Category Archives: nuclear

From the horse’s mouth: the Ontario PC plan to abandon green and go nuclear

mcnaughtonNot that this comes as a surprise, but in case you thought the PCs plan to be gentle on the green energy file if elected, think again. Below are comments made on Dec. 19 by Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton, representing Lambton-Kent-Middlesex. McNaughton was speaking at a municipal council meeting, during which he outlined how his party, if elected this year, plans to obliterate the province’s feed-in-tariff program, including reneging on thousands of projects in the queue. It seems the PCs don’t just want to get rid of the FIT program, but are hostile to wind and solar power altogether and plan to alter course dramatically, starting with a moratorium on all green energy development. This would include a big commitment to build new nuclear reactors at a time when there is nothing but controversy around the high cost and long-term dangers of the nuclear option. In other words, the PCs would bring Ontario’s grid back to the dark ages with a false promise that doing so would cause electricity prices to fall, which couldn’t be further from the truth. As usual, McNaughton spews mistruths about the high cost of wind and fails to mention the much higher cost of going nuclear.
But you can read for yourself where the PCs stand by reading excerpts of his comments below:

TRANSCRIPT of EXCERPTS:

On PC plans to get out of FIT contracts…

…we realize that when we make the commitment, we’re not going to build them, if they’re not built. So scrap the 50,000 projects that are in the queue.  We realize that there is going to be a cost, our lawyers have told us that there are opt-out clauses and we sure as hell are going to pay those out because it’s going to be cheaper to pay them out than to honour contracts for 20 years. So we’ve been clear that we will not going ahead with however many projects are left, if we’re fortunate enough to form the next government after the next election. But clearly there will be a cost associated with that, but it will be cheaper to buy them out than to honour them for 20 years.

Secondly, I guess we’re not going to know the entire extent of all of these contracts signed until if we form government, until we actually get in and take office. That’s why we’ve been clear that in the 24 hours after the election, we’re going to call for a moratorium. But we are going to call for a moratorium almost immediately so we can figure where the hell things are at and how deep a hole energy has gotten us into.

We have been extremely clear that we are are going to end the wind & solar projects across this province. We’re going in a completely new direction. We’re not going to continue abiding by the special interests that are at Queens Park every single day of this government. We’re taking Ontario down a completely new path and we’re not going to continue what’s been going on the last 10 years. We’ve been crystal clear about it. We’re going to really explore Hydro. We’re going to expand nuclear … which isn’t that popular in a lot of corners. But we are going in a different direction including part of our energy supply is going to be buying energy from other jurisdictions.

Lady Gaga tweets are not enough… movie/rock stars should unite for climate awareness, action

Back in the mid-1980s dozens of high-profile music artists from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada got together in their respective countries to raise awareness and stimulate discussion of famine in Ethiopia.

Bono, David Bowie and Sting helped lead Band Aid, the U.K. supergroup that created the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? This was followed by USA for Africa’s We Are The World, which included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Canada’s contribution was Northern Lights’ Tears Are Not Enough, featuring heavyweights Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Geddy Lee.

In all, the three songs resulted in the sale of more than 35 million copies worldwide and shined a bright light on an issue that had received little attention by the mainstream media, politicians and the general public.

I couldn’t help but recall the impact of these songs, and the phenomenon of celebrity influence, while listening earlier this week to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who spoke at an event at the University of Toronto co-hosted by several community groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Post Carbon Toronto.

I’ll make the link between star power and Jacobson later in this column, but first some background on the good professor.

Jacobson is a bit of a rock star himself in academic circles, at least when it comes to another problem that’s putting millions – potentially billions – of lives at risk. He has spent his career trying to understand the global impacts of air pollution and climate change, as well as how to quickly and responsibly transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy.

“Air pollution alone kills 2.5 to 3 million people at least a year worldwide,” he told those gathered to attend his Toronto lecture. He then rattled off a list of other problems associated with fossil fuels—rising global temperature and sea level, record Arctic ice loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and volatile energy prices, to name a few.

“These are drastic problems that require drastic solutions, and we think they need to be addressed immediately. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years, which is why we’ve really got to focus on technologies that exist today, that can be implemented for the most part right away, and that can be implemented at large scale.”

Jacobson caught people’s attention three years ago with his co-authored article A Plan To Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, which was the cover story for a 2009 issue of Scientific American.

Many roll their eyes at the suggestion that renewables can do it all for us, but one by one Jacobson’s article dispelled many myths about green power and convincingly argued that wind, water and sun could do the heavy lifting if we had the collective will power to make it happen.

It analyzed the impacts of each type of “clean” energy source independently, including land and water footprint, the materials required to make it, how much pollution would be created during its full lifecycle, and overall contribution to global warming.

Wind turbines, various forms of solar technology, hydropower and geothermal plants, and to a lesser extent wave and tidal energy, got top marks. Nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, natural gas and biomass didn’t make the cut.

In the area of transportation, he favoured electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles over those that used compressed natural gas or biofuels such as ethanol.

“Why not natural gas?” he said last week. “Because it releases at least 50 to 70 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy per kilowatt-hour generated… It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere.”

Jacobson has calculated that a world where all industry and transportation is powered by renewables would require installation of 3.8 million wind turbines, 1.7 billion residential and commercial rooftop solar systems, about 90,000 solar plants each 300 megawatts in size, 5,350 geothermal plants 100 megawatts in size, and about 1.5 million wave and tidal devices.

It seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. Consider the estimated 20 to 30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide, or the many millions of smokestacks that dot our city and urban landscapes. Considers that the planet is wrapped in a mesh of more than two million kilometres of pipeline infrastructure, enough to stretch to the moon and back nearly three times.

His renewables plan, he pointed out, would take up less than 1 per cent of land space on the planet.

Now comes the star power. Jacobson has teamed up with the greenest, most powerful ally one could imagine: the Incredible Hulk. Well, actually actor Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in The Avengers movie.

They’re leading an initiative called The Solutions Project, which is trying to bring together high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars in an effort to drive home the message that 100-per cent renewable energy is not only doable, but should be done.

Their first effort, to be announced shortly, will be to develop a comprehensive green plan for New York State, followed by other states and eventually other countries.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson are lending their star power to the cause, along with documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller.

Jacobson and Ruffalo, who co-authored an article for Huffington Post that appeared in June, said their goal is to “inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.”

“Today, with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago,” they wrote. “It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.”

Individual tweets from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not going to change things. Having celebrities join forces with scientists and policymakers against a global threat like climate change, as they did for African famine in the mid-80s, just might.

For this reason, Jacobson is on the right track.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Electricity system could use a woman’s touch…

There’s much talk these days about the sorry state of Canada’s aging electricity infrastructure, as well as the need to invest in the smart grid and add more renewable-energy sources to the power mix.

What’s less talked about is where the industry is going to find the skilled workers needed to carry out what the Conference Board of Canada calculates as $347 billion in required public and private investment between now and 2030.

Investment is expected to peak over the next few years, and this is creating thousands of new jobs at a time when the existing boomer workforce is retiring in record numbers and the oilsands are soaking up the skilled labour pool.

“We’re going to see a big turnover within the next five years,” said Michelle Branigan, executive director of the Electricity Sector Council, a government-funded organization that monitors human-resource trends in the sector.

“Right now we’re looking at about 45,000 people who are expected to be moving on by 2016. That’s almost half the workforce, which is absolutely huge.”

It’s not that the industry didn’t see it coming. Four years ago, Hydro One CEO Laura Formusa called it “one of the single greatest human resource challenges our industry has ever confronted.”

But the situation has become even more critical. This male-dominated industry realizes it has to cast a much wider net in search of new recruits, meaning tapping into under-represented groups such as women has become a high priority.

Branigan recalled a speech she recently gave at an event of 300 people who work in the electricity sector. Only five of them were women, a “completely skewed” situation.

Where women represent 48 per cent of the national workforce on average, that figure drops to just 25 per cent in the electricity sector. Even then, women tend to be in human resource, marketing and communications roles. The numbers drop when we zero in on “critical areas” that require electrical engineers, technologists and technicians.

Part of the problem is awareness, said Branigan.

“Young girls and women don’t have any idea of the careers that are out there. They don’t think they can use their IT skills, for example, to manage the flow of power on the grid. We need to do a better job of building excitement around the opportunities for women.”

That’s exactly what the council is trying to do. Late last month, it put out a call to industry stakeholders — employers, colleges and universities, government, and labour groups — asking them to champion the cause by becoming part of a Canada-wide initiative to better “attract, engage and recruit” women.

“The response so far has been overwhelming,” said Branigan.

Part of the plan is to improve messaging in high schools, colleges and universities, and raise general awareness of opportunities in the sector for women through media campaigns, particular social media. There will also be an effort to boost internships specifically geared to female students.

“We need to drill down to that younger level, even getting kids younger than high school interested,” said Branigan, adding that part of the attraction will be areas such as renewable power generation, such as wind and solar, and smart grid technologies. “That seems to resonate more with young people. They want to work in an environment of sustainability.”

Ultimately, it’s all about growing a labour pool from which talented women can be plucked. Not to suggest it’s going to solve all of the industry’s problems. Those retiring boomers are taking with them many years — decades — of built-up skills and institutional knowledge that can’t be learned overnight.

Power generators, transmission companies, regulatory agencies and others will lose crew leaders and senior managers who can’t be replaced with fresh recruits, male or female, just coming out of school. It will remain a huge challenge for the industry to find people who have enough experience, at least five to 10 years, to safely fill those roles.

“There’s a long lead time for developing competency within our occupation, so that’s something that has to be taken into account,” said Branigan.

Still, if you’re a young woman strong in math and science looking for a stable, well-paying career path, and in an industry looking to modernize with cleaner, greener technologies, this may be for you.

The electricity sector could use a woman’s touch.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Canada’s Chalk River Lab could contribute to solving world’s nuclear waste problems

My latest Clean Break column draws attention to the future of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s history-rich Chalk River Laboratories, and suggests if we are to continue with nuclear research in Canada it focus on addressing existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, such as spent fuel recycling (via DUPIC) and putting our global expertise in tritium handling toward nuclear fusion research. (NOTE: Some readers have told me I should have focused on fast-neutron reactors. I agree fast reactors may be part of the solution going forward, but since Canada has no previous history or expertise in this area I didn’t pursue it. Also, for my readers who are shaking their head asking why I’m even contemplating a future for nuclear research, I ask you this: What do we do, then, with all that spent fuel?)

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Tyler Hamilton

Change is in the air at Canada’s single-largest scientific outpost, located two hours northwest of Ottawa. That’s the history-rich home of Chalk River Laboratories, the heart of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s nuclear research division.

You’ll recall that the Crown corporation’s commercial Candu reactor division was sold last year to Canadian engineering giant SNC Lavalin. That transaction represented the first phase of a larger AECL restructuring plan.

Under the second phase, which kicked off in February, the government is targeting the research division with an eye to getting more bang for the taxpayer buck, and bringing in a private-sector partner to make it happen.

Such public-private arrangements are well tested south of the border, where companies such as Lockheed Martin and Battelle operate major national labs in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The model seems to work well.

“The restructuring needs to determine the activities of interest to those stakeholders willing to invest in AECL, which would enable enhanced sharing of both benefits and risks while strengthening accountability,” according to a call for expressions of interest on Feb. 9.

Which areas of nuclear research should Chalk River focus on? What role, if any, does Canada want to play in the nuclear world? Those with ideas and suggestions have until April 2 to have their say.

One sensible view: focus on the waste.

The world has massive amounts of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel from its existing fleet of nuclear plants. Even if we closed down all nuclear power plants tomorrow and stopped making nuclear weapons, we would still have a major waste management problem on our collective hands. The waste is here and it’s not going away anytime soon.

We can try to bury it at considerable expense and hope all will work out well for the next hundred thousand or so years, or we can purse ways of reusing that waste as a new source of fuel. Those are really the only two options.

The latter, if done right and responsibly, can solve many problems: It can reduce the volume of radioactive material that must go into long-term storage. It can reduce our need to mine new uranium and the associated environmental impacts of doing so. And it can give us more emission-free energy to wean us off fossil fuels and reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Five years ago I wrote an article in this paper detailing a little-discussed feature of the Candu reactor design that allows it to use “waste” from rival light-water reactors (such as those used in the United States) as a fuel. It’s called the DUPIC process – standing for Direct Use of Spent Pressurized Water Reactor Fuel in Candus.

The Canadian government established a joint research program with the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute in 1991 to investigate the approach, and both sides have demonstrated that it’s feasible.

“It’s progressed to the prototype stage,” said Jeremy Whitlock, a scientist at the Chalk River Lab. “We’ve made the fuel and we’ve put it into a reactor and it works fine.”

There are other, more expensive approaches that involve dissolving spent fuel in strong acids, carefully separating fissile material from the waste, turning it back into a solid material, and then processing back into useable fuel. This chemical processing is nasty, resulting in liquid wastes that need to be treated.

DUPIC doesn’t involve chemical separation, making it much simpler. The spent light-water reactor fuel is instead mechanically reshaped into fuel rods that fit into Candu reactors. And because plutonium is not chemically isolated and separated the approach is more proliferation resistant.

Politics aside, imagine co-locating DUPIC-configured Candu reactors at existing light-water nuclear facilities around the world, with their job being to generate additional emission-free electricity from stockpiles of spent fuel in short-term storage.

There are challenges. Handling and mechanically reprocessing spent fuel is tricky. This is hot stuff that’s highly radioactive. Special equipment, procedures and reactor modifications would be required to safely handle the material.

But it can be done, and arguably faster and more easily than trying to build fleets of waste-consuming fast breeder reactors, another technology worthy of pursuit but with longer time horizons. The Koreans, unfortunately, began losing interest in DUPIC a few year ago and have since turned their attention to the more ambitious fast breeder model.

Perhaps Chalk River should double-down on efforts? Perhaps SNC Lavalin, which now has exclusive commercial rights to DUPIC, could turn this into a new business opportunity?

Another opportunity is fusion. General Fusion, the fusion technology start-up in Burnaby, B.C., is urging the federal government to devote part of Chalk River’s mandate to fusion research.

“There is expertise at Chalk River, world leading in some cases, in areas such as tritium handling,” explained Michael Delage, vice-president of business development at General Fusion.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen, and is a byproduct of Candu reactor operation. It’s also one of two isotopes that can be most easily combined to create a nuclear fusion reaction. General Fusion needs tritium, and could seriously benefit from Chalk River’s tritium handling expertise.

Whitlock pointed out that Canada once had a fusion program at Chalk River. In fact, in 2001 Canada put in a bid to host the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. But we never backed up ambition with money. The federal government cut funding to our fusion program in 1997, and a general lack of financial support led to our withdrawal in 2003 from the ITER consortium.

With Chalk River once again under the spotlight, it’s time to make some choices.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Nuclear power at a crossroads

My Clean Break column this week picks up on the noticeable absence — or quietness — of the nuclear power lobby at the climate talks in Durban these past two weeks, and the declining fortunes of the industry. This is good or bad, depending on your perspective. If you’re a George Monbiot, you’re worried about the impact on our already impossible struggle against climate change. If you’re Greenpeace, you’re saying good riddance. Some believe in a post-Fukushima world that low natural gas prices and the high cost of conventional fission reactors are creating a rare opportunity for the emergence of better, safer and lower-cost nuclear technology designs. That may be so, if you’re an optimistic, but those will still take time to develop… ah yes, time. We could use more of that.

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Tyler Hamilton

For years the nuclear power lobby has muscled its way into international climate negotiations and asserted itself as a critical part of any serious effort to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Not so much during climate talks in Durban, South Africa, these past two weeks. There were some media mentions and the occasional sound bite from industry officials, but the nuclear lobby — still suffering from a Fukushima hangover — stayed relatively quiet this time around.

Even Patrick Moore, Greenpeace [alleged?] co-founder turned nuclear booster, seems to have moved on. His gig these days is defending the oilsands, part of a recent advertising campaign from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan certainly served a blow to the nuclear power industry. The low price of natural gas and the global economic downturn — and reduced demand for electricity — hasn’t helped matters.

The economics of building new nuclear plants also remain in question. A report just released by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association points out that even before the Fukushima accident, the decades-long trend of reactor projects being delayed and coming in dramatically over budget was still a reality, as recent experiences in Finland and France clearly show.

The Worldwatch Institute reported last week that generating capacity of the world’s nuclear power fleet dropped 2.4 per cent in 2011, causing nuclear’s share of the world energy mix to fall slightly.

The first 10 months of this year saw the closing of 13 reactors, contributing to a reduction in the total number in operation around the world to 433 from 441. Growth is happening in developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan, but these are far outweighed by reactor shutdowns in France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

So much for the much-heralded nuclear renaissance. “These numbers can hardly encourage the (nuclear) industry,” said Worldwatch president Robert Engelman.

As much as the anti-nuclear lobby must be cheering, these numbers also beg the question: if not nuclear, then what?

Some environmentalists, while not particularly fans of nuclear power, do worry about the pullback and how it will impact what are already pitiful efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

If, for example, a decline in nuclear capacity means more countries — particularly China — burning more coal and natural gas instead of embracing more renewable energy, then we’re merely trading one risk for another (out-of-control climate change) with a more certain, broad-reaching outcome.

As U.K. Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot has said, “The choice between renewables and nuclear is a false one. We appear to need both” – as painful a reality as that might be.

If we accept this, then the question shouldn’t be about how to get rid of nuclear power, but about how to make it better and safer.

“For nuclear to gain significant share, it must change,” writes U.K. journalist Mark Halper in a recent report on emerging nuclear innovations, penned for Canadian cleantech consultancy Kachan & Co.

Fukushima gave the world cause for pause, according to the report, but it also created an opportunity to move the nuclear industry in a new direction. “There has never been a better time for mavericks to come forward with safer, better and less costly ways to split atoms or, in the case of the elusive but reachable notion of fusion, to meld them together.”

In Halper’s view, part of the problem is that the nuclear technology we have today was a poor choice from the start, given that it produces weapons-grade plutonium as its waste, is vulnerable to meltdowns, and can potentially release dangerous amounts of radioactive material if something goes horribly wrong.

There were many alternatives to choose from half a century ago, but the fission reactor design most in use today was the result of Cold War decision-making.

“As undesirable as plutonium waste is today, it was in demand during the atomic weapons build up of the Cold War, helping the water-cooled uranium reactor win the day in the 1960s,” Halper writes. “It was a VHS victory over several superior Betamax alternatives.”

Some Betamax alternatives, however, are trying to make a comeback. The Kachan report outlines a number of technology alternatives currently in play, some of them based on designs or ideas that have been around for several decades.

Included in this list are reactors that use thorium as fuel instead of uranium, or which are cooled using gas. Molten salt, pebble bed and fast-neutron reactors are also being seriously considered. And yes, even fusion technology, including a mechanical reactor from Vancouver-based General Fusion, is grabbing attention.

Some designs deal with the toxic waste and nuclear proliferation issues. Others improve significantly on safety, such as eliminating the potential for meltdown. This is all exciting news for those outside the old boys nuclear club.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer a quick fix. Our nuclear regulators, underfunded as they are, haven’t the resources and time to understand, let alone establish rules for, new nuclear reactor designs. It will take many years, perhaps decades, for competing technologies to take hold.

But time is something severely lacking when it comes to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. This, even with “old” nuclear technology in decline and better alternatives on the rise, is the conundrum we face.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.