The debate over nuclear power: An engineer looks at the issues

Bruce Nuclear
CC BY 2.0 Bruce Nuclear Power Plant/ Wikipedia

Nuclear power remains hugely controversial. Sarah Hodgdon of the Sierra Club has written in these pages about how Nuclear power is not an energy solution:" The reality is that nuclear power is prohibitively expensive, it’s propped up by subsidies, it endangers workers, it hurts the land, it’s unsafe, and it’s vulnerable to terrorism." George Monbiot, on the other hand, has written in the Guardian: " I don't understand why the nuclear question needs to divide the environment movement. Our underlying aim is the same: we all want to reduce human impacts on the biosphere." Tyler Hamilton has written in Corporate Knights that "It’s easy to put passion ahead of reason in the debate. Anti-nuke greens stoke nuclear fears even though nuclear risks, from a health perspective, are tiny compared to coal risks."

Jason M. is an electrical engineer, working on the refit of the Bruce Nuclear Power station on Lake Huron in Ontario, which supplies a quarter of the Province's energy, and is key to it getting off coal. I asked him to write a guest post, with his views on the role, the problems and the future of nuclear power.

Top 3 Misconceptions about Nuclear Power

TreeHugger recently approached me to write an article about my thoughts on nuclear power. I am an electrical engineer who has worked in the Canadian nuclear industry for the past seven years, rebuilding reactors at the Bruce Power site in Ontario – currently the highest-capacity nuclear generating site in the world, at 6300 megawatts (MW).

Nuclear power is a touchy subject and one that is bound to generate much passionate debate, especially among readers of a website like TreeHugger, but I am firm believer in the respect that this technology deserves, and in the importance of having open and informed discussions about it.

I would like to address three common areas of concern among nuclear dissenters, and try to clarify some misconceptions.

© Bruce Power/ Shutdown systems in CANDU reactors

Myth #1: Nuclear power is neither safe nor clean.

The truth is that nuclear power is a unique source of energy that demands the utmost respect, and the regulatory body for a country’s nuclear program ensures that it receives that respect. Operators of nuclear plants simply aren’t free to run them however they like. Although the energy stored in a reactor core is staggering, today’s nuclear power plants have an equally staggering array of fail-safe safety features that ensure that at all times the nuclear reaction is controlled, the nuclear fuel is kept cool, and any radioactivity is contained within the facility’s containment structure. These independent layers of safety systems are designed to function even without power, and are tested regularly as mandated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

Regarding the “unclean” descriptor, consider coal power: in the year 2000, 29 percent of Ontario’s electricity was generated by fossil fuel, and the number of days with smog alerts in Toronto was 45. Flash forward to today, and an additional 3200MW of nuclear power has returned to service from the Bruce A station through a first-of-a-kind refurbishment program; coal provides only 3 percent of Ontario’s electricity; and the number of smog days in 2013 has dropped to two. This certainly looks like a net positive change to me!

© Bruce Power/ Reactor Core

Myth #2: There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation, and people living near nuclear plants are exposed to high levels of it.

Unfortunately, this is not a black-and-white issue. Both the CNSC and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recognize that any increase in radiation dose, regardless of amount, results in an incremental increase in the risk of cancer. However, it’s important for people to understand that background radiation has been with us since the beginning of time and we are constantly exposed to it, from space (cosmic radiation), the food we eat (potassium-40 from bananas, for example) and from the ground we walk on.

Radiation levels in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant may be slightly elevated above those of average background radiation, but if you compare the yearly radiation dose that a person living, for example, in Denver, Colorado receives by virtue of living at high altitude and being exposed to more cosmic radiation (11.8 millisieverts (mSv) / yr), to the additional dose received by living near a nuclear plant (0.003 mSv / yr at the Bruce Power site boundary), the numbers suggest that there is a far greater risk posed by the radiation dose received from everyday activities than from living near a nuclear plant.

© Bruce Power used fuel bay

Myth #3: We don’t know what to do with the enormous amount of nuclear waste.

There are two flaws with this opinion: the first deals with the perceived amount of waste generated by nuclear power plants, and the second with the assumption that once the waste is generated, it’s completely useless.

The following is an excerpt from the World Nuclear Association’s website, which gives an idea of the amount of waste produced by a reactor:

“A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 low- and intermediate-level waste per year. It will also discharge about 20 m3 (27 tonnes) of used fuel per year, which corresponds to a 75 m3 disposal volume following encapsulation if it is treated as waste. Where that used fuel is reprocessed, only 3 m3 of vitrified waste (glass) is produced, which is equivalent to a 28 m3 disposal volume following placement in a disposal canister.

This compares with an average 400,000 tonnes of ash produced from a coal-fired plant of the same power capacity. “
In fact, worldwide, the nuclear industry produces 0.2 km3 of low- to intermediate-level waste per year, and only 0.01 km3 of high-level waste per year. To picture it another way, in Canada, all the nuclear waste generated in over 50 years of commercial operation is only enough to fill six hockey rinks to the tops of their boards. Additionally, unlike conventional industrial waste which remains toxic forever, the radioactive hazard associated with nuclear waste decays (albeit slowly) over time.

Policies, technology and facilities are already in place in Europe, Russia and Japan to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, effectively harvesting the “unburned” portion of nuclear fuel to make fresh fuel. This not only reduces the volume of high-level waste that would otherwise be generated by about 80%, but also reduces the radioactivity and decay time of what’s left over after the reprocessing. Total worldwide reprocessing capacity is over 5600 tonnes per year and growing, which speaks volumes about the fact that countries with nuclear power programs take the problem of waste seriously and are taking steps, if not to eliminate, then at least to reduce it.

Is nuclear power perfect? No. Personally, I’d like to see a future where all power is generated from sustainable sources without any waste products, though my feeling is that this future is, unfortunately, still a distant one. However, nuclear power does offer the benefit of safe, reliable, abundant power with a significantly lower level of carbon emissions than fossil fuels, even when one includes the mining and processing of nuclear fuel. So in the meantime, I’ll continue to support all forms of power generation that displace fossil fuel and result in a net reduction in carbon emissions.

Tags: Nuclear Power | Ontario

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