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The Trouble with Nuclear Power – Sunday column, March 27, 2011

Posted on Mar 28, 2011

In 1982, I was commissioned to write a heavily-researched cover story on the economics of nuclear power for the late, lamented weekend supplement called Today, which appeared in newspapers all across Canada. After visiting Ottawa, Chalk River, Toronto, Montreal and Point Lepreau, NB, I wrote an article entitled “Nuclear Power: The Unaffordable Option.” Nobody really knew the actual costs of nuclear power, I reported, but clearly they were unbearably high. The problem, noted one critic, was the incalculable cost of  “trying to build safety into an inherently unsafe technology.” That’s still true.

The first major unknown cost is insurance. Nobody knows what a catastrophic nuclear accident might cost. If the crippled Japanese reactors do suffer meltdowns, how many lives will be lost, how many people will be injured, how much property will be rendered unusable?  In 1996, informed observers speculated that the cost of a catastrophic accident at Darlington, Ontario could reach $1 trillion.

No insurance company would – or will, or can —  insure such risks. So who insures them? You do. Canada’s Nuclear Liability Act, proclaimed in 1976, caps the liability of nuclear operators at $75 million. Beyond that, the taxpayer pays.

The second unknown cost is the garbage. Uranium mining and milling have left Canada with at least 200 million tonnes of “tailings,” dangerous radioactive wastes labelled by a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel as “a perpetual environmental hazard.”  A more intense problem is spent fuel from power reactors, which is utterly lethal and will remain so for hundreds of years. In 1982, nuclear spokesmen confidently told me that a disposal solution was imminent. It wasn’t. Spent fuel is still stored “temporarily” in swimming pools at reactor sites all over the world.

Furthermore, nuclear plants themselves eventually become irradiated toxic waste, and have to be disassembled and disposed of. But nobody knows what to do with all this nuclear garbage, or what it would cost. The world is speckled with radioactive waste waiting for a place to go.

The industry itself is also repellent – a kind of reptilian mutation from the arms industry, with leaders who tend to be arrogant, secretive and sly. (George Monbiot calls nuclear executives “a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags.”) But they made a claim that in 1982 I dismissed too lightly. They said, in effect, that although you may consider nuclear power to be vile, generating power from fossil fuels is actually worse.

They had a point even then, when we knew nothing about climate change. Coal-fired generation is the chief alternative to nuclear power, providing almost half of the United States’ electricity and more than two-thirds of China’s.  Very few people have actually died in nuclear accidents – Chernobyl, says the UN, actually killed just 43 – but thousands die every year in coal mining and transportation.

And coal, says Monbiot, “is the primary driver of man-made climate change,” which has the potential to kill millions. Furthermore, in India, China and the United States, coal-fired power plants are proliferating furiously. China is adding one such plant every month.

So does that mean that nukes are now a good idea?

Hardly – but an unflinching arithmetic of death might find them less bad than coal. Still, the first  and easiest and cheapest thing to do about energy is to stop wasting it. Jack energy prices away up, and give big incentives and aids for conservation. Second, re-think the whole energy mix, emphasizing wind, solar and geothermal energy. Third, be grateful for hydro. 

Finally, figure out plausible prices for electricity produced by nuclear and fossil-fuel plants – prices that include the costs of air pollution, fuel disposal, insurance and so forth – and charge accordingly. Electrical demand will drop like a stone. A Carnegie-Mellon University study that I cited in 1982 showed that simply doubling the cost of power cut demand by 74%.

If we fear and loathe nukes – as we should – and we recognize that coal is cooking the planet, our goal should be to minimize our use of both. A remote goal? Yes. So let’s start right now.

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