The nuclear conundrum: the safer we try to make nuke power, the more expensive it becomes

Nuclear power is facing its worst public relations crisis since Chernobyl, and environmentalists are seizing on the opportunity. For too long Greenpeace and others have had to rely on references to Chernobyl to remind people that nuclear, when things don’t go as planned, can go terribly, catastrophically wrong. But Chernobyl happened 25 years ago. A good percentage of the population wasn’t alive at that time or were too young to remember.

Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident — still unfolding after a week of continuous coverage on TV, news sites, blogs and in newspapers — is the new reference point, and one that’s showering the world with a never-ending flow of images and commentary that is showing, in dramatic and vivid detail, why nuclear power’s greatness is its achilles heal. Imagine if Chernobyl had happened in the Internet age? Could the nuclear industry ever have recovered from the onslaught of traditional and digital coverage?

Here’s the thing about nuclear: it works well until it doesn’t work well, and while we can always do more to lower the risk of failure and reduce vulnerabilities to natural disasters and outside attacks, those efforts come at a huge cost — and, as the Japanese crisis clearly shows, such costly measures don’t always work. And when they don’t work, are we truly prepared to deal with the consequences?

As I write in my latest Clean Break column, how we deal with a nuclear disaster could be one of the most unplanned things in Canada. This isn’t just about getting tens of thousands of people out of an evacuation zone within a specific period of time. That alone is a logistical nightmare. But more important, what do we do with these people? How long must they be kept from their homes — their lives? Can they ever go back? When a natural gas plant explodes we know people can move back after the dust settles. That’s not the case when you’re dealing with a massive release of radiation that could easily extend from Pickering generating station to downtown Toronto, which is only 30 kilometers away. Could Canada’s economic engine handle a long-term disruption?

Canadian authorities give us assurances of the extremely low odds of a Fukushima-like disaster. Fair enough. What they fail to discuss is what happens if such a disaster were to happen. Their approach is simple: assume, for the most part, it never will. This shouldn’t give anyone living within 30 kilometres of a nuclear plant any comfort. Surprises can and do open our eyes. For example, there has been at least one major earthquake in Japan that occurred in an area not known to be along a geological fault line. “Following a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 2000 in an area where no geological fault was known, Japan’s NSC ordered a full review of the country’s 1978 seismic guidelines,” according to the World Nuclear Association, which has a section on its website devoted to nuclear power plants and earthquakes. It says that 20 per cent of all nuclear reactors in the world are located in highly active seismic zones. Comforting.

Ontario nuclear operators and regulators routinely highlight that Ontario is so geologically different that we needn’t worry. But a 2003 peer-reviewed study from University of Toronto researchers suggests otherwise. Pickering Nuclear Generating Station “was constructed adjacent to a major population centre in the late 1960s largely in ignorance of local and regional geological conditions and well before the plate tectonic paradigm provided a model for basement evolution,” according to the researchers. “The presence and significance of major bedrock lineaments, such as the Central Metasedimentary Belt Boundary Zone that passes directly under PNGS, together with several other structures that intersect below Pickering, was not then known. Today, such structures are recognised as being defined by persistent earthquake activity.” They continue: “The local community has every right to be concerned about the presence of an aging nuclear reactor in their midst.” In fact, three years earlier earthquakes were the topic of much discussion in this Parliamentary committee report. (Just as frightening is much of China, which wants to build the equivalent of three new nuclear reactors per year over the next decade, is subject to the same seismic activity as Japan and the same hubris as Ontario).

It’s telling that the insurance industry won’t touch nuclear projects unless governments cap their liability. In Canada, the cap is now $650 million on disasters that can cost many billions of dollars to battle, excluding long-term economic impacts. Taxpayers, of course, cover the rest. Without such caps, the industry argues the cost of insurance would simply be too high.

Ultimately, it will be cost that defeats the nuclear power industry. Nuclear is not “too cheap to meter,” as early proponents once boasted. It is surrounded by hidden subsidy. It is rarely built on time and on budget, outside of regimes willing to play fast and loose with safety standards. And it has become tremendously more costly since the 1970s and 1980s, when the last major buildout occurred. After Fukushima, you can bet nuclear costs will go even higher as nuclear regulators, responding to public concerns, tighten the rules and standards even more to calm fears that what is happening in Japan can happen in their own back yard.

This is the conundrum with which the nuclear power industry will forever struggle. The technology can work great and serve our energy needs, but it is inherently dangerous. To make it less dangerous, we have to spend considerable amounts of money putting measures in place to assure safety and reliability, and even then, there are no guarantees. Maybe we can accept the risks, knowing that they are indeed extremely low. But making them low adds a huge amount of cost, and that cost is what is increasingly making nuclear uneconomic against renewable alternatives, which are falling — not rising — in price and are inherently safe.

Quite the pickle in an age that needs more, not fewer, energy options.

14 thoughts on “The nuclear conundrum: the safer we try to make nuke power, the more expensive it becomes”

  1. Japan has 55 reactors. A 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami and only one reactor is in a serious situation. The one that was litereally a few years from being moth balled due to age.

    I’d say that’s amazing PR for the nuclear industry. it’s the sensationalization tendencies of the media and extreme environmentalists that say otherwise.

  2. The real problem with the reactors in Japan were largely the human error factor at the executive level and it will always remain the real danger of using nuclear energy.
    We have a nuclear power station (two reactors) not far from us that has been on line from the early 1960s with never a leak of radiation. I have no fear of it and I favor more of them. Just remember it is all about the failings of humans. There is no place for slackers or false reporting in this kind of work!
    I say ” Make the executives, managers and their families live on site” Of all the reactors.

  3. Totally agree that to make nuclear safe (not sure it can be 100% safe) is too expensive.

    I think what vested interests continually fail to do is to predict the extreme event. The managers at the nuclear plant at Fuchushima failed to anticipate the major earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The banking industry failed to see the inflationary housing price bubble which led to the financial crisis.

    Interesting what you say about the insurance companies capping their liability. Poor old taxpayer always seems to get the raw deal.

  4. Tyler, as far as I know no one has been told they can’t return to their homes. More FUD. Nice work. Lets wait and see how it plays out before we start running around waving our arms and shouting Chernobyl at top of our lungs.

  5. Here is another thought. Why don’t you do a quick calculation and tell us how many lives have been saved by Japans Nuclear power plants, running and producing clean power for the last 40 years instead of an equivalent out put in coal fired plants? Mining deaths, millions of tons of radioactive fly ash, asthma cases, millions of tons of global warming CO2, acid rain etc etc.

  6. Sounds like even if it did play out that way — and the situation is still far from clear — you wouldn’t be convinced. Unless, of course, it affected you directly.

  7. Keep in mind that the nukes hit by the earthquake and tsunami were very old, and using older technology. Newer nukes are built with a safer design, and some are starting to incorporate more passive safety features.

    That said, there is better hope for nuclear power in next gen designs- for example, the one I have read a tiny bit about and favor, are the LFTR nukes- Liquid Floride Thorium Reactors, which are much safer by definition. I would recommend a visit to Kirk Sorensen’s site, an avid proponet of LFTR, as well as a resource for current nuclear plants:

    You are right- we need more, not less energy options- and I favor renewable as much as posible and would like to see all coal and natural gas plants go the way of the dodo- but I also think we will need nuclear as well, and LFTR seeems like a nuge step up from current nuclear plant options. Thre is a composite YouTube video from about 4 Google Talks on LFTRs, that does a fast-paced presentation of what LFTR is and how it differs from present day nukes- I think most would find it very interesting:

  8. I don’t like nuclear because the what ifs are too scary and the costs have never been correct short term or the long term storage issue, that said we are likely to lose the no nuke arguement if we are going to tackle climate change. Perhaps the third option of thorium reactors should be on the table,, if we must have nuclear why not the safest kind, a kind that cannot be weaponized?

  9. This is the most frightening nuclear event in a generation for sure. It’s terrifying to think that our leaders want to risk our lives with more of this overpriced, under delivering technology. We will have to lie in the nuclear bed we’ve made for a while longer, no question. But building more nuclear makes no sense at all. If only they’d give Wind and Solar the same kind of feel-good treatment Ontario Hydro did for nuclear in the 70s and 80s. I remember touring Bruce and the guide actually stopping the bus to point out the deer that lived nearby. See, nature, next to a nuclear plant. Nevermind that 10,000 years of radioactive waste. Look, deer!

  10. What is the threat of nuclear power for the life of the waste? What are the odds that something happens and the waste seaps out into the environment. It’s not too high (but still present) when the companies are operating, but what about in 100 years after the plants have stoped and the companies who operated them are bankrupt. If there is a slow underground leak, I have little faith that either someone would find out, or that it would be public knowledge.

  11. The idea of looking at a fault under Pickering is interesting but might also be a red herring.

    As the saying goes, we always seem to be ready to respond to the last disaster. The TSA is perfectly poised to prevent September 11 from happening again, and we’re falling into the same narrow thinking about treating the Japan disaster as just an earthquake.

    The root of the Japanese disaster seems to be the unanticipated failure of the cooling system, the backup, and the backup to that. Even if there were no fault under Pickering, or if we conclude that there’s no risk of an earthquake happening there, we can’t blithely conclude that “the same thing can’t happen here” without thinking more broadly about the vulnerability to multiple failures for reasons other than earthquake.

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