Nuclear power an expensive red herring

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy answer to the problem of climate change? And wouldn’t it be great if we could solve our electricity needs at the same time? Yes, it would be, but wishful thinking won’t solve these complex problems. And neither will nuclear power.


Last week, the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to reject building new nuclear reactors as an option to meet electricity demand and slow climate change. Instead, the commission
recommended an aggressive expansion of energy efficiency programs and renewable energy.
The commission based its decision on eight new research papers. Together, these papers led commission members to conclude that although nuclear power is a low-carbon technology with a good safety record in the UK, the benefits are outweighed by serious disadvantages. These include: the “disposal” of radioactive waste; the high cost of reactors; the inflexibility of depending on a few large-scale power plants; the issue of relying on constantly increasing energy supply, rather than reducing demand; and concerns over security.
This conclusion stands in stark contrast to one provided to the Province of Ontario by the Ontario Power Authority, which recommends that the province spend $35 billion of taxpayers’ money to subsidize new nuclear reactors. Why such different takes on a similar problem?
Unlike the UK analysis, the Ontario Power report both overestimates growth of electricity demand and underestimates the potential for efficiency and conservation. It also underestimates the potential of renewable power sources, and overstates the reliability of nuclear power while downplaying the associated costs. In short, it fails to actually analyze what caused the current electricity crisis in Ontario. Without that analysis, the province is setting itself up to repeat the same mistakes again.
In the 1970s, Ontario based its energy future on nuclear power. However, those reactors suffered from serious and lengthy breakdowns leading to billion-dollar repair bills, not to mention an electricity gap that necessitate stoking up the smog-producing furnaces of the province’s coal-fired power plants – fueled by coal brought in from the U.S.
And then there was the cost. Escalating construction costs, over-runs and reliability problems took the shine off nuclear reactors by the late 1970s. Still, Ontario Hydro pressed on through the 1980s – and built the western
world’s largest nuclear plant at Darlington. They even managed to exempt it from the province’s environmental assessment act. Yet when the electrons were finally flowing, this plant, budgeted at $3.4 billion, had cost nearly
$15 billion.
Proponents of nuclear power portray it as a climate saviour – an easy, shrink-wrapped, turn-key solution to global warming. But we’ve been down this road before and we have Ontario Hydro’s nearly $40 billion debt to
show for it. Nuclear power may be low-carbon, but it has far too many other costs to justify investing our future in it.
What Ontario needs is an electrical system that minimizes the risk of power shortages, unreliable delivery, spiking power prices, financial debt and environmental debt – including a radioactive legacy, smog and greenhouse
gases. The cheapest, most effective way to start building that system is to invest in maximizing energy efficiency. Right now, Ontario currently uses 60 per cent more electricity per capita than New York State, so we have a
long way to go. But the best part about energy efficiency and conservation is that you don’t have to wait a decade or more for it – you can get started now. Contrary to what its proponents would have you believe, nuclear power isn’t easy, fast or cheap. You can’t pop by Wal-Mart for a discount nuclear reactor and even if you could – would you really want one?

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