ILLUSTRATIONS BY DOUGLAS FRASER

The Big Decision

It's arguably the most important question facing our province: Should we go nuclear? Considering the facts, it's also a no-brainer.

By Chris Turner

The first time I heard tell of the notion of a nuclear power plant in northern Alberta, it was the punchline to an anecdote, intended as a wry slice of gallows humour. It was in the spring of 2006, and I was at an intimate conference in Germany concerned with the converging calamities of peak oil and climate change. The seminar table was crowded with oil field geologists, green power experts and environmental campaigners, the talk portentous and often heated. These were enormous issues, the kind that defined eras and ushered in new epochs, and if few in the room agreed on the exact steps needed to be taken to avoid catastrophe, everyone knew that steps had to be taken, and that they were giant steps indeed.

At the coffee break, I fell into conversation with my neighbour, an energy reporter for The Economist. He learned I was from Calgary, and launched into a story about a research trip he’d made to the city a couple years previously, just as the oil sands boom’s rumblings were growing loud enough to be heard even in the London offices of his employer. He’d been bemused, he explained, by Calgary’s new-found self-importance. There’d been, in particular, a round-table discussion involving a handful of top oil patch executives and government bigwigs, and my Economist colleague, aiming to provoke, had asked about a boast he’d heard—that Alberta could one day top Saudi Arabia in oil production. Wouldn’t that, he wondered, require ramping up production by a factor of 10? Where would the province find the energy to fuel a mining operation of that scale?  

The round-table participants refused to dismiss the notion out of hand, instead tossing out blue-sky suggestions. If the price of a barrel of oil were high enough, there were simply no known limits to what could be done. One of them even offhandedly suggested you could build a bunch of nuclear power plants in the oil patch to provide as much juice as it took. 

The Economist’s energy reporter* thought that was hilarious.

Here, for the record, is The Economist itself, in 1998, on the subject of nuclear power plants: “Not one, anywhere in the world, makes commercial sense.”

So imagine my surprise, barely a year after that German conference, to find this headline above the fold on the front page of the Calgary Herald: “Alberta nuclear future a step closer.” Now how, exactly, had it so quickly come to this? In what fevered moment had roundtable brainstorming been transformed into a formal application to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission? And, moreover, why? Was this boomtown madness, naked greed or grim necessity? A white elephant soon to be born, or a phoenix set to rise from the carbon-choked flames of our fossil-fuel bonfire? Salvation or a new face of doom?

If this was ever a joke, it isn’t one any longer. These are profound questions, and they cut to the core of the kind of province Alberta has become and the kind of future it wants to build for itself. The very basis of the global energy economy has just begun a fundamental shift, and the long-term success of any given society—and possibly of humanity itself—very likely rests on how wisely it steers this new course. No viable option should be dismissed out of hand, but neither should any proposal—least of all a development project with a 10-year construction phase, a 60-year lifespan, a waste product with a half-life of 24,100 years and a price tag in the billions—be taken at face value, nor pursued until it has undergone the most thorough and rigorous evaluation possible.

That kind of due diligence is well beyond my ability and expertise. I’ve attempted instead simply to outline the facts of the case and properly frame the criteria for such an analysis. Should Alberta exercise its nuclear option? I can’t offer a definitive answer. I’m not sure, though, if I would want to live much longer in a place that saw it as the only option for its energy future. Because a society with a focus that narrow probably won’t have much of a future. 

At the end of August 2007, a fledgling company called Energy Alberta Corp. filed an application with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to build a nuclear power plant in the Peace Country. Energy Alberta had been founded a couple of years earlier by Hank Swartout and Wayne Henuset, two oil patch veterans. The initial motivation came in 2004, when a hurricane destroyed a house Henuset had built in Florida—which awakened him, he later told the National Post, to the realities of climate change and the need to decrease our dependency on fossil fuels. Some time later, at a Florida airport, Henuset got to talking to a physicist about the “cleaner, safer, more reliable, dependable and stable” nature of nuclear power—so went Henuset’s recollection—and a seed was planted. 

Details of the Energy Alberta plan emerged throughout the fall of 2007: the proposed facility would consist of two reactors generating 2,200 megawatts of power, 70 per cent of it intended for a single unnamed private customer whose identity never emerged. At subsequent press conferences, the company claimed their electricity would be used to fuel rapidly expanding oil sands operations, but several major oil companies soon stated they had no such needs—indeed the Athabasca oil sands region is, at present, a net electricity exporter, and most of the large players there have already invested in other sources to provide for their power needs through 2020. Energy Alberta then switched its focus to the provincial power grid, citing reports that suggested the province may need 4,000 megawatts or more of additional generating capacity by 2016. 

If our only choice is between nuclear and coal, then it’s no contest at all. But any argument in favour of nuclear power rests on a few pervasive and mostly baseless myths. That nuclear power is both cheap and plentiful, to name two.

In March 2008, Bruce Power—a public/private partnership based in Ontario, where it is the province’s largest independent power generator, operating six nuclear reactors—bought Energy Alberta and rechristened it Bruce Power Alberta. Soon after, this newly formed subsidiary announced it would be seeking approval for a “$10-billion-plus nuclear complex,” a cluster of four reactors with a total generating capacity of over 4,000 megawatts. In April, the Alberta government established a four-person review panel to study the viability of nuclear power generally for the province. One member of the panel is John Luxat, the former president of the Canadian Nuclear Society, a sister body to a major nuclear-industry lobby group. Bruce Power Alberta’s chief lobbyist, meanwhile, is Randy Dawson, who served as the provincial Tories’ campaign manager in this year’s election. In early July, a study commissioned by Bruce Power Alberta was released, claiming that the Peace Country nuclear plant would create 2,700 jobs and generate $12-billion in revenues over the 10 years of its construction.

Press reports on the Bruce Power Alberta proposal’s specifics have been accompanied by much rumour and speculation. The company’s Ontario parent turned out to be in talks with the Saskatchewan government as well, fuelling fears of a prairie showdown over who would win the $12-billion prize. And other nuclear energy companies—most notably the French giant Areva—joined the fray, with executives jetting into Calgary for closed-door meetings followed by brief statements in which it was asserted that the Bruce proposal was nowhere near large enough to meet Alberta’s energy needs by itself. Meanwhile, up in the Peace Country, a sizeable, strident and well-organized opposition to the nuclear plant quickly emerged. Bruce Power Alberta, for its part, set up a storefront office in Peace River.

The nuclear drama now unfolding in the Peace Country is a small, self-contained version of a much broader conversation, a reenactment at rural Alberta scale of the global nuclear debate in the age of climate change. In the wake of the industry’s infamous disasters of the 1970s and 1980s—first the barely avoided catastrophe at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, then the real deal in Chernobyl in 1986—nuclear power had all but disappeared from the modern energy game. After the Darlington nuclear plant in southern Ontario was finally completed in 1993—well past deadline, at seven times its expected cost by some estimates—Canadians too lost interest in nukes. Nuclear energy had famously been touted as a modern-age miracle bringing near-limitless power “too cheap to meter.” But after a half-century of mammoth subsidies and well-funded research, the industry hadn’t even managed to bring global nuclear generation capacity to the same level as burning wood, at a premium nobody was any longer willing to pay—particularly since it continued to churn out radioactive waste for which nobody had developed a permanent disposal solution.

In recent years, however, global awareness of the high price and increasing scarcity of oil and gas and the catastrophic consequences of continuing to burn it (and especially its cousin coal) at current rates has rapidly moved from the fringe to the mainstream, and nuclear power has reinvented itself in response. The transformation has been breathtaking in its speed and thoroughness. Heretofore all but synonymous with the idea of hazardous waste, the nuclear industry has become the realistic green alternative—green because its plants belch no greenhouse gases to pump their juice* and realistic because, well, what other emissions-free choice is there that produces energy in 1,000-megawatt increments? 

Support for this argument, which now adorns the home page of every self-respecting nuclear energy company’s website, has emerged from some unexpected quarters. The prominent environmental scientist James Lovelock, for example, best known as the progenitor of the “Gaia hypothesis,” has become a vocal supporter of nuclear power, which he believes is the only fuel source that might be capable of avoiding the ecological Armageddon he foresees as imminent. And Stewart Brand, the erstwhile founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, has also become a nuclear advocate, arguing that only nuclear power can meet the outsized needs of the modern world without generating catastrophic levels of emissions. This line of reasoning was succinctly summarized in a recent Wired cover story: “There’s no question that nuclear power is the most climate-friendly industrial-scale energy source… [T]he reality is that every serious effort at carbon accounting reaches the same conclusion: nukes win. Only wind comes close—and that’s when it’s blowing.”

It was in the pages of GQ, of all places, that I came across probably the most persuasive argument I’ve yet found in favour of the nuclear option. This was a feature story by Wil S. Hylton, a self-professed “environmentalist.” Hylton’s essay was a particularly passionate lament in the lesser-of-two-evils vein, building upon a detailed analysis of the impact of the Three Mile Island disaster—which, he notes, had a body count of zero. The toxic stew spewed by coal-fired power generation, on the other hand, routinely kills thousands of people each year—this even before climate change is included in its deadly cost. But still, much of the world continues to oppose nuclear power, which obliges us to burn yet more coal. 

Hylton: “What drives this opposition, in many cases, is the conflation of magnitude with probability. That is, when people worry about nuclear power, what they worry about is the scale of an accident, not the likelihood. In this regard, nuclear power is just the opposite of the nation’s coal-fired plants, where harm to the environment is both ruinous and certain but comfortingly slow. It may take decades or even centuries for the effects of particle soot, acid rain and global warming to claim a million lives. By contrast, the nightmare scenario with nuclear power is decades of cheap, plentiful, pollution-free energy—followed by a sudden meltdown that wipes out a city.”

I found myself nodding along. If our only choice is between nuclear and coal, then it was no contest at all. I was all but persuaded. It was only on further rumination, though, that it occurred to me that Hylton’s argument—any argument I’ve heard in favour of nuclear power—rested on a few pervasive but mostly baseless myths. That nuclear power is both cheap and plentiful, to name two. (And never mind the pollution-free part; nukes undoubtedly produce far fewer emissions per kilowatt hour than fossil fuels, and the essential truth of this is why it’s become the cornerstone of the industry’s rebranding campaign.)

The most egregious myth, however—the one that could damn Alberta to a nuclear future as the 21st-century economy races greenly past—is the one that says it’s our only choice. Allow me to be exceedingly blunt: that’s just bullshit.

Before we get to the cow pies, let’s take a quick look at the rest of the mythos of the nuclear renaissance. The Peace Country’s microcosmic version of the conversation lays out most of this. To wit: that Alberta, even more than the world in general, is a rapidly expanding economy with a growing and ever-more-power-hungry population base, making the addition of many thousands of megawatts of electricity a near-future necessity; that only nuclear plants can supply this power in a cost-effective and timely manner; and that it will produce no greenhouse gases and create thousands of jobs to boot.

The job-creation angle is as unassailable as the emissions claim: a $10-billion-plus infrastructure project employs lots of people, and big power plants need lots of long-term staff. The cost effectiveness of nuclear power, however, is a more dubious assertion. Benchmarking power prices is a particularly disingenuous kind of fool’s game—there is not a truly rational energy market in any jurisdiction on earth—but even by the current, tilted standards, nuclear power and its 50 years of subsidies and taxpayer-funded cost overruns comes to market at a price, per kilowatt hour, about equal to wind power. It’s worth further noting that wind energy, which was virtually non-existent as a commercial power source when Three Mile Island had its flirtation with meltdown, already competes on purely economic terms with any other energy source everywhere it’s been expanded to industrial scale—Alberta included. 

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What’s more, not one of the current generation of nuclear plants—which includes the Candu reactors that Bruce Power Alberta proposes to build in the Peace Country—has been built on time and on budget outside of autocratic, environmental-regulation-free regimes such as China. The speed-of-deployment argument is even more specious, given that even the best-case scenario put forward by Bruce Power Alberta itself would have the first fission-generated kilowatt hour hitting Alberta’s grid at least nine years from today. That’s another decade in the most volatile energy market of the industrial era; bear in mind that if you rewind nine years (the first half-dozen of which were relatively stable), a barrel of oil was running you less than the cost of a steak at Earls. And so understand that anyone’s estimate of the relative costs of fuel sources—including uranium—in 2017 is barely better than a wild guess.

The same goes for estimates of future fuel consumption, which is where the argument for the necessity of nuclear energy (in Alberta or anywhere else) begins to unravel. At current consumption rates, Alberta will need 4,000 more megawatts of power by 2016, but I know of no credible energy expert who would claim that current consumption rates will be sustainable over the 60-year life of a nuclear plant. Indeed, for reasons of both fuel scarcity and emissions-reduction necessity, the International Energy Agency projects that fuel conservation will be the single largest change in the global energy picture by mid-century. “The cheapest form of new energy is to use a lot less”—this is how Dave Hughes, recently retired from the Geological Survey of Canada, where he was an energy resource analyst, put it to me.

I first met Hughes at the Gaining Ground sustainability conference in Calgary in May, where he gave what he said was his 147th presentation over the past six years outlining the real crux of the global energy crisis. To wit: that no one existing fuel source can possibly make up the inevitable energy deficit that the status quo will create by mid-century. Oil is at or near its global production peak and gas will follow, likely by mid-century at the latest. The nuclear industry, he explained, would have to embark on its biggest building boom ever just to replace outdated plants and meet modest growth forecasts which would see nuclear grow in real terms but decline in market share over the next couple of decades. “Nuclear could be part of the solution,” Hughes told me. “In the longer term, though, I really don’t think, you know, given that fossil fuels are 89 per cent of our energy consumption, that business as usual as we enjoy it today is really possible for more than maybe a decade or two. So I think it behooves us to rethink the way we consume energy.”

This, ultimately, is the most glaring and potentially catastro-phic absence in Alberta’s nuclear debate: the question of what kind of place the Alberta of 2017 (or 2057) wants to be, starting with the energy it will use to fuel that future. Because—to dispose, finally, of the biggest cow pie—there is in fact another choice. For some reason, though, it’s easy to miss. Consider the point in Wil Hylton’s otherwise convincing pro-nuke argument in GQ when he lost all credibility. He was explaining how eliminating nuclear plants from the US electricity grid would require increasing production from other sources by 25 per cent. Hylton: “Since that’s not possible for most current renewables—like wind, solar and hydroelectric farms, which are already maxed out—the real cost of eliminating today’s nuclear-power supply would be an immediate 30 per cent increase in the nation’s coal, gas and oil plants.” Spot the cow pie: most current renewables… are already maxed out. I don’t know what planet this assertion blipped in from, but it’s the same one on which only nuclear power can scale up to meet projected demand, and it’s not the one you and I live on. 

Here are some underpublicized facts about the planet we do live on. According to a report by BC Hydro, which is already well integrated with Alberta’s grid, there is more than 2,000 megawatts of readily accessible, cost-effective run-of-river hydroelectric power available in British Columbia at present. (As far as I know, no such study has been conducted of Alberta’s own water-power resources.) In Germany, which crowds almost 30 times the population of Alberta into a little over half the landmass, room has been found just in the last 10 years for more than 20,000 megawatts of wind energy—more than double Alberta’s current power-generating capacity from all sources. Plans are now in the works to erect 17,000 megawatts’ worth of wind turbines in the windy barrens of west Texas, which bear such geographic similarity to those of southeastern Alberta that the latter sometimes appear as the former in movies. One Texas company, BroadStar Wind Systems, has just announced the birth of the era of ubiquitous, dollar-per-watt wind generation, and I won’t bore you with the econometric details except to say that this is far cheaper than anything the nuclear industry even pretends to be capable of delivering.

Of course, anyone who’s driven past the windswept buttes west of Fort Macleod lately knows that Alberta has already demonstrated its suitability for industrial-scale wind power. The province’s installed wind-energy capacity has expanded from zero to about 525 megawatts in less than a decade with no real encouragement from the provincial government, and Alberta led the nation in wind power until Ontario’s ambitious Standard Offer program gave its wind industry the kickstart that has thus far been absent here. In the 10 years since the first windfarm was erected in Pincher Creek, the cost per kilowatt-hour has steadily declined (notwithstanding a brief recent uptick owing to excessive demand for new turbines worldwide). In an era of carbon taxes and caps, wind power’s long-term comparative cost advantage is pretty much assured—especially since, unlike nuclear or fossil fuels, a wind turbine’s fuel source is free of charge and unaffected by the volatile global markets currently wreaking havoc on conventional energy prices.

In Taiwan and China and especially Germany and California, meanwhile, solar companies of various stripes are constructing gigawatt-capacity solar-panel production lines. These are factories, to be constructed in less than a year, capable of fabricating enough solar panels every year to add a gigawatt of electricity to the grid of any customer who comes calling. A gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, so any given one of these new factories could add 7,000 megawatts of solar energy to their respective grids by the time Bruce Power Alberta’s 4,000-megawatt plant is complete, and all of these production facilities are projected to create a great many jobs and cost significantly less than $10-billion-plus to construct.

I want to belabour this last point: several of these gigawatt-scale solar-panel factories will primarily serve the German market, which has a solar resource about as abundant as southern Alaska’s. This is simply because Germany has decided to prepare itself now for the radically altered energy economy of the 21st century and beyond. In the short term, this has produced some less-than-ideal solutions—buying nuclear-generated electricity from France, for example, and giving serious consideration to commissioning new coal plants—but these measures are being undertaken in the context of a fundamental shift in the nation’s energy regime.* 

I was in eastern Germany not too long ago, touring the first 500-megawatt production line being built by Nanosolar, one of the companies that plans to have a gigawatt-capacity factory up and running by 2010. My tour guide was Erik Oldekop, the executive director of its German operations. He saw compelling parallels between the transformative power of renewable energy and digital commuications—in particular the way both technologies favour radically decentralized systems, and the way they liberate small organizations and even individuals to participate as producers as well as consumers. “Isn’t the electricity company that actually uses central power plants, isn’t that the mainframe?” he suggested. “We have very small, very small power plants, one to ten megawatt. Isn’t that the PC?”

So let’s have a discussion, by all means, about Alberta’s energy future and the place of nuclear power in it. But let’s have it within the proper parameters. Climate change and the end of the age of cheap, abundant fossil fuels oblige Alberta to reconstruct its power grid in a fundamentally different landscape from the one in which it was first built. We know—it is being demonstrated daily—that the economies that will lead the world by mid-century will be powered by the PC of renewables. Do we really need a nuclear mainframe to get us there? Are we really so lacking in foresight? In courage? Why not lead? 

Chris Turner earned four National Magazine Awards from 1999 to 2003, including the 2001 President’s Medal for General Excellence, the highest honour in Canadian magazine writing. 

 

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