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.

Canada goes nuclear

Canada is third in the world in replacing fossil fuels with nuclear. France and Sweden have replaced almost all of their fossil-fuelled generated electricity with nuclear power. Now France generates only six per cent of electricity with fossil fuels and Sweden only one per cent.

Darlington Nuclear Plant, Ontario

Canada comes behind France and Sweden in replacing fossil fuels. Now fossil fuels generate 19 per cent of our electricity. Canada has an advantage with hydroelectricity: hydro generates 59 per cent of our total.  Nuclear generates 15 per cent and wind/solar generate 7 per cent.

Ontario is mainly responsible for Canada’s third place position. In 2003, the Ontario government started phasing out coal-fired generators. At the time, coal generated one-quarter of the province’s electricity. By 2014, coal was gone. Now 60 per cent of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear plants, not far behind France at 77 per cent (Globe and Mail, June 21, 2019).

Other countries aren’t even close to top three. In the United States, 67 per cent of electricity comes from fossil fuels. In Germany, despite massive subsidies for wind and solar, 55 per cent of their electricity comes from fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy is the most dangerous source of electricity in the world, except for the alternative. Nuclear meltdowns are spectacular but deaths are much fewer than those from fossil fuels.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986 killed 50 first responders and will likely kill 25,000 from cancer resulting from radiation. There were no direct deaths from radiation when a tsunami hit the Fukushima Nuclear station in 2011 but radiation from the plant is expected to generate 180 cases of cancer. Fukushima was second largest nuclear disaster in history, after Chernobyl.

The burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, causes 7.3 million premature deaths annually according to the World Health Organization. Not all of those deaths are from the production of electricity but coal generates 41 per cent of the world’s electricity. Extrapolating those numbers means that coal sourced electricity kills 3 million people annually.

The burning of fossil fuels is the greatest threat to humanity. Our very existence in some parts of the planet is at risk due to climate change.

Misconceptions over nuclear energy abound. One in three Canadians think nuclear power plants emit as much carbon dioxide as burning oil. Almost three in 10 think it emits more. Nuclear energy plants emit no carbon dioxide.

You hear about the nuclear plants that blow up or melt down but not much about the about 450 now in operation, most in the U.S., with 60 more reactors under construction worldwide.

Nuclear plants have their problems. They are expensive to build and disposal of spent radioactive fuel is controversial.

Nuclear power is a taboo topic in politics. I can guarantee that you won’t hear any of the leaders of Canada’s three main political parties even mention the word nuclear prior to the upcoming federal election.

Environmentalists despise nuclear energy as being too risky. Some unions support it, such as the Power Workers Union who placed full-page ads in the Globe and Mail praising nuclear power. Most Canadians, I suspect, would rather not think about it.

Germany pays customers to use electricity

German power companies paid customers to use electricity on one hundred occasions in 2017. Companies paid customers a lot relative to what they normally receive -1,720 times more per kilowatt hour.

   photo: CleanTechnica

The reason why power companies were so eager to pay customers had to do with the wind. Wind turbines were generating too much power on the grid and they had to dump it quickly. Surplus electricity is a dangerous problem that has to be corrected quickly.

While wind turbines can be switched off quickly, fossil fuel and nuclear sources can’t. Power grid managers have to agile to compensate for gusty winds.

The problem with surplus electricity is that voltage quickly rises and that can damage equipment. Power grid engineering is complex but one thing is simple: power in equals power out. Managing the grid requires a balance in the production and consumption of electricity. The sum of all the power used by your TVs and toasters, and all that of your neighbour’s, equals the power produced by generators. If the power produced is more than what’s used, something has to give.  What gives is a precipitous rise in voltage.

Christmas Day, 2017, was pleasantly warm in Germany and the wind was strong. As well, demand was abnormally low being a holiday when factories and offices are shut down. Suddenly, the wind blew and power companies had to shed a lot of power from the grid. So the plea went out from power companies to start wasting electricity. Turn on your electric heaters and all the lights in your house. Open the doors. We’ll pay a lot is you do.

Too much wind power is not unforeseen. Germany spent $250 billion to develop wind turbines and they now produce 20 per cent of the country’s power. The remainder of Germany’s power comes from fossil fuels and nuclear.

Germany has obviously solved one part of the greenhouse gas problem by investing heavily in renewable sources but the other side remains unresolved –how to store surplus energy. Battery technology doesn’t have the capacity to store huge amounts of power. If it did, surplus wind power could have been stored.

Batteries will work on a smaller, household scale. Elon Musk sells his Tesla Powerwall battery for $7,000 and it holds enough power to run your house for about 3 days. Imagine being paid to store electricity and then to use it to supply your energy needs for days? In Germany, you’d be doing yourself and the power company a favour.

If you live in B.C., not so much. British Columbia has the enviable position of generating power by hydroelectricity; 95 per cent of it with the remainder by natural gas plants.

B.C. can’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially by switching to wind and solar. Small scale installations in houses can reduce the cost of electricity for homeowners. Because dams hold stored power, storage of surplus electricity is not a problem.

Germany has reduced the burning of fossil fuels with wind and solar. Now, if they could only find some way to store the surplus electricity.