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Nuclear: Better GHG Performance than Wind for Power Generation

Is renewable energy necessarily green? Only if it can generate electricity without adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Power utilities across Canada and around the world are ramping up their renewable energy sources, and adding wind to their supply mixes because it seems so clean, so green.

But a recent independent study of life-cycle carbon emissions questions whether wind power really reduces greenhouse gases in real-world uses.

Hatch report coverThe study, by the Toronto-based engineering firm Hatch Ltd., compared greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from nuclear power plants and from wind farms backed by natural gas plants.

It’s an apples-to-apples comparison: Nuclear plants generate around the clock, but wind plants operate only when the wind blows. To match a nuclear plant’s output, a wind farm needs backup.

The replacement power usually comes from hydro dams, which can open additional gates to raise electrical output, or from natural gas plants that fire up additional burners. Gas plants are faster and easier to build than hydro dams, so they often supplement wind farms.

Looking at actual generation data, the Hatch team estimated that wind farms produce only 20 percent of their potential, and assumed that natural gas plants would make up the difference.

The analysis estimated nuclear power emitted 18.5 grams of greenhouse gases per kilowatt-hour (kWh) through the entire life cycle, compared to 385 grams per kWh for wind backed by natural gas. In other words, a decision to invest in wind plants is actually a decision to produce climate-changing greenhouse gases.

“When considering wind backed by natural gas power (20%/80%) to compensate for intermittency, emissions from the modified grid mix closely resemble that of natural gas production, diluted by a low-emissions power source,” the study noted.

To the average person, the term “renewable energy” suggests an energy source that does not contribute to climate change. But “renewable” doesn’t always mean “low-carbon.” A closer examination, such as the Hatch study, shows that nuclear energy is the better choice for the climate.

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Nuclear Brings Clean Air to Ontario

It is important that when we speak of “clean technologies” in Canada, we include nuclear. Thanks to nuclear power, the atmosphere gets a break on its steady diet of carbon dioxide – a 90-million tonne CO2 reduction annually.

“Canada’s record on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is substantially helped by Ontario’s use of nuclear power,” says Canadian Nuclear Association president John Barrett.

In April 2014, the Ontario government announced a major clean-air landmark: it shut down its last coal-fired generating station, and became the first North American jurisdiction to eliminate coal entirely.

How was Ontario able to do this? Because it relies on that clean, reliable workhorse – nuclear power.

“We are extremely proud of the role Bruce Power has played to support the phase out of coal in Ontario,” says Duncan Hawthorne, Bruce Power President and CEO, and also the Chair of the CNA’s Board of Directors. Bruce Power has doubled its fleet of operating reactors from four to eight, becoming the world’s largest nuclear generating station. Says Hawthorne: “By returning 3,000 megawatts of safe, reliable and carbon-free electricity to Ontario’s grid, we have played a major role in this important environmental and health initiative.”

In Ontario, nuclear power provides nearly 60 percent of the electricity mix. Between 2000 and 2013, nuclear-powered electrical generation rose 20 percent, coinciding with a 27 percent drop in coal-fired electricity. During the same period, non-hydro renewables increased to 3.4 percent from one percent. This major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.

bruce power output

Source: Bruce Power.

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Innovations we Need – Now, and for Generations

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

In case you missed this in the early January darkness: A Canadian team based at Vancouver-area TRIUMF has demonstrated a practical answer to the impending shortage of medical isotopes.

Technetium-99m (TC-99m), a commonly used isotope for medical imaging and diagnosis, has until now mainly been derived from molybdenum-99 from the NRU research reactor in Ontario. But the NRU is scheduled to end molybdenum production in 2016.

Industry experts were warning that this would leave global supplies of TC-99m very tight and vulnerable to shortages. But Canada’s nuclear science and technology know-how, with support from the federal government, has been working on answers. The team uses a common brand of medical cyclotron – developed and manufactured in Canada – to make TC-99m without a reactor.

Yanick Lee (right) and Ran Klein (centre) show off the Ottawa Hospital’s cyclotron.
The cyclotron at the Ottawa Hospital produces isotopes used for PET scans, which allow cardiac and cancer patients to receive precisely targeted treatments.

Nuclear technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s an integral part of our health care system, helping Canadian doctors to help their patients faster, better, and less intrusively. Not to mention an integral part of our materials science, which supports our whole manufacturing and engineering capability. Not to mention an integral part of our low-carbon, low-cost electric power supply.

Nuclear technology solves real-world problems that affect our quality of life: How long we live. How well our cars run. How safely our planes land. How affordable energy is.

As we noted in our last post, timely solutions like the isotope breakthrough may only be the tip of the iceberg compared to what nuclear innovation could bring humanity in coming decades. The world’s demand for low-carbon energy and clean air is probably the biggest single challenge we face as a species.  And it is increasingly clear that nuclear is the only minimal-carbon energy that can be there on the scale we need, when we need it.

Many reactor designs can be part of that solution, which will be global in scale. Here are some examples of CNA member organizations working in science and technology partnerships right now to make it happen:

  • Burnaby, BC-based General Fusion, which has a prototype fusion reactor, has a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, and is putting them in place with the Lawrence Berkeley National and Princeton Plasma Physics labs.
Terrestrial
Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR80.
  • Mississauga, ON-based Terrestrial Energy, which is developing integral molten salt reactors, recently announced an initial collaboration with USDOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the home of the original working MSR design.
  • CNA members GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GHNE) and Westinghouse Electric, plus Areva Federal Services, have joined with USDOE’s Argonne National Laboratory in a partnership on next-generation reactors.

National laboratories don’t form these partnerships just to make headlines. They’re looking to solve big problems. Canada and CNA members are going to be part of those answers.

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Technologies Take a While to Turn the World Around

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Asked in the 1970s about the influence of the French Revolution on western civilization, Chou En Lai is said to have paused and replied: It’s too soon to tell.

You might say the same thing about nuclear technology’s impact on the world.  Sure, we’ve had it for about 70 years. But is that long enough for a fair test?

Newcomen
The Newcommen steam pump, circa 1710.

Practical steam engines were in use for a century before they really changed most people’s worlds.

Steam engines were first commercialized around the year 1700 to pump water out of mineshafts (which they did better than humans), and shortly thereafter to drive textile mills (which they did better than waterwheels).

They weren’t successfully applied to transportation (steamboats and locomotives) until just after 1800. Before they could operate on these mobile platforms, steam engines had to get smaller, lighter, safer, more applicable, and far more efficient.

When they did this, steam engines dramatically reduced transport costs. That made the world a very different place in the nineteenth century – and in many ways, and for many people, a much better one.

Coalbrookdale
The Trevithick locomotive, circa 1803.

A recent announcement by Mississauga-based Terrestrial Energy Inc. (TEI) reminds us again that we’ve probably not even glimpsed where revolutionary reactor designs might take society in a carbon-constrained world.

Remember, we’ve come less than six decades from the opening of the first utility-scale nuclear generating station – which operated successfully in Pennsylvania from 1957 until 1982.

Reactor technology has spent those decades generating cleaner and cheaper electricity than nearly any other source, and probably doing it more safely than any other source. But that’s not the end of the story.

Because reactor technology has also spent those decades getting better and better.

A number of CNA member companies have designs that reflect this progress, and that could change our children’s and grandchildren’s world in very positive ways. Terrestrial’s is just one example of this.

Shippingport
The Shippingport atomic power station.

On January 7, Terrestrial Energy announced a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to advance the design of its concept for an integral molten salt reactor (IMSR). Oak Ridge is where early molten salt reactors were proven, decades ago.

Terrestrial
Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR80.

More recent Molten Salt Reactor technology could represent a revolution in nuclear safety, waste and proliferation resistance, and in energy cost-competitiveness. Terrestrial’s is a small modular design, with models ranging from as small as 80 MWth – about one-tenth of the typical utility-scale reactor installed today.

The company wants to start commercial deployment of IMSRs by early next decade. Edge-of-grid and off-grid locations in Canada, many of them currently using dirty, expensive diesel generators, could benefit dramatically from these or other advanced and smaller reactor designs.

Think nuclear had its heyday in the 1960s? Sure. And the piston engine was just a better way to get water out of coal mines.

Nuclear News

Top Ten Nuclear News Stories in 2014

By Romeo St. Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

Greater media coverage and government concern about climate change powered a steady supply of nuclear energy issues in the media in 2014.

As 2014 closed, Japan pressed ahead with plans to restart its nuclear reactors, Germany’s Energiewende continued to raise questions about whether renewables can replace fossil fuels, and more and more environmentalists came to support nuclear power.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the most-talked-about nuclear energy issues of 2014.

China

The nuclear industry’s Asian expansion continued, with China leading the way. Not only is the country’s economy expanding, lifting millions out of poverty, but its middle class is fed up with coal-driven pollution in major cities.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a surprise climate agreement in December that would see China’s CO2 emissions peak by 2030.

Not surprisingly, Chinese leaders have begun to rapidly develop nuclear power, as the negative impact of Japan’s nuclear crisis in 2011 wanes. Under the country’s National Energy Administration’s latest Five-Year Plan, China will invest $196 billion in 101 new reactors between 2015 and 2030.

Canada will play a role in this scale-up. Candu Energy Inc. announced in November that its Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactor (AFCR) earned a positive review from a Chinese scientific panel. The review will lead to further development and construction with significant benefits to the Canadian industry.

“It’s a big step toward our entry into the biggest nuclear market in the world,” Jerry Hopwood, vice-president of Candu Energy, told the Toronto Star.

Radiation in perspective

Stories that brought perspective to radiation exposure were popular in social media, catalyzed in part by a United Nations report that dispelled one of the most popular myths regarding the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said in its April report that it did not expect “significant changes” in future cancer rates that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the reactor meltdowns.

Social media also took note of a study by a Scottish mountain climber and radiation-protection advisor who found climbers scaling Mt. Everest received a radiation dose five times more than the average annual exposure of a UK nuclear power worker.

Google’s Energiewende

google hqWind and solar energy’s continuing unpredictability gained widespread attention thanks to in part to a viral story about Google’s decision to scrap its renewable energy program, RE<C.

“Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach,” wrote Google’s Ross Koningstein and David Fork in a piece published in IEEE’s Spectrum.

“We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.”

Climate debate

Nuclear’s contribution to climate change mitigation gained further global recognition. The Economist published a chart that listed nuclear power as the third-biggest contributor to GHG reductions, trailing the Montreal Protocol (which reduced chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons) and hydroelectricity, but much further ahead of renewables.

To slash or to trim

Also the latest policy report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included nuclear among the clean energy technologies whose total output must quadruple to help avert catastrophic climate effects.

Environmentalists continue to go nuclear

Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy
Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy

More environmentalists and scientists joined the likes of James Hansen and Mark Lynas as public advocates of nuclear energy.

Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, joined the advocacy group Nuclear Matters.

Browner said in a Forbes piece that she had been anti-nuclear, but changed her position because of nuclear’s beneficial role in offsetting climate change.

In December, 75 conservationist scientists wrote an open letter to environmentalists urging them to reconsider nuclear energy because it helps preserve biodiversity.

Here’s the quote from their letter:

“Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.”

Energiewende

Germany continued its nuclear phase-out in 2014, creating a need for more coal-fired electrical production. Enough said.

Ontario goes coal-free thanks to nuclear

Ontario became the first North American jurisdiction to end the use of coal in electricity generation. The event was even noted by former U.S. vice president Al Gore.

Nuclear power played a major role. Between 2000 and 2013, nuclear-powered electrical generation rose 20 percent, coinciding with a 27 percent drop in coal-fired electricity. During the same period, non-hydro renewables increased from one percent to 3.4 percent. This major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.

DGR

Also in Ontario, OPG’s proposal to create a deep geologic repository for low- and intermediate-level waste remained in the headlines.  The CNA appeared for the second time before the joint review panel to voice our support for the initiative.

OPG, with the support of the surrounding community, has proposed a permanent management solution for these materials. This speaks to the proactive and responsible environmental management to which all members of the Canadian Nuclear Association are committed.

Fusion

One of the biggest news stories featured an announcement by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division that it had made a breakthrough in developing a fusion reactor and could have one small enough to fit on the back of a truck in 10 years. The announcement stunned nuclear-savvy observers who had thought such a development would take much longer than a decade.

Quebec imports

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard signed an agreement November 21st on electricity. Ontario will make 500 megawatts available to Quebec to manage its winter demand peak, while Quebec will reciprocate for Ontario’s summertime peak.

The capacity amounts are small, representing about 1.4 percent of Ontario’s installed generating capacity of 33,771 megawatts (MW), and less than four percent of Ontario’s nuclear generating capacity of 12,947 MW.

In announcing the Quebec agreement, Ontario’s Premier Wynne rejected suggestions that imported electricity could reduce Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power. “We’re not anywhere near having a conversation like that,” Wynne told reporters.

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Prominent Environmentalists Embrace Nuclear

“I used to be anti-nuclear. But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources.”

- Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy

Carol Browner
Carol Browner

Before climate change topped the environmental agenda, environmentalists often stood on opposite sides of the nuclear debate.

Even today, many big-name environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, remain opposed to nuclear power.

However, a growing number of prominent environmentalists and scientists have converted to the pro-nuclear camp, including those who had vehemently opposed nuclear power.

The reason is simple: Climate change is the top issue, and countries cannot meet both their energy needs and greenhouse-gas reduction targets using renewable energy sources alone.

Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

Look no further than Germany and Japan to see countries that closed nuclear power plants only to see a rise in their use of coal and gas.

“Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost,” environmentalist Mark Lynas wrote in a recent op-ed for The Guardian. “Even many greens now admit this in private moments.”

Lynas admits that he “grew up hating nuclear,” but converted to the pro-nuclear side after discovering the dangers had been exaggerated.

Another prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Lovelock, the British scientist best known for the “Gaia hypothesis,” which proposes that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system, similar to a living organism.

James Lovelock
James Lovelock

“I think nearly all of the arguments against nuclear energy are just false and highly political,” Lovelock recently told the Globe and Mail.

“But it’s a question of how you compare: What’s the risk of powering your nation by nuclear power, compared with coal or oil? I think the case in favor of nuclear is enormously strong.”

Perhaps the most prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist is James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been credited for being one of first to warn politicians and policy makers about the dangers of climate change.

Hansen was one of four environmental scientists who wrote a 2013 open letter urging the green movement to give up its opposition to nuclear power.

James Hansen
James Hansen

“While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power,” the letter said.

(Hansen is also the featured speaker at the 2015 Canadian Nuclear Association conference.)

Other prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists include Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace; author Gwyneth Cravens; and Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

Cravens, Lynas, writer Stewart Brand, and writer Michael Schellenberger were among the notable environmentalists once opposed to nuclear who were featured in the 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise. The film focused on the environmental movement’s opposition to nuclear, even though it is a safe, low-carbon energy source needed to combat climate change.