A nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ontario. Photo via the Government of Canada

Nuclear Power, You're Our Only Hope

[Slowly backs out of the environmentalist room.]

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May 2 2017, 11:49am

A nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ontario. Photo via the Government of Canada

So nuclear power has had a rough few years.

The meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011 led to many jurisdictions—including Germany, Quebec and Japan—phasing out existing facilities. Massive cost overruns on new projects resulted in bankruptcies and financial restructuring of major players. Indigenous peoples in northern Saskatchewan have expressed serious opposition to the large-scale mining of uranium, the main fuel used in reactors.

And it sure as hell doesn't help the technology's image that hawkish politicians are on the verge of catapulting us into a radioactive hellscape using nuclear weaponry (which Canada actually played a huge role in developing during World War II, itself allowing for the spread of nuclear power in later decades).

But here's the thing.

The world likely needs far more nuclear power if it's going to avoid catastrophic climate change. That includes Canada, which currently has four operational nuclear generating stations (three massive facilities in Ontario, which provide over half of the province's electricity, and another in New Brunswick).

One of Ontario's three nuclear power plants. Photo via the Government of Canada

Look, in order to dodge that apocalyptic and rapidly incoming bullet of floods and wildfires and drought and starvation, every industrialized country will need to dramatically slash emissions by over 80 per cent by mid-century. That will require electrifying almost everything—cars, public transit, heat, lighting—as opposed to burning precious fossil fuels.

It would also be an arguably good and quite moral thing if we stopped relying as heavily on hydroelectric power, which presently makes up around 60 per cent of Canada's electricity generation, as dams are often extremely destructive for the lands and waters that many Indigenous peoples depend on for sustenance and culture.

To be sure, plenty of environmental organizations are pushing hard for the goal of 100 percent renewable energy, mostly via wind and solar.

Costs for those techs have plummeted massively in recent years. Gideon Forman, climate change policy analyst at David Suzuki Foundation, points out to VICE in an interview that there's lots of energy modelling, especially from Stanford's Mark Jacobson, that lays out a pathway for that.

"He's shown how the whole world—country by country—could be powered by renewables in the next few decades with a combination of wind and solar, some biofuels, some run-of-river hydro, some geothermal," Forman says. "I don't see the argument that we have to have nuclear and natural gas in the long run. The research we've looked at suggests in the long run we could provide all of our power—in fact, probably all of our energy—with renewables."

Some are more skeptical.

Vox's David Roberts recently detailed how renewables such as wind and solar power are what nerds call "variable renewable energy." That means they're not "dispatchable," which itself means that grid operators can't turn it on whenever needed unlike coal or natural gas.

Innovations in energy storage and transmission could obviously help with this problem, containing excess electricity for calm or cloudy days. But those would have to be some simply monumental advances given the amount of power that industrialized countries currently use. As Roberts put it: "Even with tons of new transmission, we'll still need a metric shit-ton of new storage."

That sentiment is echoed by John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, in an interview with VICE : "If you're a technological optimist, you say: 'Mr. Musk and others will solve that problem.' I talk to some people who are actually in the electricity generation business and they say 'the storage required to really run a grid or satisfy the electricity needs of a decent-sized Western economy is such that the storage would be immense.'"

That could happen. There's really no predicting this stuff. But governments aren't betting on it.

Sure, there are huge shifts towards renewables happening in some jurisdictions, such as Alberta's plan to generate 30 per cent of energy in 2030 by hydro, wind, geothermal, solar or biomass. Yet it's not renewables that will replace the base load power of coal, which is currently undergoing a national phase-out. Instead, it's the very cheap option of natural gas, largely from fracking.

That's not just happening in Alberta: effectively every jurisdiction that acknowledges the reality of climate change and doesn't have new hydro capacity at its disposal is making a leap to natural gas with an impressive sprinkling of renewables in the background.

There are serious problems with that plan. Natural gas is indeed about half as carbon-intensive as coal; relatively speaking, it's a significant improvement. But that's assuming that "fugitive" methane isn't leaking from wellheads and pipelines at a much higher rate than producers and governments are reporting.

Which is, as it turns out, a poor assumption! In addition, it's often argued that relying on natural gas as a "bridge fuel" will lead to long-term "carbon lock-in" and delay innovations in renewables. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology could save the day and allow for many more decades of burning fossil fuels, but that's another very big and unproven gamble.

Folks, this leaves only one option: refurbishing existing and building more nuclear power plants in Canada, which we know work extremely well and have had zero meltdowns or deaths or any of that awful Chernobyl shit.

In fact, a report from April 2016 that was produced in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation concluded that the addition of new nuclear power generation will almost certainly be required to hit 2050 climate targets (the only scenario in the report that didn't include nuclear had excluded the technology a priori). Of course, that transition will need to be accompanied by heavy investments in renewables, energy storage and new transmission networks. But nuclear will have to play a key role.

The switch has already happened successfully in Ontario.

Duane Bratt, political scientist at Mount Royal University and author of 2012's Canada, the Provinces, and the Global Nuclear Revival, said in an interview with VICE: "If you were to listen to the McGuinty and Wynne governments, they would say that they were able to phase coal out because of wind. And that's simply not true. It was the bringing back of nuclear reactors that did that."

Nuclear could easily be rolled out across the rest of the country, either with conventional reactors or small modular reactors (the latter housing between 150 and 300 megawatts in generating capacity).

Saskatchewan is the second largest producer of uranium in the world; to be sure, some very serious conversations about Indigenous sovereignty and consent need to occur before a government concerned with "reconciliation" throws its weight behind such an extractivist plan. Forman argues the mining and milling process is also very emissions-intensive, although a 2016 study suggests it's extremely low compared to other mining operations.

And yes, the nuclear waste issue is still very real. Forman describes: "Much of it is highly radioactive. We don't have any permanent storage for it."

Canada does have an extremely long track record of letting mining companies create toxic tailings and byproducts without any financial recourse; Indigenous peoples have often been the hardest hit by such poisonous legacies. That obviously can't be allowed to happen again.

But there hasn't been a single death associated with an incident relating to nuclear waste in Canadian history. Barrett points out the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission knows the exact location of the 2.5 million fuel bundles—which would fill the space of seven hockey rinks up to the boards—that have been used since the 1960s. All the bundles, currently housed in seven temporary locations, will eventually be moved to a "deep geological repository" to be housed safely for thousands of years.

It's not an ideal scenario. But neither is catastrophic climate change.

In fact, Bratt says the biggest deterrent to the refurbishing and expansion of nuclear isn't the waste issue, but sheer upfront costs. It's why most energy wonks will immediately scoff at nuclear; unlike gas-fired power plants—which cost around $1 billion to construct—nuclear facilities can ring in at over $10 billion, and can also take a full decade or so to get built given lengthy design and approval processes.

But that's not stopping the likes of China, South Korea and Russia from building dozens of new reactors, and investing in R&D for advanced technologies such as Generation IV reactors, thorium-based power and mixed oxide fuel; the latter is just one example of weapons-grade substances being converted into nuclear fuel.

The difference is that such governments are willing to fund things directly, as opposed to waiting for private companies to wait until conditions are profitable. It's why many Canadian eco-socialists—not counting Naomi Klein, who is vehemently anti-nuclear—have taken up the technology as a key cause; journalist Leigh Phillips has argued "there is no getting around the fact that any mass build-out of nuclear will have to be public-sector led."

However, the Canadian government has already sold off many key nuclear assets. That includes the famed CANDU reactor business back in 2011 to the scandal-ridden SNC-Lavalin for a mere $15 million. The operations of the renown Chalk River nuclear research facility was also sold off to an SNC-led consortium in 2015, and is scheduled to close in 2018 (which would leave Canada without a research reactor).

Add in the fact the federal Liberals seem determined to privatize almost everything—roads, bridges, public transit, airports, port authorities—and it appears unlikely that Canada will make any major public investments in nuclear technology in the near future; oddly, Saskatchewan's conservative government is the only one that has provided consistent interest in the technology.

Oh well, rapidly decarbonizing the country and helping to avoid catastrophic climate change with some neat-ass technology was a nice thought. Let's all start praying that Elon Musk invents that damn battery.

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.

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