Tag Archives: coal

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Want to minimize radiation from power generation – build more nuclear

By Milt Caplan
President
MZConsulting Inc.

Originally posted at http://mzconsultinginc.com/.

Yes, you read that right.  For years, there have been efforts to demonstrate that people who live near nuclear plants or work at nuclear plants are getting sick from all that darn radiation they are receiving.  Over the years these stories have been debunked as study after study has shown that there is no impact from radiation from living near or working at a nuclear plant.

But now a study has been done that shows that of most of the options to generate electricity, nuclear actually releases the least amount of radiation.  This is documented in UNSCEAR’s, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, most recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, on its study to consider the amount of radiation released from the life cycle of different types of electricity generation.

The Committee conducted the comparative study by investigating sources of exposure related to radiation discharges from electricity-generating technologies based on nuclear power; the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and biofuels; and geothermal, wind and solar power. The results may surprise some, especially those that strongly believe that nuclear pollutes the earth with radiation, coal with a range of air pollutants and carbon, and that solar and wind are environmentally wonderful.solar-panels-and-wind-turbines

Coal generation resulted in the highest collective doses to the public, both in total and per unit energy.  Coal radiation emissions result from coal mining, combustion of coal at power plants and coal ash deposits.  The study also considered occupational doses to workers.  Here is the biggest surprise.  As stated “With regard to the construction phase of the electricity-generating technologies, by far the largest collective dose to workers per unit of electricity generated was found in the solar power cycle, followed by the wind power cycle. The reason for this is that these technologies require large amounts of rare earth metals, and the mining of low-grade ore exposes workers to natural radionuclides during mining.”  It is important to note that in all cases these levels of exposure are relatively low and have little impact to public health.

This study only addresses normal discharges during the lifecycle of the station.  Possible larger releases as a result of nuclear accidents are not considered and we recognize that many will argue it is accidents and their consequences that create the largest fear of nuclear power.

So why talk about this?  The reality is that this information is not likely to change even one single mind on whether someone supports nuclear power or fears it.  We live in a world where facts no longer matter – the only truth is the one that any one person believes.  Well, we believe that scientific study remains the best way forward to establish truth and that studies such as these are part of the path forward.  No one electricity generation technology is perfect.  Coal is cost effective and technically strong, but is also a strong emitter of a range of pollutants (including radiation); renewables such as solar and wind are clean but their resource is intermittent and they have issues with both their front end (mining of rare earths) and disposal at the end of their life cycle.

Nuclear power continues to have a good story to tell, with respect to its economics, reliability, environmental attributes and the many good jobs it creates for local economies.  Concerns about nuclear relate mostly to one major issue – fear of radiation.  And fear is a strong emotion that is not easily changed.  But at least what we have here is another study to show that radiation emissions from normal operations of the nuclear fuel cycle is not something to fear – and in fact if you really want to minimize the collective dose to the public, nuclear power remains the option of choice.

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Ontario Got Rid of Coal, But Who’s to Thank?

There’s a lot of talk about what actually contributed to the successful elimination of coal-fired electricity in Ontario. Was it oil and gas? Wind and solar? Restructuring and conservation? Additional nuclear? Advocates for each group would have you believe that their guys did the heavy lifting, but in reality, everyone played an important part.

One of the most accurate (though not necessarily simplest) ways to look at the data is to consider coal’s lost output from the time Ontario started actively phasing it out in 2006 until it was completely eliminated in 2014, and what energy sources (or conservation efforts) replaced it.

Coal plants produced 34.5 TWh in 2005, and a total of 159.4 TWh between 2006 and 2014. That means that approximately 151.1 TWh had to be made up over the course of 9 years.

(34.5 x 9) – 159.4 = 151.1

The chart below shows what energy sources increased as a function of lost coal output – as well as lost output from other sources (since it’s impossible to separate them at this level).

For example, coal production decreased from 34.5 TWh in 2005 to 28.7 in 2006. That’s a 5.7 TWh decrease in coal, which was met with increases of 5.5 TWh of nuclear, 2.5 of diesel, 0.4 of hydro and 0.1 of wind. It was also met with a 1.9 TWh decrease in natural gas and a 0.9 decline in demand.

5.5 + 2.5 + 0.4 + 0.1 – 1.9 – 0.9 = 5.7

coal-graph1

As you can see, diesel played a small part early on, but was quickly eliminated. In 2009, the global financial crisis caused a decline in energy consumption, however usage increased as the economy recovered. Natural gas made up for the largest share of lost coal between 2010 and 2012, but nuclear was clearly the main reason that Ontario was able to meet its goal in the end.

Nuclear’s strong support in the final years of coal was due mainly to the fact that Bruce Power Units 1 and 2 came back online in 2012, providing about 11 additional TWh annually to the grid.

If you look at the results in terms of total output replaced from 2006 to 2014, nuclear made up 69.6 TWh, which represents about 44% of the whole. Natural gas made up 27%, wind made up 13%, lost demand (or conservation, depending on how you look at it) made up 7%, hydro made up 6%, diesel made up 2% and solar made up less than 1%.

coal-graph2

Getting rid of coal has had enormous health and environmental benefits for Ontario. It also serves as an example to other provinces and countries of what can be realized given sufficient public support, methodical planning, and a truly diversified supply mix.

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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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Germany Replaces Nuclear with Coal, GHGs Skyrocket

German flag

By Romeo St-Martin
Communications Officer
Canadian Nuclear Association

In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a plan to close all of the country’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022 and to generate 80 percent of Germany’s electricity from renewables by 2050.

Many environmentalists and anti-nuclear types viewed this Energiewende (“energy transition”) as good news.

But Germany’s green Energiewende is producing one big not-so-green result – a return to coal.

Replacing nuclear power quickly with renewable energy has proven difficult, mainly due to renewable energy’s primary weakness – intermittency.

The sun does not always shine, and the wind does not always blow. When wind and solar are not available to generate electricity, power buyers need another source. For Germany, that means more coal.

In 2013, Germany’s electrical production required a 44 percent rise in coal power. In fact, coal represented 45.5 percent of Germany’s power output, its highest level in 20 years.

Expect those numbers to rise, because Germany is building more coal plants, and expanding old mines. Progressive publications have taken notice. Mother Jones recently ran a profile of a German town first settled in Roman times that faced the threat of being bulldozed aside to make room for an open-pit coal mine.

While German greenhouse gas emissions fell between 1990 and 2010, they have risen since the chancellor’s 2011 announcement. This places Germany out of step with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the European Union. Both are demanding drastic GHG cuts in order to prevent severe climate change.

In 2013, Germany’s carbon emissions rose 1.8 percent, while European Union emissions fell 1.3 percent.

Not surprisingly, The Economist described the Energiewende as more like “a marketing slogan than a coherent policy.”

And the Energiewende hasn’t only increased the amount of atmospheric carbon Germany is producing. It’s increasing consumers’ power bills.

The annual increase in residential electricity rates has accelerated since 2011 when the Energiewende went full throttle. The annual increase is now seven percent, compared with 4.3 percent between 2005 and 2010, according to Eurostat.

The long-term results of the Energiewende experiment are not known. For now it stands as a cautionary tale for governments thinking about replacing low-carbon nuclear energy with carbon-creating fossil fuels.