Tag Archives: clean air

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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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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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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.

CNA2015

Leading Climatologist Dr. James Hansen to Speak at CNA2015

James Hansen - cropped

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

Dr. James Hansen is one of the world’s leading climatologists and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Dr. Hansen will speak to the CNA2015 crowd about the impact of emerging technologies and discoveries on our ability to maintain a sustainable climate.

“The sheer size of China’s electricity needs demands massive mobilization to construct modern, safe nuclear power plants, educate more nuclear scientists and engineers, and train operators of the power plants,” according to Hansen.

Perhaps the most prominent pro-nuclear environmentalist, Hansen 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.

“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 has argued “nuclear seems to be the best candidate” to help the world move off of fossil fuels to generate electricity.

He’s thinks part of the problem going forward is with the public understanding.

“Nuclear energy is harder for people to understand, the idea of radiation,” he noted. “It’s been painted as very dangerous but it hasn’t been compared with the effects you will get from burning coal, which are very substantial and well known. It’s hard to get the public to understand and make that scientific comparison.”

Hansen has worked on increasing that understanding. In 2013, he published a paper with Pushker Kharecha that concluded nuclear power has saved 1.8 million lives by displacing fossil fuel sources between 1971 and 2009.

“Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning,” the researchers concluded in their study.

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Nuclear Brings Clean Air to Ontario

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

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.