Thursday, December 24, 2015

Power For The People

Nuclear Power Plant in France
The good thing about the recent Paris conference on climate change is that all the countries in the world agreed they needed to do something about global warming, the bad news is they couldn't agree on a workable solution.  Everyone wants to move away from a world that is powered by carbon to one that is powered by renewable energy sources like solar, wind, water or geothermal heat and, while each of these certainly has potential, they also have many limitations that don't make them very practical.  There is however, one power source that is very practical and could quickly help us make the transition to a cooler planet, and that's nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions to generate heat which is then cooled to create steam which in turn drives turbine generators that produce electricity. Nuclear power plants are almost identical to coal or gas fired plants in how they function with the critical difference being they don't send any nasty pollutants into the atmosphere, only harmless water vapour. Nuclear power plants with their ubiquitous water cooling towers have been in operation since the 1950's and currently supply the U.S. with 20% of it's electricity, 15% of Canada's and a whopping 80% of France's. It was high oil prices in the 1970's not fears of global warming that got France embracing nuclear power in a big way but the logic still applies if you want to reduce dependence on carbon.

Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown
Critics of nuclear energy point to the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima as reasons to avoid going this route but the actual number of people who died has been greatly exaggerated by urban myth. Nobody died in Three Mile Island, 31 people died in Chernobyl and, while 6 workers died in Fukushima, none of the deaths were from radiation. While there was some radiation in each of these surrounding areas, the cancer rate for the population is only expected to increase marginally over the years. Just like people feel safer travelling by car instead of by airplane, even though the risk of accident and death is much greater, the same irrational thinking applies to nuclear energy, even though hundreds of these plants are operating around the world without incident.

Currently only 2.5% of the world's energy consumption is supplied by nuclear power in spite of  438 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, but there are another 70 under construction with China leading the pace with 24 of the total and another 60 in the planning stages. Likewise for India which has 6 under construction now and another 50 in the planning stages. Even still it's hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of energy supplied being supplied by fossil fuels.

Coal-fired power plant
It's a good thing countries like India and China are switching as fast as they can from coal to nuclear power.  Coal has been the cheapest way for them to get started but it's the worst offender for pollution and the smog it produces is making the entire country ill.  But while we point our fingers at developing countries and their impact on global warming we conveniently overlook our own bad habits if it's going to make things inconvenient. And our worst habit is the suburban lifestyle in general and the automobile in particular.

Coal loading facility in North Vancouver - photo by Junie Quiroga
We aren't going to reduce global warming if we don't reduce the amount of C02 we put into the atmosphere and we aren't going to reduce the amount of C02 we put in the atmosphere if we don't reduce the amount of gasoline and diesel we burn by driving our cars. In the meantime, our economy depends on selling fossil fuels to the world. But we have also developed the CANDU nuclear technology that we use here and have sold abroad and perhaps this is the perfect time to accelerate those efforts. In fact the CANDU Bruce Nuclear Generating Station on Lake Huron is the largest nuclear power plant in the world.  So what's it going to be, coal or nuclear power for the people?

Bruce Nuclear Power Plant