Renewables and nuclear power: Report from the World Uranium Symposium

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Quebec City has been the site of several noteworthy recent events. On Saturday, April 11, 25,000 people marched on Quebec's National Assembly to demand action on climate change. Canada's premiers discussed energy and climate policy at their meeting on Tuesday, April 14, one day after Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Philippe Couillard of Quebec signed off on a cap-and-trade system to reduce CO2 emissions.

Also on April 14, nuclear disarmament, uranium mining and nuclear power activists from around the world gathered for the opening of the World Uranium Symposium at the Quebec Congress Centre.

The state of nuclear power

World Uranium Symposium speakers delved deeply into the links between nuclear power, nuclear weapons, climate change and renewable energy. While the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the most important global agreement limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, it also promotes so-called "peaceful" nuclear technologies in countries that choose not to develop nuclear weapons. This approach dates back to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program. 

While noting the Treaty's recent contribution to scaling back Iran's nuclear ambitions (led by U.S President Barack Obama), many symposium participants argued that true global security requires the elimination of nuclear power and uranium mining together with nuclear weapons. History proves that nuclear technology co-operation can lead to weapons development, as happened in Pakistan and India.

Participants cited numerous other arguments for eliminating nuclear power: impacts of uranium mining on Indigenous peoples and their territories, ever-increasing amounts of high-level nuclear fuel wastes that will impose risks and costs upon countless future generations, and the human toll of major accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

While nuclear power remains a significant part of the global energy mix, Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, noted that escalating costs of building and running reactors have led to the virtual bankruptcy of France's main state-owned nuclear power company, Areva. It now has a debt load of over $30 billion, and Standard and Poor cut its bond rating to junk status in 2014. Few reactors have been built in recent years, and an aging fleet means reduced safety and reliability, and uncertain (but potentially large) future decommissioning and waste management costs.

The nuclear industry is gamely trying to rebrand nuclear power as the solution to climate change, but, as former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen quipped at the symposium, "Trying to solve global warming by building reactors is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar."

Angela Bischoff of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance asked, "Why is Ontario, the second most nuclearized jurisdiction in the world [after France], pursuing further nuclear generation?" Mycle Schneider replied that big utilities are locked into an outdated mentality of centralized power, do not have an alternate business model, and relentlessly promote nuclear energy. He added, "Why do people still believe in nuclear new builds on a massive scale? Because propaganda works."

Renewable energy is a better option

With nuclear power too risky and expensive to address energy and climate change issues, renewable energy emerges as the clear winner. British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec already use hydropower for 90 per cent or more of their electricity needs, and export excess power to the United States. Storage reservoirs, dams, turbines, and transmission lines are already in place. Could this infrastructure, enhanced with investments in an east-west grid, become the backbone of Canada's energy system?

Réal Reid, former lead researcher on wind and renewable energy with Hydro Quebec, thinks it inevitably will. He points out that a combination of existing hydropower with new wind and solar power will allow renewable energy to "follow the load." By themselves, wind and solar vary with weather conditions and their power can't easily be stored or turned on and off when demand changes. Combined with hydropower and the storage capacity represented by reservoirs, the renewables mix becomes far more nimble and reliable. Turbines in hydro dams can adjust to varying demand. Nuclear reactors, in contrast, must run flat out or be closed altogether.

To create an optimal mix of renewables, Reid argues for major new investments in wind (and possibly solar) power near Quebec's existing hydro dams, along with a strengthened power grid so that electricity can be distributed throughout Canada. Hydro dams in the James Bay and Labrador areas are in regions with high average wind speeds. When the wind blows or the sun shines, turbines at the dams can be turned off and hydropower stored for future peak demand periods.

This approach is obviously not limited to northern Quebec. Wind and solar power can be developed all along existing transmission corridors. To some extent this is already happening, but what is lacking is co-ordinated and strategic investment in the renewables mix, so that the overall system can be optimized in real time. Hydro dams will provide the backbone of the system. Provinces must work together to make this happen.

Investing in sustainable energy development

Much will depend on Ontario. Premier Wynne is under intense pressure to rebuild the old reactors at Darlington and Bruce. Doing so would make absolutely no economic sense, would send customers' hydro bills through the roof, and likely bankrupt the province. But the nuclear lobby is putting up a fierce last-ditch fight to protect its selfish interests -- the public be damned.

Given that Ontario needs to replace the electricity now generated by its aging nuclear fleet, why can't the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) team up with Hydro Quebec to build major new wind projects in the north? Wind power comes on-line much more quickly than nuclear, and is far cheaper. Small-scale wind projects already provide power at less than 8 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), and larger investments would bring this cost down considerably. Angela Bischoff notes that although OPG's official claim for Darlington rebuild is 8.9 cents per kWh, with inevitable cost over-runs it will likely be 16.6 cents/kWh. Furthermore, major wind investments in the North would provide jobs and income for Aboriginal peoples such as the James Bay Cree, who are strongly opposed to uranium mining.

Even in these troubled times, with repeated wake-up calls about the risks of nuclear power and nuclear weapons proliferation (Fukushima, Iraq, North Korea), the nuclear lobby is still lulling the public into complacency with false promises of cheap and plentiful energy. Behind the scenes it is doing everything in its power to slow the sustainable energy transition. 

But if we want a decent future, we need to speak out for renewables. With low interest rates and a looming economic slowdown, the time to invest is now. Our children -- indeed all future generations -- will be grateful.

Ole Hendrickson is a forest ecologist and current president of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Looking east at the Pickering Nuclear Power Plant and Wind Turbine. Credit: Sean Connors/flickr

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