by Jim Harding
I have been closely watching the controversy over the Energy Alberta-AECL (Atomic Energy of Canada Limited) proposal to build nuclear plants in the Peace River area to power the tar sands extraction. While some local politicians may think this presents great economic opportunities, I think the “golden egg” will again prove to be a myth. Without huge subsidies, nuclear power might not even survive in today’s energy market. It’s no coincidence that private investors avoid nuclear, and that the government mustguarantee the industry’s liability for it to get insurance. We should never forget that the AECL’s internal documents admit their Candus are no more or less safe than many other designs.
Ontario’s Energy Probe has estimated that, accounting for debt and interest, subsidies to the AECL since 1958 total $75 billion. Without the many hidden subsidies going to nuclear the direct cost to the ratepayer would go up by 300%. The taxpayer is paying this rate indirectly when other lesscost alternatives are possible..
Cost projections have consistently been underestimated. The Ontario Darlington plant, built in Canada, went over budget by a whopping 380% – going from $2.5 to over $13 billion. Decommissioning radioactive reactors and trying to deal with the accumulating spent fuel (toxic for 800 generations) will push nuclear costs even higher, especially for our grandchildren. Then there’s the matter of whether the AECL will even construct the proposed Advanced Candu Reactor (ACR). The AECL has a litany of failed designs, and this one would be extremely controversial, as it would use reprocessed spent fuel from US light water reactors. This is presently not allowed in Canada, and, interestingly, has been banned in the US due to the proliferation risks it carries. Many observers believe the ACR may be a Trojan Horse for launching an international nuclear waste dump in the Canadian West.
And let us not forget that there are serious health risks from the nuclear fuel system, which the industry, like the tobacco industry, denies or obscures. While the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) officially denies the risks of low level radiation, scientific bodies like the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (e.g. BEIR VII) disagree. The US Surgeon General now considers low level radiation from radon gas to be the second cause of lung cancer.
After reviewing 17 studies covering 136 nuclear sites in 7 countries, including Canada, it was concluded that children 9 and under living near these nuclear facilities were 24% more likely to die of leukemia. (This is reported in the European Journal of Cancer Care.) Furthermore, the nuclear industry’s claim that they are not connected to the nuclear weapons industry is patently false.
As just one example, Saskatchewan uranium enriched in the US provides a large amount of the depleted uranium (DU), which is used to make DU weapons, which have been used since the 1990s in the Middle East. These weapons spread cancer-causing uranium aerosols (lasting billions of years) into war zones, which return to villages, gardens and family homes. Again it is the children who are most victimized by illnesses. Using such indiscriminate weapons should constitute a “war crime.” They make a mockery of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the Canadian (and Saskatchewan) governments continually hide behind.
I realize that the nuclear industry presently tries to market itself as the magic bullet for global warming, but nothing could be further from the truth. The nuclear fuel system is not carbon-free (or “clean”, as the CNA says). As just one example, Saskatchewan uranium is enriched at two huge dirty coal plants at Paducah, Kentucky.
Furthermore, several reputable studies have found that to replace enough coal to make a significant dint in its greenhouse gases (GHGs), a multi-billion dollar nuclear plant would have to be built somewhere every week from 2010 to 2050. This is simply not going to happen, and the costs and risks would never justify such action. Anyway, using nuclear to produce heavy oil, with three times the GHGs of other oil, which is what this Alberta Energy- AECL plan would likely come down to, exposes the nuclear industry’s “environmental ticket.”
Greenhouse gases are reduced more quickly, and more cheaply, by going with sustainable energy. Energy efficiency and renewables are already producing more electricity worldwide than nuclear, and the trend is increasing. We in the Canadian West are unfortunately being blinded to these facts and opportunities by our economic dependency on non-renewables like fossil fuels and uranium.
With Alberta industry using more than half of the electricity produced there, there are clearly lots of options for cutting waste, using co-generation and building up the renewables, which already produce 1600 MW in the province. That is the safe, economic and moral way to go. We have had our own experience with the AECL and a private consortium when they tried to establish a Candu- 3 industry here in Saskatchewan in the early 1990s. Once people looked closely and rationally at their astonishing claims, and found out what they omitted to tell us, their nuclear balloon burst quite quickly. I suspect that if Albertans ask the hard questions the same thing will happen there.
Dr. Jim Harding, who lives in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies.