal debt.

So today, the nuclear industry has taken to promising environmentally friendly energy, and promising to help Canada meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 international Kyoto agreement. As David Torgerson, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) vice-president, recently told a Senate committee: “We believe quite strongly that Candu is a key to meeting the Kyoto targets.”

That promise has already been adopted by Canada’s reactor sales force — led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien. It has also been spread widely by U.S. officials. Ambassador John B. Ritch III, the U.S. representative to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, told a conference earlier this year: “Only one technology on our horizon — advanced nuclear reactors — offers a realistic promise of contributing substantially to the world’s burgeoning need for large base-load power production without exacerbating the hazards of environmental contamination and catastrophic climate change.”

To followers of the energy debate, the new emphasis is at its root a plea for continued taxpayer subsidies from an industry that can’t compete. The hope for subsidies arises from a footnote in the Kyoto accord known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). According to the CDM, countries that fail to meet their agreed targets for emissions reductions under the Kyoto accord could get compensating credits by promoting “clean development” in other countries — development that at least theoretically reduces greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable and “clean” way. Canada’s nuclear industry is basing its hopes for exporting reactors to the Third World on having them qualify for the valuable credits.

As the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Thomas Tisue explained to a Canadian Nuclear Society audience late last year, “The basic idea is easy to grasp: stimulate the use of nuclear power in developing countries through the CDM mechanism to simultaneously generate CO2 offset credits and promote sustainable development.” Because of its higher costs, he said, “nuclear would not be used by most developing countries in the absence of the CDM mechanism.”

Unfortunately for the industry, the promise that nuclear power is either sustainable or clean — or poses a practical or affordable way to lower greenhouse gas emissions — looks as empty as the industry’s earlier broken promises of cheap and reliable power:

– Canada’s nuclear industry has already generated a world-class collection of toxic trash, with virtually no funds set aside for cleaning up the mess. Ontario Hydro estimated recently that its own nuclear clean-up would cost $18.7-billion in today’s dollars. The entire clean-up fund now stands at $420-million. The rest will have to be raised in the future, since the first two decades of Ontario’s nuclear generation (like Quebec’s and New Brunswick’s) left no funds at all.

The totally unfunded radioactive waste mess of the federal Crown corporation, AECL, has been criticized by Canada’s auditor-general since 1995 as a violation of accepted accounting principles, not to mention the principles of sustainable or “clean” development.

– The industry’s waste-disposal plans — for unmonitored, irretrievable burial — have received only two public reviews, and neither supported them. In 1988, an all-party federal committee unanimously recommended a moratorium on reactor construction until the plans were improved. A second look — a nine-year federal review by an independent environmental assessment panel that finished in 1998 — unanimously judged the industry’s plans unacceptable, and produced a “hung jury” on their safety. The panel unanimously recommended that the industry not proceed with its preferred next step: selecting a site for burial.

– Although reactors emit extremely low levels of the greenhouse gases implicated in global climate change, virtually no serious plans to decrease emissions include building new reactors. Greater emissions cuts are available sooner and cheaper from a combination of efficiency gains in generation and consumption, and decentralized generation from natural gas (a low-emission fuel) and renewables. The Canadian government’s claims to CDM credits for exporting Candu reactors have accordingly been met with scorn from foreign governments and environmentalists alike.

– To the surprise of many non-experts, most major producers of nuclear power — including Ontario Power Generation (the new-generation successor to Ontario Hydro) and New Brunswick Electric Power, as well as generators in the United States, China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere — are also major coal burners and greenhouse gas emitters. Although they look like alternatives, coal power and nuclear power are really natural partners: Reactors produce constant or “base-load” power when they can run, while coal-fired stations can fire up to meet “peak” loads and keep the lights on whenever the reactors go down.

With all these developments sullying its latest repositioning as an environmental saviour, the nuclear industry should find its plea for ongoing subsidies a hard sell. But with the decision in the hands of a federal government that continues to spout the rhetoric of the nuclear industry all the way up to the prime minister, nothing can be ruled out.

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