Commentary by Dr. John Crompton, MD, FRCP, Past President Conservation Council of New Brunswick.
This commentary first appeared in The Hill Times on August 24, 2023. It is shared with the author’s permission.
It has been a hot summer around the world, but this may be the coldest year of the rest of our lives. As the global temperature increases, we will face more frequent and severe weather events. We also know the solution to the problem: decarbonize. Of course, the solution is easy to say but difficult to accomplish.
More electricity will be required to decarbonize transportation and industry so although conservation is important it will not, by itself, get us there. Most experts believe that the best way to decarbonize electricity is by employing a mix of energy sources, including nuclear.
Some people are anti-nuclear, even if they believe in climate change and decarbonization. I am a long-time environmentalist myself and know many people who are anti-nuclear. However, with climate change occurring, I am asking other New Brunswickers to rethink nuclear energy.
To do this, I want to explore some of the most common anti-nuclear arguments and myths.
Myth: Nuclear energy is dangerous.
Nuclear power is one of the safest electricity sources. There are upsides and downsides to all energy generation, but none are more highly regulated than nuclear. Here in New Brunswick, we have a nuclear power plant at Point Lepreau that has operated safely for over 40 years.
While it’s easy to remember nuclear incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl, gas, oil, and coal are many times more harmful. In addition to the harmful effects from mining and extraction, coal and oil result in significant air pollution, killing through asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease. For example, a study from Harvard School of Public Health predicted that, by 2025, about 1.37 million incidents of lung cancer would be linked to burning coal. Other studies have shown that air pollution from coal and oil causes deadly asthma attacks and cuts years off lifespans. Deployment of nuclear in Ontario enabled the phaseout of coal and a reduction of smog days in the greater Toronto area. Nuclear has actually saved lives by reducing pollution!
Myth: Nuclear energy is not truly low carbon.
All mainstream studies including studies from the International Energy Association (UN) and Our World in Data (Oxford University) show nuclear to be very low carbon. Due to our high-grade uranium ore, CANDU nuclear energy is our lowest carbon emitting electricity source.
Myth: Nuclear power plants take too long to build.
The ability to build a nuclear power plant rapidly and on budget depends on the conditions set by the country where the plant is being built. For example, France built 50 reactors in a 15-year period and South Korea built a large reactor in 5 years. This was achievable through consistent ownership and regulation. However, in the USA, costs and delays spiraled due to changing regulations and oversight, and multiple design changes.
Another promising development are small modular reactors (SMRs). These reactors are made of simplified components which shorten construction time. The size and simplicity of small modular reactors also allows them to be placed in smaller or more remote areas that would otherwise be using diesel generators to meet electricity needs.
In New Brunswick, advanced SMRs are being developed and on-track for a commercial demonstration by early 2030s. The Environmental Impact Assessment and federal licensing process is already underway.
Myth: We don’t need nuclear because we can achieve net-zero emissions with wind, solar, and storage.
The provinces with low emissions in Canada, such as Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, rely on hydropower and nuclear. This is because wind and solar power are variable energy sources. This means that the energy production changes throughout the day: In the evenings, there is no solar power, and without wind, there is no wind power. Unlike wind and solar power, nuclear and hydro power offer consistent power, called baseload generation, to keep the lights on even on a windless night. No one has yet decarbonized completely with intermittent renewables alone.
One way to get around the variable energy production is by adding energy storage to the electrical grid. This would allow us to capture solar and wind energy to use later. There is some success with battery storage but our current capacity to do this on the scale required is woefully inadequate. In addition, battery manufacturing requires mining, is material intensive, has disposal issues, and is currently very costly.
Phasing out nuclear power results in increased greenhouse gases. Germany tried to phase out nuclear power with the goal of transitioning to renewable, carbon-free energy system. Unfortunately, Germany has had to rely on coal and natural gas alongside wind and solar power to meet its electricity demands. The increased use of natural gas has posed secondary problems for Germany. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how deeply Germany relies on foreign gas. They have had to open more coal mines and coal plants, and want to buy natural gas from Canada.
In Canada, both New Brunswick and Ontario have invested in nuclear energy. In New Brunswick, the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station provides over a third of New Brunswick’s electricity and is the province’s largest low-carbon asset. Combined with hydro and other renewable energy sources, New Brunswick’s electricity is approximately 80% non-emitting (clean energy). In Ontario, the nuclear power stations allowed the province to phase-out coal. Ontario has also refurbished CANDU reactors at Darlington and Bruce, with Pickering likely to follow. These refurbishments have been on time and on budget. They have accumulated expertise in building CANDU reactors. They are also building SMRs of a more conventional type.
What about the waste?
It’s important to remember that nuclear energy produces a low amount of waste: if all the power you ever used came from nuclear energy, your lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a soda can!
Nuclear waste is highly regulated, well managed and safely stored. In contrast, carbon fuel waste enters directly into our atmosphere, water, and ground. Nuclear waste is generally cooled for about seven years and is then transferred to dry storage, where it is safely contained. The federal government is developing a plan for long-term storage which may include a deep geological repository for all Canada’s used nuclear fuel. Finland has already developed a deep geological storage facility.
Another option is to repurpose used nuclear fuel. It’s only waste if you waste it. Gen-4 advanced SMRs can use traditional waste as fuel, recycle their own waste, and make better use of existing fuel. These SMRs, such as the one considered for the Point Lepreau site, will continue to secure clean energy for years to come.
In summary, careful analysis of data from a variety of sources shows that these anti-nuclear energy arguments are just myths and misinformation. Canada has significant nuclear experience and safety record. Our CANDU reactor is a world class product which has been exported successfully to multiple countries. It is a Canadian product from mining to building to operation. Point Lepreau is a great site for the development of SMRs. The site has already received federal and provincial support and has an experienced team of workers. There are hundreds of trained New Brunswickers producing electricity at Point Lepreau, and they have been doing so since it was first commissioned over 40 years ago. SMRs may be a new project, but nuclear energy is not new to them.
To my environmentalist friends: Climate change is here, and we must consider all viable clean energy sources to decarbonize. All phaseout plans for nuclear seem to involve switching to natural gas. Without nuclear power it’s likely that we’ll see more coal, biomass, and natural gas. In the interest of our climate, perhaps it is time to rethink positions on nuclear.
To my elected representatives: These projects need your support. Environmental assessments are important, but the anti-nuclear movement will be trying to use them as a way to fear monger to delay and stop new nuclear options. They are ideologically opposed to any nuclear, not in making nuclear safer. It is up to you to make sure this does not happen.