With the Pickering plant set to close in 2025 nuclear power needs a way forward

·12 min read

As the world’s population sits at the brink of eight-billion human souls—doubling in just 47 years—there is an insatiable demand for more energy.

Non-renewable dirty fossil fuels have radically altered the Earth’s atmosphere while ocean levels are rising dangerously (Florida alone is expected to lose $66 billion in real estate value over the next 75 years due to lost coastal lands). As our climate continues to warm toward a tipping point, we are in the middle of an accelerated plan to replace our 250-year dependence on carbon, since coal was first broadly used to fuel the industrial age.

Nuclear power has, at times, been at the centre of this plan.

Since the 1950s, it has gained popularity and during the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed destined to be our answer to carbon. High profile nuclear disasters such as Three Mile Island in the U.S. (1979), Chernobyl in Russia (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011) dealt a massive blow to the viability of nuclear power.

Most nuclear plants that generate electricity use thermal reactors with enriched uranium to extract power through a process called nuclear fission—a reaction caused by the splitting of the nucleus of an atom into two or more nuclei.

The devastation from nuclear radiation when reactors meltdown, rendering entire landscapes unrecognizable, has drawn more attention to forms of renewable energy, which pose very little risk.

Currently nuclear power is responsible for meeting approximately 60 percent of Ontario’s energy needs. But debate continues over the technology’s safety, cost and capabilities.

The long-term use of nuclear energy is an issue very much up in the air.

While some activists say nuclear is the way forward—bridging the gap between dirty fossil fuels and renewable energies such as hydro, wind and solar—notable environmental organizations like Greenpeace call it a “distraction”.

“It's a distraction from us investing seriously in the solutions that we need to address climate change,” said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Program Director at Greenpeace.

He hints at the transition to renewable energy sources. Nuclear energy is not renewable. There is a finite amount of uranium and plutonium on Earth.

But many scientists are not concerned since uranium and plutonium are energy dense, meaning a lot of potential power for electricity production can be extracted from a small amount of raw material.

One of the major problems with renewable energy sources is they are not available on-demand. Solar energy can only be captured when the sun is shining. Similarly, wind power can only be harnessed when winds reach a certain speed.

Nuclear, on the other hand, can be harnessed around the clock and is available to our electricity grid on demand.

“In terms of viable replacement for fossil fuels, you need to do something that's as good or better, and nuclear fits that model,” said Chris Keefer, president of Canadians for Nuclear Energy.

Canada is failing badly in its commitment to reduce emissions. We have endorsed nine national plans since 1990 to meet carbon reduction goals; we have failed on all of them. Currently, Canada ranks 31st among the 38 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP). We also rank 24th for ability to reduce carbon intensity over a decade.

“We’ve really just been treading water,” said Keefer.

Nuclear power provides the opportunity to create emissions-free power that can be supplied on an on-demand basis; it provided 90 percent of the energy needed to phase out coal in Ontario after the early 2000s.

Surprising to some, nuclear power is the cleanest of all energy technologies. Since uranium and plutonium are energy dense, very little mining needs to be done to extract the raw materials. In addition, the only substance emitted from nuclear plants is water vapour.

“I'm a physician, I work at a hospital, I had a baby who was in an incubator for five weeks. We need to have really reliable electricity,” Keefer said. “And nuclear provides that with the lowest emissions, lifecycle emissions of any power generating technology.”

But some environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, still staunchly oppose nuclear power.

One of the major concerns is nuclear waste.

Proponents argue pop culture has done a disservice to the nuclear movement.

The animated show The Simpsons, which is in its 33rd season, running since 1989, routinely lampoons the fictional Springfield nuclear plant.

It is notorious for safety violations that include leaky pipes, unsafe storage and spent nuclear fuel being dumped into surrounding waters.

Such depictions, and the lingering effect of the Cold War, when the nuclear-arms race loomed large over multiple generations, have shaped people’s perceptions about nuclear power as a fuel source.

“You have a number of communities who are unwilling to host nuclear repositories. And there's some deep concern, especially given where Ontario is located and where existing nuclear facilities are located, near the Great Lakes where you could see a possible contamination of our drinking water,” says Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario.

The Party has a stated position on nuclear power, included on its website: “Don’t build new uranium mines or nuclear plants that add to our huge pile of dangerous nuclear waste that has already been in ‘temporary’ storage for 50 years.”

Nuclear waste is much easier to track than emissions from fossil fuels. We know exactly where nuclear waste is stored unlike fossil fuel waste which is sent out and dispersed invisibly into the atmosphere.

Estimates are that coal used to kill 1,000 people in Ontario every year; by replacing it with nuclear, we have essentially saved a thousand lives annually.

Supporters of the energy source point to the relatively small footprint created by nuclear power and push back against those who believe the waste by-products are too dangerous a risk to tolerate.

The World Nuclear Association estimates that, on average, the waste created by a reactor for one year of a person’s electricity needs would be the size of a brick. Only 5 grams, about a teaspoon of this would be what is considered high level waste.

There are three levels of nuclear waste. Low-level waste includes mops, rags, clothes, floor sweepings and other industrial items that contain short-lived radiation and can be handled with simple precautions. Intermediate-level waste consists of reactor core components, resins and filters which are more radioactive. High-level waste is the spent fuel. Due to the long-lived radioactivity, this waste must be carefully managed over the long term.

After high-level waste is cooled, it is stored in deep geological repositories. These repositories are designed to ensure that harmful radiation would not reach the surface even in the event of an earthquake or through the passage of time.

“There's no plausible way or mechanism for properly contained nuclear waste to get out and harm anyone,” Keefer said. “We're not talking about a civilization storing it, we're talking about geology, storing it in geology, with the correct geology that has been stable for hundreds of millions of years, and can really effectively contain the waste. The way for it to get out of the geologic repository is that it has to dissolve in water and move outwards through the rock to get to a water table or get to the surface where it can potentially harm people.”

Another problem for proponents of nuclear power is the association with the technology’s use as a weapon.

“People are afraid of nuclear because they are afraid of the nuclear bomb. And they've made that kind of that leap in their head that a nuclear plant can explode like a nuclear bomb [but] the physics just don’t allow that,” Keefer says.

Two nuclear meltdowns in particular have shaped the attitudes of many Canadians: Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Chernobyl was the only nuclear meltdown to cause direct deaths as a result of radiation exposure. It was an old nuclear site in the Ukraine that wasn’t being managed properly and when the meltdown occurred, 31 people died directly from the disaster.

Global regulations and safety standards are much more strict now.

“I was at a nuclear waste facility, where they were changing the lighting from fluorescent to LED, and they'd had a seven-month study, just to make sure that rewiring the lighting system would have no impact on the running of this area that was just stored nuclear fuel casks,” Keefer explains. “Everything is so overdone in terms of the engineering and the planning and that's a good thing. It's really admirable, this culture of excellence.”

The Fukushima nuclear accident happened as a result of the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan and a tsunami that hit the coast in 2011.

There were no deaths as a direct result of radiation exposure during the disaster but there were deaths from the government’s mismanaged evacuation plan.

Stensil fears a similar disastrous emergency management plan could put Toronto at risk if a meltdown were to occur at the Pickering nuclear plant.

“Having a nuclear station in the middle of a city is not a smart thing, in the event that you do have an accident. [It] was an issue that we raised a lot after the Fukushima disaster,” Stensil says. “I don't believe the government has adequate evacuation plans for the Greater Toronto [Area]. I just don't believe that.”

The plant, which has been in operation since 1971, is one of the largest in the world, supplying 14 percent of Ontario’s electricity.

Pickering has been at the centre of the debate around nuclear energy in Ontario as the plant is set to officially close in 2025, with two of its remaining six reactors shuttering in 2024.

Since it is over 50 years old, it would need upgrades to be kept in operation. Instead, the Ontario government has decided to shut it down.

Schreiner says the Green Party of Ontario believes nuclear will be a part of our electricity supply for a long time, but he believes there are benefits to the closing of Pickering and does not support the construction of more nuclear plants in the future, largely due to the risks.

“We're strong supporters of closing Pickering. It's past its best before date.”

Pickering originally had eight reactors but two were shut down in the early 2000s. Stensil sees this as proof that the nuclear plant is no longer needed.

“We don't need those reactors,” he said. “And because of falling electricity demand and other alternatives that have been put online, we're not using the full capacity of the nuclear station.”

Approximately 8 percent of Ontario’s electricity still comes from natural gas, and once Pickering closes, the Ontario government plans to replace it with more natural gas, which releases harmful methane into the atmosphere. Methane is considered a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. If natural gas replaces the energy produced at the Pickering plant, Canada’s all-sector national GHG emissions will increase by one percent.

“Unfortunately, due to a lack of vision, we are heading in the wrong direction,” Keefer said. “We need to be adding and building more carbon free electricity generation. But in fact, we're doing the opposite by letting this plant shut down.”

Stensil and Schreiner are hoping Ontario can come up with a plan to replace Pickering with renewable energy.

“We think Pickering should be replaced with a wind, solar, water-power, combined with storage capacity,” Schreiner said, noting that solar has become the cheapest form of clean electricity generation.

While solar may be the lowest cost option, it requires an outsourcing of solar panels.

There are economic benefits to using nuclear power.

“We have our own reactor technology, and we control the entire fuel cycle for our nuclear fleet, which gives us unparalleled energy security in a world where there's more and more geopolitical issues, which are affecting energy prices,” Keefer said.

“If we're talking about replacing fossil fuels and spending the hundreds of billions that are necessary so that we have options, we can either spend that in country where people make great salaries, as you know, skilled trades people and operators throughout this whole sector, which is all in Canada, or we send that money to China and import solar panels and wind turbines that unfortunately can't can't replace fossil fuel services.”

While Stensil is against nuclear energy and Schreiner wants it phased out, many environmentalists support the use of nuclear power; the co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, left the organization in 1986 to support nuclear energy generation.

In a historic shift, the Green Party of Finland voted to adopt a pro-nuclear stance earlier this year with the party manifesto backing nuclear as a “sustainable energy”.

It is the first Green Party across the globe to ditch the anti-nuclear stance.

Keefer sees this as a positive step toward a more global acceptance of nuclear power.

“I think as the threat of climate change looms larger and larger, nuclear is really the obvious solution.”

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer