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Nuclear Energy Delivers Clean Air for Ontario

Starting in the 1950s, coal made up a large part of Ontario’s power mix. Coal was inexpensive, and Ontario lacked sufficient alternatives such as hydroelectric power or natural gas. By the late 1990s, however, links between adverse health effects and air pollution were firmly established, and much of this could be traced to Ontario’s coal-powered plants.

In 2003, Ontario began to replace its coal-fired plants with nuclear energy, completing the switchover in 2014. Over that time, air quality improved significantly, reducing respiratory illnesses and deaths.

ONTARIO’S EVOLVING POWER CHOICES

Ontario’s first electrical power supply came from a hydroelectric generating station on the Ottawa River in 1892. Hydro expanded rapidly across the province in the early 20th century. But it could not expand indefinitely: not every river can be dammed at places that are economically feasible and environmentally sensible. So, in the 1950s, Ontario added six coal-fired power stations to meet rising demand. Practical, large-scale nuclear power was not introduced in Ontario until the 1970s.

Coal remained an important part of this mix until the end of the 20th century, when it made up about a quarter of electricity generation in the province. By that time, the health risks of coal were becoming increasingly apparent.

THE LEGACY OF COAL

As burners of carbon-based fossil fuels, Ontario’s coal-fired power plants were heavy emitters of greenhouse gases, which threaten to accelerate climate change. They also emitted pollutants that affect human health directly: mercury, several air-borne carcinogens, and sulphur dioxide, which can make asthma symptoms worse. Sulphur dioxide can also react with other substances to create particulate matter – small solids or liquid drops in the air that can damage lungs.

Burning coal also releases nitrogen oxide, which contributes ground-level ozone, a principal factor in smog, which has a devastating effect on public health.

In Toronto, airborne particulate matter commonly exceeded 20 μg/m3, the level at which adverse health effects can be demonstrated. It sometimes reached 75 μg/m3. Ground-level ozone often exceeded 80 parts per billion, far higher than the level of 31 ppb associated with increased hospitalization rates for asthma, lung disease, and respiratory infections.

The province attributed 1,800 premature deaths and 1,400 cardiac and respiratory hospital admissions each year to smog. Several studies and reports had also highlighted the connection between Ontario’s air quality and public health.

  • In 2004, Toronto’s health department estimated that 1,700 Toronto residents died prematurely and 6,000 Torontonians were admitted to hospitals because of air pollution each year.
  • A 2005 report by the Ontario Ministry of Energy concluded that coal contributed to 928 hospital admissions and 1,100 emergency-room visits each year.
  • In 2005, a report by the Ontario Medical Association identified several other costs of air pollution, including at least $150 million in additional healthcare costs, $128 million in lost productivity, and a total of $2.4 billion in economic damage.

Ontario's supply mix - 2000 vs. 2013 (2)CHANGING THE MIX

Pressure was building to improve air quality. In 1999, the Ontario Public Health Association called on the province to replace its coal-fired power plants with cleaner power sources. The Ontario Medical Association had already declared an air pollution crisis.

Phasing coal out

In 2007, the Government of Ontario adopted the Integrated Power System Plan, guiding the province’s energy choices over 20 years. The plan aimed to stabilize prices, double renewable energy, and increase conservation. Its central goal was to replace toxic coal with cleaner power.

Ontario closed four coal-fired plants in 2010, and the last one in 2014 – making Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to shut down coal-fired generation.

Phasing nuclear in

Even with the conservation measures set out in the plan, Ontario would have to supply electricity to make up for the closures of the coal-fired plants. Hydro was not an option, as Ontario had reached nearly 75% of its hydro capacity. Renewables such as wind and solar showed promise – and the plan aimed to double their use – but represented only tiny fraction of Ontario’s power supply, and could not be scaled up easily. Furthermore, solar and wind do not produce steady power around the clock, which is necessary to prevent brownouts.

The Government of Ontario recognizes nuclear power as a reliable and safe supplier of electricity. Since 2003, investment in Ontario’s power infrastructure has modernized three reactors (Pickering A Unit 1 and Bruce Units 3 and 4) and returned them to service. Nuclear power, which made up 37% of Ontario’s power mix in 2000, stood at 62% in 2014.

AIR POLLUTION: HOW ONTARIO’S POWER MIX STACKS UP

Any change in the power mix has environmental consequences – which leads Ontarians to ask whether the transition from coal to nuclear power might simply involve changing types of air pollution.

To answer this question, it is important to look at a power plant’s emissions from cradle to grave – including its construction, its fuel source, its waste products, and its eventual shutdown and decommissioning.

Smog factors

All methods of power generation emit particulate matter and contribute to ground-level ozone. However, nuclear energy emits far less particulate matter per unit of electricity than any fossil fuel – and less than wind.

Greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gas emissions by nuclear power are surprisingly low, considering the amount of construction needed to build a nuclear power plant. But those plants operate for decades, and emit no greenhouse gases while generating electricity.

And because of the vast amount of power that can be extracted from a small amount of uranium (20,000 times that of coal, by weight), emissions from nuclear power compare favourably with renewable energy sources, and are well ahead of fossil fuels.

Carbon emissions per kWh

CLEANER AIR, TODAY AND TOMORROW

Today, Ontarians enjoy cleaner air. According to the provincial government, “Ontario’s air quality has improved steadily since 1988. We have good air quality approximately 90 per cent of the time.” With the exception of a spike in 2012, which included a serious drought, the number and duration of smog advisories across the province has dropped steadily since 2003.

Cleaner air means better health. In Toronto, premature deaths attributed to air pollution dropped from 1,700 to 1,300 between 2004 and 2014, while hospitalizations fell from 6,000 to 3,550.

Even with this progress, there is still much room for improvement – especially as Ontario’s population ages and more people are at higher risk of health effects from air pollution. And, as the economy grows, Ontario will need a reliable, clean-air power source that keeps prices stable and affordable. Nuclear power can meet this need, partly because Canadian-designed reactors can be refuelled without shutting down, and because they draw from a fuel source that is abundant in Canada.

Recognizing this value, the province also put primary focus on nuclear energy in its 2013 Long-Term Energy Plan. It decided to upgrade and replace key components at the Bruce Power and Darlington sites, so they can continue to provide clean power for decades.

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Why Ontario Needs Nuclear

The following infographic shows the rationale for using nuclear energy in Ontario. Simply put, Ontario is the second largest energy polluter in Canada, and nuclear is the only reason the province isn’t worse off. Among the clean energy options, nuclear is one of the most affordable, and it’s readily available.

The seven points below make it clear why Ontario needs nuclear.

Why Ontario Needs Nuclear - Infographic

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CNA2015 Speaker Highlights

From renowned climate scientists to utility CEOs, distinguished professors to Canadian politicians, CNA2015 included speaking presentations from some of the nuclear industry’s most prominent figures.

If you weren’t able to attend CNA2015, now is your chance to see the presentations you missed. If you made it, now you can re-watch your favorites in the comfort of your home or office.

Dr. John Barrett

Dr. Barrett provided an update on the state of the the nuclear industry both domestically and internationally, its various challenges, and the opportunities that will shape future strategies.

Dr. James Hansen

Dr. James Hansen is one of the world’s leading climatologists and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. Hansen spoke to the CNA2015 crowd about the impact of emerging technologies and discoveries on our ability to maintain a sustainable climate.

Dr. Leslie Dewan

Dr. Dewan is a key figure in the future of nuclear power generation. In 2011, she co-founded Transatomic Power, which is making steadfast progress towards commercializing an innovative molten salt reactor fueled by nuclear waste. She has been named to Forbes “30 under 30″ in energy, and was listed among TIME Magazine’s “30 People Under 30 Changing the World”.

Dr. Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. He is a Senior Editor at Oxford University Press’ Research Encyclopedia Climate Science and “The Age of Us” columnist at The Conversation.

Hon. Bob Chiarelli

The Honourable Bob Chiarelli addressed the CNA2015 audience, providing important energy insights from the province of Ontario.

Hon. Greg Rickford

The Honourable Greg Rickford, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources delivered a keynote address on Canada’s nuclear sector.

Julie Gelfand

Ms. Julie Gelfand, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, shared the findings of her Fall 2014 Report.

Preston Swafford

Mr. Swafford shared the impact CANDU technology has had and will continue to have on clean power production worldwide.

Tom Mitchell

Mr. Mitchell shared with the CNA2015 crowd an update from Ontario Power Generation, as well as strategic directions which Canada’s nuclear leaders are collaboratively working towards.

Dr. Michael Binder

Dr. Michael Binder, President and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, discussed the current state of nuclear safety regulation.

Panel: Canada’s Energy Options

This panel featured three Canadian environmental experts discussing the energy options available to us in 2015 and each one’s long-term potential to combat climate change in a meaningful way.

Panel: Emerging Technology

This panel featured global leaders speaking to the future demand for electricity that will emerge from growing technologies such as electric cars, ocean desalination, and advanced manufacturing.

All of these videos are also available on our website and on our YouTube channel.

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How Does Nuclear Energy Benefit Ontario?

Nuclear is the backbone of Ontario’s energy mix because it offers several advantages, including round-the-clock reliability, clean and environmentally-friendly operation, and affordability. The refurbishment project has also created thousands of jobs across the province.

The following infographic summarizes these advantages.

How Does Nuclear Energy Benefit Ontario - 2014

Click here to download your copy.

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CNA Members Voted ‘Top 50’ Companies in Canada

By Erin Polka
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

Great place to workTwo of our members are worthy of special mention this month – Lakeside Process Controls Ltd. and The Ian Martin Group.

Both companies were included in Canada’s ‘Top 50 Medium Companies with <1,000 Employees,’ as selected by Great Place to Work Institute. The list was published as a Special National Report in The Globe and Mail on April 10, 2015.

This is an incredible achievement and the CNA would like to commend them on a job well done.

In addition, both companies were among the ‘Top 50 Best Workplaces for Women.’

LakesideLakeside Process Controls is an industrial services/engineering company located in Mississauga, Ontario, with 208 employees.

“When a new employee is hired at Lakeside Process Controls, the company has a long-standing tradition of bringing in treats and placing them at the new hire’s desk so employees are required to meet the new hire to get their afternoon snack!” mused a Lakeside rep.

This is the fifth year in a row that Lakeside has made the list.

Ian Martin GroupLocated in Oakville, Ontario, Ian Martin Group is a professional services/staffing company with 135 employees.

According to an Ian Martin rep:

“Each month, the CEO publishes the content of the leadership team’s last meeting. Groups meet to discuss the content, and everyone is asked to come with a Doozey of a Question (DOAQ). Teams vote on the most important question and then allocate 30 minutes in vigorous debate to that topic.”

Ian Martin made the list in 2013 and 2014, as well.

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When is the Best Time to Take a Nuclear Power Plant Offline?

By Erin Polka
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

What happens to greenhouse gas emissions when a nuclear power plant goes offline? Let’s look at the Bruce Power complex in Kincardine, Ontario. On April 15, Bruce Power shut down the four reactors in its B building to enable a vacuum building outage (VBO). The vacuum building, which is an essential safety feature, needs regular maintenance that should last about a month.

Shutting down Bruce B means some 3,268 MW of generating capacity needs to be replaced with some combination of hydro, gas and wind. Which combination is better for the environment?

Hydro capacity is highest in the spring, as winter snows melt and rivers run high. So it stands to reason that hydro power will make up for some of the shortage. (And, yes, the VBO was timed to match the availability of hydro.)

What about wind? Not as much help. Wind provides only four percent of Ontario’s electricity on average. Whether it could provide more would depend on whether the wind blows longer and stronger. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t – hardly the reliability needed to replace the steady nuclear workhorse.

And then there’s gas. It can be fired up quickly and easily, it runs reliably, and it doesn’t cost all that much more than nuclear power – about twice as much.

In the best-case scenario, hydro would replace the power from the four Bruce B reactors. It’s the best case because hydro, like nuclear, generates no greenhouse gases. But there’s a problem. Hydro in Ontario is quite limited as a result of the province’s geography, and the province lacks sufficient transmission lines to import replacement power from Quebec. Also, even if the lines did exist, Quebec doesn’t have a spare hydro dam to match the output from the four reactors.

The next-best scenario would use all the available hydro power, keeping cost and emissions down, and use gas for the rest. Very likely, hydro could replace half the nuclear energy from Bruce B, and natural gas would replace the other half.

Is that a problem? After all, Ontario businesses and residents will still get steady, reliable electricity – just as they did with the Bruce reactors. But here’s the thing – natural gas emits greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which is primarily responsible for climate change.

GiraffesReplacing half the nuclear output with gas means the province’s gas plants will emit an additional 295,095 tonnes of carbon dioxide. For perspective, that’s the weight equivalent of about 300,000 adult giraffes.

What else would produce 295,095 tonnes of CO2?

  • Driving a car 35,563 times around the Earth’s equator
  • Taking 82,394 round-trip flights from Toronto to Sydney

And that’s not all. Unlike nuclear and hydro, gas also emits nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (SOx), and particulate matter (PM) during operation. These “other” greenhouse gases cause lung and heart disease, and make these conditions worse. They can also harm plants and animals on land and in the sea. And they can even cause building materials to deteriorate and weaken.

Drive around the worldOf course, if hydro weren’t able to stand in for the offline nuclear plants, then Ontario would need to use gas alone. And that would mean the weight of another 300,000 giraffes in greenhouse gas emissions, or another 35,563 trips around the world (“Are we there yet?”), or another 82,394 round trips to Sydney.

So, timing is everything. Scheduling the VBO in spring, when hydro reaches its peak performance, was a wise decision. Just how much hydro will be available, and how much gas is actually used, remains to be seen.

You can track the results on the CNA website, if you like. Check our emissions tracking.