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.