Posted January 16, 2015
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that cause global warming, the world needs to burn fewer fossil fuels. Two thirds of global electricity is generated by them.
In Canada, we produce more than 60% of our electricity from renewable sources, predominantly hydropower. There is potential for more of that and we have lots of open space for wind farms or solar arrays.
Other industrialized countries, with the notable exception of France, typically have between 60% and 75% of their power from fossil fuels with coal being the biggest source.
Those countries have far fewer options. Consider for example South Korea, which has a population of 50 million in an area less than twice as big as Nova Scotia. If our province was as densely populated, there would be 27 million Nova Scotians. Halifax would have about 12 million people.
South Korea has little opportunity for hydro, and none for imports of electricity. Coal provides 43% of its electricity, coal and gas another quarter. Almost all the rest comes from 23 nuclear power installations.
How might South Korea reduce its GHGs? Wind and solar might be options, but the climate is less than ideal for solar, and they both would take up a lot of space in an already crowded country. Apart from that, today’s transmission systems have limited capacity to handle power from sources whose output varies with weather conditions rather than customer demand.
It would appear that the one viable option is to increase nuclear power, and in fact, South Korea has five more reactors under construction and a further eight planned.
China has 22 nuclear power reactors in operation, 26 under construction, and more about to start construction. Additional reactors are planned, including some of the world’s most advanced, to give more than a three-fold increase in nuclear capacity by 2030, and much more by 2050.
China also continues to build coal and gas plants and is the world’s biggest investor in renewables.
There are real risks with nuclear reactors. Construction costs are hard to control, and the industry has not established a fully satisfactory waste disposal process.
Accidents happen, two of which have been major. The 1986 meltdown of reactors at Chernobyl in Ukraine resulted in toxic contamination of soils near the site and in other parts of Europe. There were an estimated 4,000 cancer deaths in the area, and many observers feel that cancer rates further away were impacted, although there is no consensus on numbers. About 350,000 people had to be resettled.
In 2011, the Fukushima plant in Japan was struck by an earthquake and tsunami, resulting in three reactors melting down. It is not yet clear whether there will be an uptick in cancer deaths, but the financial costs are enormous and 300,000 people were displaced.
Many other accidents (such as at Three Mile Island in the United States) have been costly to repair, but resulted in few if any casualties.
Nuclear power’s track record is much safer than coal’s, notwithstanding the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.
Thousands of coal miners continue to die in accidents every year. Emissions from coal cause other problems, making the air in cities like Beijing almost unbreathable. No wonder the Chinese are rushing to diversify their sources.
Nova Scotia has no need to build new power generation of any kind. If it did, we have better alternatives than nuclear available, unlike people living in many densely populated countries.
Nova Scotia does appear to have commercially viable uranium deposits, but there has been a moratorium on their exploitation for more than three decades. Government should consider ending that moratorium. Uranium mining provides 3,000 well-paying direct jobs in Saskatchewan with rigorous and effective safety protocols. All of it is used for generating electricity.
Sierra Club and Greenpeace are among the many environmental groups that campaign for a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, and resulting GHGs.
They also want to immediately end the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. Governments would be unwise to follow those urgings.
As renewables become more prevalent and transmission grids become able to accept more of their irregular power, the first priority should be to stop building new coal plants and then to replace existing ones. That will take a long time—coal still represents 40% of electricity worldwide.
In the most optimistic scenarios, it will take decades for renewables to fully replace coal. In the meantime, nuclear power can make a valuable contribution to filling the gap and slowing global warming. Nova Scotia can help the planet and itself by providing the necessary uranium fuel.
(Footnote: Most of the numbers used in this article are taken from the internet. Figures differ slightly between sources but the differences are not of a size that would affect the article’s conclusions.)
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