Monique Keiran: Unanswered questions surround nuclear power

A number of readers responded to my Nov. 24 column about the dirty underbellies of clean energy sources and technologies. Of them, most took me to task for overlooking nuclear power.

They pointed out that new-generation (Gen IV) and small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are safer than old-style reactors and can provide the steady, reliable power that will be needed for a zero-emissions economy. Furthermore, once they are built, nuclear reactors emit few greenhouse gases — although building them is very carbon intensive.

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Nuclear also produces the power punch rivalled only by large hydro, coal and natural-gas plants. It would take, for example, four to 22 SMRs, 12 natural-gas plants, 990 wind turbines or 30 million square metres of solar panels to generate the 1,100 MW of electricity that Site C is expected to produce.

The new reactors produce less than 300 MW of electricity, compared with Canada’s current 515- and 881-MW nuclear stations, or the 4.7 GW once produced by Fukushima’s six reactors.

They can be small enough to fit in a gymnasium, and could even power off-grid locations where power needs are less, such as remote northern communities. Being modular, they can operate individually or as part of a larger nuclear complex. Multiple SMRs can be set up at a single nuclear plant to supply a similar level of power as larger generators, which means a nuclear power plant could be expanded gradually, as demand increases.

Because they’re small and modular, construction and cost efficiencies are possible that weren’t with the massive nuclear power plants we’re most familiar with.

Gen IV designs offer even better inherent safety. Fully passive cooling systems mean the reactor is never dependent on external power for safety. These reactors would also allow more efficient use of nuclear fuel than older reactors do.

However, the new nuclear technologies are controversial. Their advocates are passionate, and their critics are skeptical.

The main questions — primarily real construction costs, actual efficiency savings and safety — remain unanswered because the technology remains untested. About 100 possible SMR technological designs exist that need to be tested, then built. Many countries are looking into the technology, but so far, no proven answers exist.

In addition, the perennial question remains — what to do with spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste? Canada’s first nuclear reactor started up in 1962. Five decades later, we still have no long-term strategy for storing the country’s radioactive waste safely over the next many thousands of years.

And public acceptance may never happen. The Ukrainian government is still cleaning up after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami led to the Fukushima disaster, many governments swore off nuclear power, and many people became gun-shy about siting nuclear reactors in seismically active regions, which B.C. certainly is.

The B.C. government itself has pledged to remain nuclear-free.

From a historical perspective, the position is ironic. Seventy-six years ago, a small B.C. town became the first community in Canada to enter the Nuclear Age. In 1944, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada (later named Cominco) plant in Trail began producing heavy water in secret for the Manhattan Project — the Second World War research program that developed the atom bomb.

Heavy water contains a larger-than-normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium. It can be produced through electrolysis, and indeed was a byproduct of existing electrolysis processing at the Cominco smelting plant in Trail.

Physicists had also shown that heavy water could be used to slow the nuclear chain reactions in uranium, thereby controlling the release of energy and preventing unintended mushroom clouds or reactor meltdowns.

Cominco signed a contract with the U.S. government in 1942 to produce 900 kilograms of heavy water. It modified the existing plant to include a new tower with additional electrolysis capacity to increase deuterium concentrations in the water from 2.3 per cent to 99.8 per cent.

In the end, Cominco’s heavy water wasn’t used to build a bomb. But the heavy water plant continued operating after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the war. Heavy water produced at Trail was key to the development and early operation of two of Canada first nuclear reactors, at Chalk River, Ont.

The Trail heavy-water plant stopped production in 1956 and was demolished only in 2008.

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