Environment

Nuclear is the No. 3 Contributor to Climate Change Mitigation: The Economist

Ahead of the September 23 UN meeting of world leaders to discuss climate change, The Economist magazine decided to do something they claim has never been attempted before.

The magazine has compiled a list of the top 20 climate change mitigation measures put in place globally.

Not surprising, nuclear power ranked third overall and was credited for reducing 2.2 billion tonnes of C02 annually, behind the Montreal Protocol and hydro power. Nuclear’s climate change mitigation was estimated to be four times greater than all non-hydro renewable energy sources combined.

To slash or to trim

“According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear power avoided the production of 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2010—that is, emissions would have been 2.2 billion tonnes higher if the same amount of electricity had been produced by non-nuclear plants,” The Economist reported.

It added that the high rate at which new wind and solar capacity is being built will eat into this lead of nuclear and hydro “but it will take some time to overturn it.”

You can read the full Economist article here.

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Here’s to Heather

Heather Kleb

Heather Kleb

Farewell, Heather
CNA Vice-President Heather Kleb left the CNA on September 12 to join Bruce Power.
Kleb will be taking up a position as senior program manager in the regulatory program with Bruce starting in Ottawa in late September.
”Working at the CNA has allowed me to meet so many of the great people who make up the nuclear industry,” said Kleb. “I hope to continue to run into all of you in my new role. And I plan to cheer the CNA on from the sidelines as they advocate for our industry.”
Kleb joined the CNA in 2010 as director of regulatory affairs and served as acting CNA president from October 2012 to October 2013.
“Heather will always be a most welcome friend of CNA; we very much hope to benefit from her advice on regulatory and environmental affairs,” said CNA President John Barrett. “Her expertise in these matters is most valuable, not only to the CNA but also to the nuclear industry at large.”
Heather has a background in environmental science with a Master of Science in Ecology and over 20 years of experience working on multi-million dollar projects supporting a variety of industries. She has held a number of positions at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, including Manager, Regulatory Affairs, for the cleanup and long-term management of historic low-level radioactive waste in Port Hope and Clarington, Ontario.
She is also currently enrolled in the EMBA program at Queen’s University.
Good luck, Heather!

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Step Outside – How Many Electric Cars do you See?

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Originally published in Policy Options, September 2014

Anyone purporting seriously to project the global future of energy should first ask themselves this simple question: How much do you think your family’s energy supply will change in the next four decades? (1) Dramatically? (2) Substantially? (3) Hardly at all?

If you’re at least as old as I am (born in 1960), you’ve lived through a good deal of public discussion of energy issues in North America since the mid-1970s, just after the first great oil price shock. Though its roots lay mostly in political causes (a war in the Middle East), the 1973 jump in oil prices spawned a sea change in energy attitudes driven by widespread notions that the world was running out of natural resources.

Many of us were convinced that our energy systems were in for a dramatic shift. If asked then, most of us would probably have said that radical change would occur by the end of the 20th century. We were sure that oil would have become unaffordable. Homes, we thought, would be solar- or garbage-incinerator powered. Cars would be fewer, or electric, and we would likely be driving them much less.

Had you told my generation in 1974 that our sources and uses of energy — and the lifestyles built around them — would be more or less unchanged, not just 20 but 40 years later, those of us who thought we understood energy issues simply would not have believed you.

The lesson is sobering: quick propagation of new technology does not happen in energy supply systems.

The lesson is sobering: quick propagation of new technology does not happen in energy supply systems. Other technologies lend a distorted view of the speed of change, particularly computers and other digital technologies. Our phones, modems, computers and routers get replaced in three- to five-year cycles, while service offerings around them, such as texting, e-mail and social media, seem to be ever-expanding and advancing.

But the energy infrastructure is heavier and more durable (and involves greater safety implications: your computer or phone cannot easily kill you). Light bulbs are about the only thing we can change in three years. Appliances like televisions, fridges and stoves take 10 to 20 years to turn over. Power stations, transmission gear and pipelines last 25 to 50 years; manufacturing equipment 10 to 40; heavy vehicles 10 to 30. Buildings stay in service 40 to 120 years, with much of their embodied infrastructure (elevators, heating and cooling systems) changing just a few times in that period.

With this kind of durability, relatively little of North America, Japan or Europe’s energy-supply hardware is upgraded in a given decade. Add to this the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to get regulatory approval to build infrastructure in our societies (notably pipelines or power lines), and the turnover time is longer still. Yes, you’ll see new technology installed in new neighbourhoods, but not so much in the old ones, at least not for a long time.

So what? Well, two “so whats.” First, if we have a new energy technology that helps to solve an urgent problem such as climate change, adopting that technology on an urgent basis is going to be very, very expensive. If we need to change the system in less than 10 years (and remember, the system hardware has an average lifespan of 30 years) then we have to buy new gear long before we’ve finished paying for the old. That hurts, and in many cases it can’t realistically be financed.

Light bulbs are about the only thing we can change in three years.

Second, note that I said: “if.” Many of our current projections of future energy systems presume the availability of technical solutions that, in many cases, aren’t available yet.

I recently joined a national group that brings together leaders from the electric power industry. These are the executives and engineers who design and build North America’s energy hardware and software, including turbines, wires, transformers and controls. Few are more qualified than these people to talk about what our electric power grid can do and what we can make it do.

In recent conversations I listened to them tiptoe around the gap that exists between rhetoric and reality concerning the future of our electric grid. While they do not discourage efforts to speed up technology innovation (their companies get interesting contracts for pilot projects), they’re aware that many of these innovations are much further out than the general public realizes.

Consider grid-scale energy storage, which is indispensable for intermittent power sources such as wind and solar.

Knowledgeable realists understand that even if wind and solar become economic power sources on the scale necessary to clean up our electricity supply (which isn’t a given), the next big challenge will be to have that power available when it’s needed. At this time, energy storage on a large enough scale doesn’t exist — and won’t exist for at least several decades.

Without storage capacity, intermittent energy sources must be backed up by other sources that can be raised and lowered quickly, such as hydroelectricity or natural gas. If that backup is natural gas, as is increasingly the case, then renewables without storage are not low-carbon and are not an answer to our problem.

There is not yet a good, proven, economic, and widely applicable solution to the problem of grid-scale energy storage. Yes, government funds are being invested in storage technologies. Yes, there are pilot projects. But these shouldn’t be mistaken for signs of an imminent shift in our power system. Ninety-eight percent of installed energy storage capacity in the world today is a tried-and-true technology: pumped hydro. The other 2 percent (including flywheels, batteries and compressed air) are at various stages of development. In all cases, there are significant losses in storing and retrieving the power, with the result that these storage methods are useful only in niche applications where high costs are tolerable.

Stewart ad

Another innovation with some distance to go is a workable system whereby those energy customers able to generate small amounts of power from time to time can sell it to the grid (or alternatively, sell stored power, such as from their parked electric vehicles). Considered one of the pillars of the “smart grid,” this is a promising development — unless you are an operator of an actual power grid.

Electrical system operators need to achieve a near-perfect balance between supply and demand. According to a February 2014 article from the Electric Power Research Institute, “The Integrated Grid,” the “electric power grid, especially its distribution systems, was not designed to accommodate a high penetration of distributed energy resources while sustaining high levels of electric quality and reliability.” Bollen and Hassan’s 2011 engineering text, Integration of Distributed Generation in the Power System, tells us that the problems include increased risk of overload and increased losses, increased risk of overvoltages, increased levels of power-quality disturbances, and impacts on power-system stability and operation.  If enthusiasts for our smart-grid future dig into such material, they don’t reflect it.

This is not to say that engineers believe these problems are insoluble. They simply believe solving them will take a long time and a lot of investment. It is unlikely that a proven, economic solution will be available in a time frame that lives up to current optimism about smart grids and a future based predominantly on renewable energy.

As in 1974, there are four main barriers standing between us and a dramatically different energy system:

  • Engineering feasibility — or the physical problem. Finding new energy solutions is not just a matter of making a public policy decision and pouring millions of dollars into a technology development fund. Many technical problems are simply not amenable to human will.
  • Verification — or the standards problem. Performance and safety need to be validated before infrastructure investment can begin. For new technologies, just creating evaluation processes and design standards can be a huge undertaking, and we’re not nearly there yet.
  • Infrastructure feasibility — or the time problem. While climate change demands an immediate solution, the scale of our energy system and the rate at which we rebuild it will necessitate an investment time frame in the area of two to four decades — longer if economic growth slows.
  • Economic feasibility — or the customer/voter problem. However quickly you and I want a solution (like a mostly renewable power supply) to a big problem (like global warming), quick solutions to big problems are almost always expensive. So while voters generally embrace the solution in the planning stages, they tend to lash out when the bills arrive. The policy may survive or be reversed; the political party may survive or be rejected. But a legacy of large costs is guaranteed.

The engineering reality is that among the low-carbon ways to generate electric power, nonhydro renewables such as wind and solar probably won’t supply more than 5 to 10 percent of our power a decade from now, and 10 to 15 percent in 20 years. Another engineering reality is that the smart grid — so far — is mainly a set of measures to trim consumption and flatten out the peaks and valleys that occur throughout the day. Progress may very well be made on energy storage and the smart grid, but in both cases they’re going to take time.

Let me be clear: I’d like nothing better than a smart grid fuelled by low-emitting generation. Replacing -fossil-fuelled vehicles with electric ones would be wonderful for my grandchildren’s ecosphere. I don’t discourage a vision of an energy system that is very different from the one we have today, any more than I underestimate the competence of the engineers I’ve met. I only maintain that realistic time frames need to be considered.

If we agree that global warming is real and the need to decarbonize our energy system is urgent, then we need to institute a lower carbon system on a very large scale as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the list of available ways to do this is very short. The list does not include natural gas, except as a stepping-stone where it is replacing coal or oil (which is the only case where natural gas can be considered lower-carbon). And the list does not include wishful thinking about new technologies we don’t have or big engineering challenges that haven’t been solved. The 60- or 100-year solutions are good and should be pursued. Just don’t be under the illusion that they can help us right now.

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OPG’s Pickering Unit 6 First in Canada to Exceed 210,000 EFPH

By Jerry Cuttler
President
Cuttler & Associates Inc.

The August issue of the CANDU Owners Group (COG) newsletter features the following story about a very important COG achievement for the Canadian nuclear industry. It’s about extending by almost 18% the operating lives of the Pickering reactors. Because of their lower power rating (540 MWe), the economic case to re-tube these reactors is weaker than the case for the Bruce and Darlington reactors. This COG achievement strengthens the economics of these reactors and of all the other CANDU reactors worldwide. And it’s about providing more low-cost, reliable, pollution-free electricity for the people of Ontario.

Technical information about Pickering fuel channel fitness for service is available here.

Pickering

Pickering nuclear power plant.

OPG’s Pickering Unit 6 first in Canada to exceed 210,000 EFPH

Ontario Power Generation’s Pickering Unit 6 was rapidly approaching its design limit of 210,000 equivalent full power hours (EFPH), the point at which specifications would indicate it be shut down for refurbishment.

But in 2009, OPG, together with industry partners, including COG, had launched the Fuel Channel Life Management Joint Project to examine evidence that the operating life could be significantly extended. So OPG applied to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for permission to increase that EFPH limit. Receiving the commission’s go-ahead was contingent upon satisfying a number of criteria and clearing a key licensing hold point that Pickering would not operate its pressure tubes beyond 210,000 EFPH until approved by the commission.

“OPG (in partnership with Bruce Power) made a significant presentation to the commission on all the work that had been carried out to demonstrate the high level of confidence that we have in the continued safety and operability of our fuel channels,” said Paul Spekkens, vice president, science and technology at OPG.

Based on results, the presentation, which took place at a public hearing on May 7, 2014, was a resounding success. Less than a month later on June 3, a decision had been reached. Spekkens announced that the commission had accepted OPG’s request to clear the hold point, and Pickering 6 was on track to become the first Canadian unit to operate beyond the 210,000 EFPH limit—up to 247,000 EFPH. It’s a decision that has huge positive implications for OPG’s bottom line, and raises the possibility of similar extensions—and savings—for other CANDU owners/operators.

“Most of this work was carried out by the staff of your organizations as part of the COG Joint Project on Fuel Channel Life Management and as direct technical support to OPG,” said Spekkens in an e-mail announcing the CNSC’s positive decision to the project partners.

“I would like to convey OPG’s appreciation for all the hard work carried out on our behalf by your organizations. The results of these efforts formed the basis for the compelling case we were able to present to the CNSC. Thank you to all who were involved.”

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Just How Radioactive is Uranium Ore?

radiation from bananasI recently stumbled upon a blog by Andrea Jennetta, a nuclear energy communicator with nearly 25 years of work experience in the U.S nuclear industry.

Although many of her blog postings are insightful and thought-provoking, the following post was also extremely timely, what with the BAPE hearings on uranium mining in Quebec currently underway.

One of the main concerns of the BAPE has to do with the dangers of uranium mining, and one of these so-called dangers is exposure to radiation.

Jennetta does a great job of putting radiation due to uranium mining in perspective:

Understanding radiation and its different sources can be a tricky thing. It’s even trickier when uranium mining opponents are intent on deceiving us all into believing that uranium is the most radioactive and dangerous substance known to man.

So, just how radioactive is uranium ore? And, how does it compare to other naturally occurring radioactive substances we are exposed to on a daily basis? Say, bananas for instance.

Well, a handful of raw uranium ore actually has about as much radiation as 10 bananas – a “bunch” that is. But, how could that be? It’s simple really. Banana’s are radioactive because they contain trace amounts of the naturally occurring radioactive isotope potassium–40, just like uranium ore contains trace amounts of the naturally occurring radioactive isotopes uranium-238 and 235. Shocking isn’t it?

But wait, there’s more. Uranium mines and nuclear facilities only account for about 0.1% of the average American’s radiation exposure in a given year. Most of our radiation exposure comes from the sun, the earth, medical procedures, and breathing naturally occurring radon molecules – NOT from nuclear energy or uranium mining. You get radiation from your computer screen, from the Brazil nuts you eat, from the gas burner in your kitchen and from your granite counter tops.

Radiation is natural and all around us, and at a level of 10 bananas-worth per handful, uranium is hardly the most dangerous substance known to man and something smart engineers and scientists are fully capable of managing without harming people or the environment.

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Canadian Nuclear Power Plants Get Top Marks for Safety from CNSC

By Romeo St-Martin
Digital Media Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

OPG, Bruce Power and NB Power all received high marks for their plant safety from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission last week, proving again that nuclear power in Canada is safe.

The CNSC Staff Integrated Safety Assessment of Canadian Nuclear Power Plants for 2013 concluded that Canada’s nuclear power plant operators “made adequate provision for the protection of the health, safety and security of persons and the environment from the use of nuclear energy.”

The report’s highlights included:

  • there were no serious process failures at the nuclear power plants
  • no member of the public received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limit
  • no worker at any plant received a radiation dose that exceeded the regulatory limits
  • the frequency and severity of non-radiological injuries to workers were minimal
  • no radiological releases to the environment from the stations exceeded the regulatory limits

The CNSC rates nuclear power plant safety performance on 14 criteria using a scale of “Fully Satisfactory,” “Satisfactory,” “Below expectations,” and “Unacceptable.”

All nuclear power plants received scores of either “Fully Satisfactory” or “Satisfactory” for all 14 items, including things such as waste, fitness for service and radiation protection.

In addition, OPG’s Darlington was the only station to receive a “Fully Satisfactory” score – the highest score possible – for its overall plant rating.