Nuclear energy: It’s not easy being green

Nuclear energy has an image problem. For decades, it has been the energy source that dares not speak its name.

Small Nuclear Reactor. image: Foro Nuclear

No wonder, with the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the problem of what to do with the radioactive waste. Then there’s the high building costs.

While nuclear energy is dirty in many respects, it is clean in another: it produces electricity without producing the greenhouse gases that are contributing to our climate emergency.

Environmentalists deplore nuclear energy, even at a time when the world desperately needs more power that doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels. If only nuclear energy could find a way to become “green.”

Well, there is a way. Europe has found a way to make nuclear green. You just say it’s so. The European Commission has labeled nuclear as sustainable by placing it in a taxonomy that includes other green energy sources. The Commission describes this taxonomy as, “a classification system, establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities.”

The European Commission is determined to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. The commission’s chief described the European Green Deal as “Europe’s man on the moon moment.” She has called climate neutrality “our European destiny” and solemnly proclaimed that no effort will be spared for Europe to become the world’s first continent with net-zero emissions.

However, Germany and France are on opposite sides of the greening of nuclear energy. Germany is against nuclear power. They plan to shut down all its nuclear power plants by the end of 2022 following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

But Germany’s plan to use natural gas as a transition fuel is in jeopardy. With Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Germany placed sanctions on Russia this week by stopping the certification of Nord Stream 2 gas line from Russia. The price of natural gas, already high, is about to go higher.  

Pro-nuclear France gets 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants and its pro-nuclear allies include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Finland. France wants to invest in new nuclear power plants, particularly in new generation called small modular reactors (SMR).

Canada has a role to play in nuclear reactors. Canada is the world’s second-largest producer of uranium. Our reliable Candu reactors pioneered nuclear-power generation. Ontario gets 57 per cent of its electricity from them.

Ontario Power Generation intends on building more reactors. This time, the Crown Corporation plans to build SMRs that are smaller and simpler to build.

 In the International Energy Agency’s plan “Net Zero by 2050”, wind and solar power are the cornerstones. The IEA says they could provide 70 per cent of global electrical generation in 2050. But they say nuclear and hydro are an “essential foundation” in the decades of transition.

Wind and solar are clean and safe, too, but even with falling costs and advances in battery storage, they alone can’t get us to our emissions goals. If we are serious about the climate-change problem, nuclear has to be part of the solution.

Calling nuclear energy “green” may be a stretch. But there’s no way we are going to avert the climate emergency without it.

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Green is my favourite colour of hydrogen

When I first made hydrogen as a kid, I wasn’t aware that hydrogen came in different colours.

Back then, I simply attached two copper wires to my model train transformer, immersed the wires in water, turned voltage up and waited for bubbles to form. I held a glass over the negative terminal to catch the hydrogen. A lit match held under the inverted glass gave a satisfying “pop” as the hydrogen ignited.

image OpenEI

The effect was less than satisfying in 1937 for the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. As the dirigible touched its mooring mast in New Jersey, it burst into a fireball that killed 36 passengers and crew-members.

The second way I made hydrogen as a kid was to immerse pieces of aluminum in a pop bottle filled with lye (sodium hydroxide). I then placed a deflated balloon over the neck of the bottle and watched it fill with hydrogen. I then tied off the neck of the balloon and watched it drift through the house, following the air currents.

I now know that the first method produces “green” hydrogen when made from renewable sources of electricity.

The second method I used is dangerous according to a Wikipedia article. “Don’t try this at home, kids,” –a message I guess I never received, or chose to ignore.

Hydrogen now comes in colours that distinguish the source of production. Grey is the colour of hydrogen produced from dirty fossil fuel sources. Blue is for hydrogen produced from natural gas. Natural gas, so the argument goes, may be a fossil fuel but when burned it’s not as bad as coal.

Hydrogen is a perfect fuel because it produces no carbon greenhouse gases. Making it without fossil fuels is the challenge.

Green might be beautiful, but right now only a fraction of global hydrogen is produced by non-renewable sources. Only one-fifth of one per cent of total hydrogen comes from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power.

Most of the rest is grey hydrogen. The International Energy Agency says hydrogen production spews out 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the combined emissions of Britain and Indonesia.

However, the colour designations for hydrogen may be a bit of a distraction. What matters is “carbon intensity.” In other words, how much carbon is produced in the production of hydrogen regardless of the source?

Dan Woynillowicz, a Victoria-based climate and energy policy consultant says:

“Blue is better than grey. But we can’t ignore the fact that green is cleaner than blue. All that said, the colour labels are poorly defined. Ultimately, it’s not the colour that matters, it’s the carbon intensity.”

Carbon intensity is a measure of how much carbon is produced in the total manufacture of hydrogen. If carbon can be captured and stored underground, then its carbon intensity is reduced.

After losing $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money in the Keystone XL gamble, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is looking to hydrogen to lift his sagging polls.

With much fanfare, he, along with the mayor of Edmonton and two federal cabinet ministers, announced the building of a low-carbon hydrogen plant. Carbon dioxide would be injected underground using existing infrastructure.

Maybe there is a way of green-washing hydrogen.