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Essential Energy: Part 2

By Peter Poruks
Manager of Regulatory Affairs
Canadian Nuclear Association

In an earlier post I described my thoughts on how critically important energy is to us and our society. I outlined how it can become a matter of life or death if you do not have a reliable supply of, or access to, energy. I hope that I have gone at least a little way in convincing you that energy is important. But I didn’t answer the obvious next question; how do we produce, harness and store our power?

There are a host of options when we start to think about how we power our lives. Let’s limit the conversation a bit by looking at the large scale: how we supply our cities, factories, offices, hospitals, and homes. Oil, coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and nuclear all come to mind. Increasingly we hear about renewables such as wind, solar, tidal or biomass. Each has their own strengths and challenges. The simple truth is that there is no easy answer when it comes to producing energy. If there were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

There is mounting evidence about the effects of greenhouse gases on climate. By burning fossil fuels, we are increasing the carbon in our atmosphere, increasing average global temperatures, raising sea levels, and altering weather patterns across the planet. The United Nations, among many others, is advocating for strict measures to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees. At this point, there is concern that we do not have the regulations or the global will to meet these targets. If you agree that it is important to reduce carbon emissions, then limiting our consumption of fossil fuels becomes almost automatic.

To reduce our carbon emissions, we need to look at low emitting sources of electricity: nuclear, hydro and renewables. Hydroelectric power, generating electricity by moving water, is an attractive option. It is used widely in Canada; most provinces have significant generating capacity in hydroelectricity, and as a country we are world leaders in hydro generation. 60% of Canadian electricity comes from hydro!

Renewables, such as wind or solar, are another alternative, producing very low greenhouse gas emissions. However, an inescapable trait is intermittency, meaning that they do not work all the time – the wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. Options for storage exist, but as of today they are unable to meet large scale demand. A renewables-based electricity system needs a back-up source of power, often natural gas. A recent study showed that because of this need to back-up wind with natural gas, the total carbon footprint (calculated though Life Cycle Analysis) of wind is only marginally better than gas on its own.

To my mind, nuclear power presents the strongest case. It isn’t intermittent, so it can provide “base load” power. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases when operating, and over its life cycle, it compares very closely to wind power.

Questions are correctly raised concerning the management of spent nuclear fuel. Currently all of Canada’s spent fuel is safely housed in intermediate-term storage facilities at the power stations. An independent group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), is tasked with finding a permanent long term management solution. The current thinking is to situate the spent fuel in safe underground storage facilities, much akin to a custom built mine (known as a Geologic Repository). The NWMO is working with communities across Canada to explore options to develop and build such a facility.

Some people criticize nuclear on its cost, saying it is too expensive. But when you consider the cost over the life of a plant (30 to 60 years) nuclear comes out as one of the most cost-effective energy sources there is.

We all use and need energy. We have always lived with the trade-offs between different technologies, but today the stakes are such that we can’t continue to dump carbon into the atmosphere without thinking of the consequences. Since each choice comes with some pros and cons, the solution probably will look like some combination of hydroelectricity, nuclear, and renewables with natural gas providing back up at times of peak demand. When you start to look into it, it is awfully hard not to consider nuclear power as an important and environmentally sound way to meet the globe’s increasing energy needs.

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Essential Energy: Part 1

By Peter Poruks
Manager of Regulatory Affairs
Canadian Nuclear Association

quest

In 1981, the movie Quest For Fire was released. Set in prehistoric times, it showed a trio of early humans on an epic search for fire. Their tribe had been able to capture fire after a lightning strike, but they lacked the knowledge of how to create fire themselves. After fending off an attack from a rival group and being chased into a swamp by wolves, the tribe’s carefully guarded fire becomes extinguished. So three adventurous scouts are sent out to find a new source of fire and encounter sabre tooth tigers, mastodons, and murderous rivals along the way.

While it may seem odd to us today that anyone would assume such risks, it starts to make sense when you consider that harnessing fire is quite literally a matter of life and death. Fire kept them warm, it illuminated the darkness, cooked their food, making it more nutritious, and kept threatening creatures at bay. Long before there were societies with written or even spoken words, humans would risk everything for energy. The knowledge of energy, and especially our ability to harness it, is a hallmark of the human condition.

Indeed, humanity’s quest for fire has only increased in intensity. We have dammed rivers and flooded thousands of square kilometres of arable land. We have deforested vast expanses of Europe and the Middle East, cutting lumber to feed our insatiable appetite for more and more energy. And today we burn billions of tons of coal, oil, and natural gas, all the while emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases.

So much for escaping the sabre tooth tigers; we’ve got out of the pot and climbed into the frying pan! We have radically altered our natural landscape, and now we appear on an irreversible course to altering our climate and the temperature of our globe.

Yet simply cutting back on energy consumption is not the answer. Yes, conservation and efficiency have an important role to play. But energy has an incredibly positive benefit to our lives and we should not shrink away from it. History has shown an ever increasing quality of life tied directly to an ever increasing energy usage density. The most advanced societies – countries with top tier health care, literacy rates, environmental stewardship, industrial output, and consumer luxuries – are precisely those countries that use energy the most intensively.

I am a firm proponent of the ability of science and technology to harness energy constructively, and apply it to the betterment of our world. We can readily find information and debate on financial inequality, such as the Occupy rallies of 2012, but the disparity of energy among populations is just as stark and, I don’t believe, nearly as well articulated. And just as it was for the heroes in Quest for Fire, access to energy remains a matter of life and death for billions of people. Energy brings potable water, light, heat, hygiene, growing crops and cooking food. It underpins every aspect of every activity we engage in. It would be no small injustice to condemn billions to poverty when we have myriad technologies available to produce the energy required to meet their needs. The question is not one of “if” but rather one of “how” to do so, in a fair and sustainable manner.

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CNA Visits the Canada Science and Technology Museum

By Erin Polka
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

On January 28, 2015, CNA staff had the opportunity to view the nuclear material currently in storage at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Like any museum, only a small percentage of their collection is on display at any given time. So we were very pleased when they invited us to take in the entire collection.

Below are some of the museum’s nuclear-related artifacts, which few people have ever seen.

Original electronic tower from the ZEEP nuclear reactor at Chalk River, c. 1945.
Original electronic tower from the ZEEP nuclear reactor at Chalk River, c. 1945.
The triple axis spectrometer (c. 1956) designed and used by Nobel Prize Winner, Betrum Brockhouse.
Triple axis spectrometer (c. 1956) designed and used by Nobel Prize winner, Bertram Brockhouse.
1920s Dental X-ray machine.
1920s dental x-ray machine.
1950s X-ray shoe fitter.
1950s x-ray shoe fitter.
(Front)  ZEEP fuel rod prototype designed by George Klein c. 1945 (Back) The 100,00th CANDU Fuel Bundle presented to Prime Minister Trudeau in 1975.
(Front) ZEEP fuel rod prototype designed by George Klein c. 1945. (Back) The 100,000th CANDU fuel bundle presented to Prime Minister Trudeau in 1975.
The "Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR) Model" on loan to CSTMC from A‎ECL at Chalk River.
The “Advanced CANDU Reactor (ACR) model” on loan from CNL at Chalk River.
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Nuclear Cheaper than Solar Now and in the Future

Solar panel

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

Nuclear power is clean. The UN sees it as one of the energy sources needed to fight climate change. This is something critics in green groups cannot deny.

But a new green trend is to focus criticism on the costs of nuclear power plants.

The Guardian recently reported on how Friends of the Earth in the UK have shifted in this direction.

“The biggest risk of nuclear power is that it takes far too long to build, it’s far too costly, and distorts the national grid by creating an old model of centralized power generation,” says Friends of the Earth’s campaigns director Craig Bennett.

But is this correct? Is nuclear more expensive than the renewables preferred by most green groups?

In a recent column for The Energy Collective website, Tracey Durning, co-founder of Energy Options Network, wrote about the current divide between the nuclear and renewable camps.

Durning said she found that the economics of nuclear was “one of the biggest wedges” between the two sides.

She decided to ask two of her peers at the Energy Options Network – Eric Ingersoll, Senior Advisor at Lucid Strategy and CEO of Energy Options Network, and Ashley Finan, Energy Innovation Project Manager at the Clean Air Task Force, Energy Options Network Practice Leader – to shed light on the debate.

They found that while solar appears cheaper than nuclear, intermittency (the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day) means solar plants operate at 20 to 30 per cent of capacity. This is lower than the 90 per cent average for a nuclear plant.

They estimated a 1 GW nuclear plant could produce 7,889 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually. But you would need a 3.6 GW solar plant to produce the same amount of power.

“By that measure, nuclear is more than competitive,” Durning wrote.

“In 2014, one of the cheapest utility scale solar plants in the US had an expected installed price of $2,000 per kilowatt. But since US solar plants operate at only about 25 per cent capacity factor, the cost per capacity-adjusted kilowatt is $8,000.”

This doesn’t include the cost of providing backup energy for solar. Most jurisdictions use fossil fuel generation to provide this backup, thereby driving up greenhouse gas emissions.

She looked at the cost of the four US nuclear reactors under construction today in Georgia and South Carolina.

Their initial capital costs are $6,700 per kilowatt and $4,900 per kilowatt respectively for an average of $6,500 per capacity-adjusted kilowatt factoring 90 per cent operation capacity.  That’s 20 per cent less than solar.

Durning’s conclusion: “When you take into consideration the amount of electricity produced, it’s just not true that nuclear is more expensive than solar or that it is likely to be more expensive than solar in the future.”

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Myth Busted! Nuclear is Actually Second-Cheapest Source of Electricity.

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

The next time you look at your electricity bill, keep in mind that electricity from nuclear plants is the second least expensive form of power in Ontario. Water power is slightly cheaper but almost all of Ontario’s commercially viable water generation capability is already developed.

There is a perception that nuclear power is expensive. This is largely due to the high upfront costs in building or refurbishing nuclear reactors.

But because these costs can be amortized over several decades, the end result is a low-cost reliable baseload source of electricity. Nuclear doesn’t increase your power bill. In fact, it helps keep it down.

2013 electricity price per KWh

The average price for electricity in Ontario in 2013 was 8.5 cents per KWh.

Nuclear was six cents per KWh in 2013. The only thing that was not more expensive was hydro, which was 4.5 cents per KWh.

“With rates paid for nuclear today at 30 per cent below the average price of electricity in Ontario, nuclear refurbishment will ensure price stability for decades to come from sites with existing transmission infrastructure,” Robert Hattin, chair of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, recently wrote in an op/ed for the Toronto Sun.

Ontario Electricity Mix

Both baseload nuclear and hydro are far less expensive than the peaking sources of electricity, with solar at 50 cents, gas at 15 cents and wind at 11 cents per KWh.

Nuclear supplied 59 per cent of the power to the electricity grid in 2013 in Ontario. One can wonder how much electricity bills would be if, say, solar represented 59 per cent of the electricity grid at nearly 10 times the price per KWh.

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Why Get Rid of a Good Thing?

Old carBy John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

I once had a beloved old car – a 1984 Volvo – that didn’t look great, and needed regular work, but ran beautifully. I only scrapped it because my girlfriend hated it. That decision, I figure, cost me several thousand dollars over the next two years as I paid for a pricey lease on a new car.

The two most basic ways to get value out of equipment are to make sure you use it, and to keep it a long time.

Cars are getting more expensive and complex, but this doesn’t stop us from buying them. It does lead us to keep them 50% longer than we did a decade ago.

These days, my wife and I share our old car with my brother and his wife. We spread the fixed costs of ownership across two families’ driving needs, cutting the fixed costs per family in half.

Equipment that’s expensive can still be highly economic. Up-front cost isn’t an obstacle if the equipment runs efficiently, gets used a lot, and lasts a long time.

A nuclear reactor is a big piece of equipment, and the business of owning one is like owning a vehicle, only more so.

Nuclear power plants are designed to run extremely well for a long time, and they do it. They typically produce electricity at 80% or more of their designed capacity, and they last – with refits – for fifty or sixty years. That’s a lot of use over a very long time.

How many products do you – or even your employer – own that you know will have five to six decades of life? The result is cheap, reliable power, as this chart from the Ontario Power Authority shows, nuclear refurbishment is the lowest cost option for generation and ranks very close to the cost of energy efficiency:

relative-cost-of-electricity

Quebec recently decided to decommission its only nuclear plant, rather than give it a mid-life refit.

The decision came one week after the election of a new provincial government – before it had even been sworn into office. The government then asked for an economic analysis. In other words, they made their decision – it was written into their election platform – and then asked for backup.

The province’s electrical utility, which had planned to refit the plant, came back with re-worked numbers that raised the refit cost by 126%, and the cost of shutting it down by only 12%. Surprise, surprise:  the new numbers justified the announced decision.

The utility’s new estimate for refit cost was $4.3 billion. But a refit of a similar reactor came in at $2.4 billion in neighbouring New Brunswick. There, Energy Minister Craig Leonard was quoted saying, “If you look at the market today and try to obtain 700 megawatts of baseload emission-free power for $2.4 billion, you’re probably going to be searching for quite a while.” (iPolitics.ca, July 16, 2013, item by K. Bissett).

This story isn’t unusual. We often get rid of good things for poor reasons and many, like Quebec’s, are political.

Greenhouse gas emissions, clean air, long-term fossil fuel pricing and long-term carbon pricing are sometimes overlooked in political decisions. Some jurisdictions are closing good nuclear plants in favour of currently cheap fossil fuels. This is like scrapping our cars because the local taxi service is giving us a month’s worth of free rides. The problem, of course, is what happens at the end of the month. We’re caught without cars, we’re hostages to the taxi business, and we’re paying taxi fares two to four times a day. Our cost of getting around has quintupled! This is why so many countries continue to choose nuclear.

According to the WNA, nearly twice as many reactors will start up as shut down by 2030. India has six new units under construction, Russia has ten and China has twenty-eight. A long list of other countries are as well, including Turkey to Saudi Arabia to Argentina.

Yes, nuclear power generating capacity has a large capital cost and it takes time to build. But as we have seen, high capital cost is compatible with good economics. Good efficient equipment, used well and maintained well throughout its optimal operational life, pays off.