The recent false alarm at the Pickering nuclear power plant highlights the mythologies and heightened perceptions of risk with nuclear power. The anti-nuke activists have created deep misunderstanding about nuclear power that undermines climate change action.
A watershed moment of awareness occurred in my early university years when I learned that very few problems have a magic-bullet solution. In fact, most challenges we confront are, to use C. George Churchman’s phrase, "wicked problems."
A wicked problem features layers of complexity. Technical uncertainty, forecast errors, and multiple check-mating interest groups stymie solutions. Mitigating the effects of climate change is a wicked problem requiring a multi-pronged and sustained solution.
Solving the wicked climate change has three requirements. First, carbon dioxide emissions must decline drastically and globally. Second, adaptation to a warmer word is inevitable and will assume increasing importance. Third, to maintain global standards of living we need a continuous supply of reliable and affordable energy. No one, whether part of the advanced economies or the developing world, will support any policy that reduces incomes.
Over the last three or four decades opponents of nuclear energy have waged an increasingly vigorous campaign to discourage nuclear power. Typically, they emphasize the safety of the technology and the waste issue.
Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima are common examples of the risks of nuclear power. Chernobyl was an accident triggered by a flawed design and human error, vastly compounded by a secretive and paranoid Russian government. By any measure, the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island was relatively minor. No deaths occurred and the small amount of radioactive gas released produced few harms.
Fukushima was not a nuclear accident, but the result of a tsunami. Had key parts of the facility been positioned even 10 meters higher and away from the shores exposed to periodic and regular tsunamis, the reactors would have survived without mishap.
Yes, nuclear power is technologically complex, and yes, human error, design shortcomings and management missteps have created risks and loss of life. But estimates of the total deaths from nuclear power plant accidents have been wildly exaggerated. Compare the fewer than 60 direct deaths from the three high profile nuclear accidents to the 40 people incinerated in the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster or the estimated 6.1 million who die prematurely each year from fossil fuel-induced air pollution.
Nuclear technology has advanced on many fronts, two of which are important. First the fast neuron reactor, championed by Peter Ottensmeyer, promises to use existing "spent fuel" currently in storage in Canada, The waste produced by the reactors currently in operation still retains some 99 per cent of the energy originally present. Using this as fuel would dramatically reduce the scale of the waste storage problem, while increasing the electricity generation capacity.
Second, small modular reactors are simpler to construct, require much lower levels of financing due to their reduced scale, produce much less waste and are easier to deploy. This technology has the potential to reduce the reliance on grid distribution common to hydro and renewables while meeting the energy needs of remote communities.
Canada has 22 reactors producing 15 per cent of our total energy, which have several remaining decades of safe operation. The appetite for expanding this capacity has been low, but thankfully a nuclear renaissance may be emerging here in Canada.
At the recent meeting of the Council of the Federation, the premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on developing nuclear power, especially in the form of small nuclear reactors.
While the federal crown agency Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) continues to play a role in research and development, it has evolved into a government-owned, contractor-operated organization supporting private sector initiatives that will assume increasing responsibility for creating new nuclear technologies.
To mitigate the climate-change emergency, we need more muscular policy on all fronts. All orders of government need to add nuclear to the portfolio of climate-change solutions, starting with an informed debate about the potential and true risks of emerging nuclear technologies, and not the technology of 50 years ago. After all, we would never compare the safety of a clunker from the 1960s to a modern hybrid vehicle with advanced collision warnings and Apple CarPlay.
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba. Joseph Borsa has a PhD in nuclear biophysics and is a retired Atomic Energy of Canada scientist.