By Romeo St-Martin
Canadian Nuclear Association
Greater media coverage and government concern about climate change powered a steady supply of nuclear energy issues in the media in 2014.
As 2014 closed, Japan pressed ahead with plans to restart its nuclear reactors, Germany’s Energiewende continued to raise questions about whether renewables can replace fossil fuels, and more and more environmentalists came to support nuclear power.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 of the most-talked-about nuclear energy issues of 2014.
The nuclear industry’s Asian expansion continued, with China leading the way. Not only is the country’s economy expanding, lifting millions out of poverty, but its middle class is fed up with coal-driven pollution in major cities.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a surprise climate agreement in December that would see China’s CO2 emissions peak by 2030.
Not surprisingly, Chinese leaders have begun to rapidly develop nuclear power, as the negative impact of Japan’s nuclear crisis in 2011 wanes. Under the country’s National Energy Administration’s latest Five-Year Plan, China will invest $196 billion in 101 new reactors between 2015 and 2030.
Canada will play a role in this scale-up. Candu Energy Inc. announced in November that its Advanced Fuel CANDU Reactor (AFCR) earned a positive review from a Chinese scientific panel. The review will lead to further development and construction with significant benefits to the Canadian industry.
“It’s a big step toward our entry into the biggest nuclear market in the world,” Jerry Hopwood, vice-president of Candu Energy, told the Toronto Star.
Radiation in perspective
Stories that brought perspective to radiation exposure were popular in social media, catalyzed in part by a United Nations report that dispelled one of the most popular myths regarding the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) said in its April report that it did not expect “significant changes” in future cancer rates that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the reactor meltdowns.
Social media also took note of a study by a Scottish mountain climber and radiation-protection advisor who found climbers scaling Mt. Everest received a radiation dose five times more than the average annual exposure of a UK nuclear power worker.
Wind and solar energy’s continuing unpredictability gained widespread attention thanks to in part to a viral story about Google’s decision to scrap its renewable energy program, RE<C.
“Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach,” wrote Google’s Ross Koningstein and David Fork in a piece published in IEEE’s Spectrum.
“We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.”
Nuclear’s contribution to climate change mitigation gained further global recognition. The Economist published a chart that listed nuclear power as the third-biggest contributor to GHG reductions, trailing the Montreal Protocol (which reduced chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons) and hydroelectricity, but much further ahead of renewables.
Also the latest policy report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included nuclear among the clean energy technologies whose total output must quadruple to help avert catastrophic climate effects.
Environmentalists continue to go nuclear
More environmentalists and scientists joined the likes of James Hansen and Mark Lynas as public advocates of nuclear energy.
Carol Browner, former director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, joined the advocacy group Nuclear Matters.
Browner said in a Forbes piece that she had been anti-nuclear, but changed her position because of nuclear’s beneficial role in offsetting climate change.
In December, 75 conservationist scientists wrote an open letter to environmentalists urging them to reconsider nuclear energy because it helps preserve biodiversity.
Here’s the quote from their letter:
“Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.”
Germany continued its nuclear phase-out in 2014, creating a need for more coal-fired electrical production. Enough said.
Ontario goes coal-free thanks to nuclear
Ontario became the first North American jurisdiction to end the use of coal in electricity generation. The event was even noted by former U.S. vice president Al Gore.
Nuclear power played a major role. 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 from one percent to 3.4 percent. This major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.
Also in Ontario, OPG’s proposal to create a deep geologic repository for low- and intermediate-level waste remained in the headlines. The CNA appeared for the second time before the joint review panel to voice our support for the initiative.
OPG, with the support of the surrounding community, has proposed a permanent management solution for these materials. This speaks to the proactive and responsible environmental management to which all members of the Canadian Nuclear Association are committed.
One of the biggest news stories featured an announcement by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division that it had made a breakthrough in developing a fusion reactor and could have one small enough to fit on the back of a truck in 10 years. The announcement stunned nuclear-savvy observers who had thought such a development would take much longer than a decade.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard signed an agreement November 21st on electricity. Ontario will make 500 megawatts available to Quebec to manage its winter demand peak, while Quebec will reciprocate for Ontario’s summertime peak.
The capacity amounts are small, representing about 1.4 percent of Ontario’s installed generating capacity of 33,771 megawatts (MW), and less than four percent of Ontario’s nuclear generating capacity of 12,947 MW.
In announcing the Quebec agreement, Ontario’s Premier Wynne rejected suggestions that imported electricity could reduce Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power. “We’re not anywhere near having a conversation like that,” Wynne told reporters.