Published on Thursday, June 2, 2005 by the Inter Press Service
Nukes-Against-Global Warming Strategy Scored as Too Costly
by Stephen Leahy
BROOKLIN, Canada - Faced with the rising toll of global warming and soaring petroleum prices, countries like Canada and the United States are giving nuclear power another look. But this might be among the most expensive ways to produce electricity, say experts and environmental advocates.
Canada has the highest per capita energy use in the world and, like most industrialized countries, has been unable to cut emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Under the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to rein in global warming, Canada is committed to making significant reductions in its emissions of such gases, which are released when fossil fuels like coal and oil are burned and which contribute to climate change.
Motivated by growing energy needs and commitments to close polluting coal power plants, Canada is now considering building new nuclear power plants for the first time in 20 years. While nuclear plants do not produce greenhouse gases, they have a long history of expensive breakdowns. Additionally, the country faces the prospect of spending at least 24 billion Canadian dollars (19.2 billion U.S. dollars) to store radioactive wastes from the plants.
The moves come amid a possible resurgence in nuclear power plant construction in the United States, where industry expansion has been stalled since a high-profile meltdown in the late 1970s.
As in Canada, the U.S. nuclear industry and the administration of President George W. Bush have said nuclear power will play a key role in meeting demand for power without contributing to global warming and the droughts, floods, and disease outbreaks that have accompanied it.
The strategy will require massive government subsidies and likely will prove misguided, according to S.A. Sherif, a solar energy expert and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Florida.
''Energy from nuclear power plants remains very expensive,'' said Sherif, adding that if U.S. government had not invested more than 200 billion U.S. dollars in research and development, there would not be a nuclear industry.
The problem, he added, is that ''the world's supply of uranium is limited, while the sun's energy is not.''
Additionally, new nuclear plants will add to existing problems of how to deal with nuclear waste, said Dave Martin of the environmental pressure group Sierra Club of Canada.
''Canada already has 40,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste. It's an insane idea to build new nuclear plants that will make even more waste,'' Martin told IPS. ''These wastes will remain radioactive for a million years.''
Nuclear power plants produce some 13 percent of Canada's electricity generation. Another 57 percent comes from dams, 28 percent from geothermal, or under-earth heat, sources as well as coal, oil and gas, and about 1 percent from renewable sources including the wind, sun, and tides.
Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization proposed last month to bury the spent nuclear fuel from Canada's 22 reactors in an underground vault carved 1000 meters deep in solid rock. It recommends spending the next 30-60 years finding a location and designing an impervious vault for permanent storage. Estimated cost: 24.4 billion Canadian dollars (19.6 billion U.S. dollars).
When it comes to nuclear power, cost estimates can prove unreliable. Canada's most recent nuclear plant, the 3,524-megawatt Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, cost 14 billion Canadian dollars (11.2 billion U.S. dollars) to complete in 1993 -- double the budgeted price.
And rather than having a 40-year life span, Canada's CANDU reactors require multi-billion-dollar reconstruction after just 20 years of service on average, said Martin. In 1997, eight reactors had to be shut down for repairs and four of these had already been rebuilt in the mid-1980s at a cost of billions of dollars more than their original construction costs in 1971.
Repair costs have doubled and tripled from their original estimates and, eight years later, four are still shut down.
Due to the frequent shut downs that last months and years, Canada's nuclear power plants operate at about 50 percent efficiency, said Martin.
Calculating the 'all-in cost' of producing electricity from nuclear power is extremely difficult in part because the industry does not give out detailed cost information. Moreover, the Canadian government has underwritten research costs while insurance costs and liability, waste disposal, the need for an extensive transmission infrastructure and decommissioning of the plants all are considered external costs.
''There is no question today, that alternatives like natural gas or wind power are both cheaper and better alternatives to nuclear,'' Martin said.
Brendan Hoffman, an energy expert with the U.S.-based advocacy group Public Citizen, endorsed that view.
''The cold hard fact is that nuclear is just too expensive, '' Hoffman said.
''The costs of building nuclear plants have been on average 400 percent over budget,'' he added about the U.S. nuclear power industry.
No new plants have been approved in the United States since the partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979.
But now four big power companies are looking to get advance approval on sites for perhaps six to ten new nuclear power plants. If built, these would be improved versions of existing reactors rather than new designs because there has been no breakthrough in the technology.
In any case, he said, ''the US will get as many new reactors as the government is willing to build,'' he said.
Hoffman argued that a better investment of public money would be in improvements in energy efficiency and conservation using simple, existing technologies like energy saving light bulbs, better house insulation, and replacing electric water heaters with solar units.
The Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit energy research organization, has calculated that improvements in energy efficiency are six times more cost effective than nuclear power and eliminate the need for all existing nuclear plants and any future ones.
''All of this could be done without any changes to our way of life,'' said Hoffman.
Why the push for nuclear power? In Hoffman's view, because ''the nuclear industry are major donors to Bush Republicans and have a direct channel to power in Washington.''
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