Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In the Long Shadow of Fossils

It's easy to not follow an idea to its logical conclusion; after all, inaction always takes less energy than action, and this is particularly true when it comes to the question of energy generation. Many people, upon being presented with information "A," will jump to point "B" and make a vociferous stand, but will act as if they're entirely unaware that the existence of point "B" implies the existence of points "C" and "D" and so on.

This sort of thing comes up most frequently in connection with nuclear power. Nuclear power is practically synonymous with protests these days. While Japan's post-Fukushima nuclear stall officially ended yesterday with the achievement of a critical reaction at the Oi Nuclear Power Plant, tens of thousands protested in Tokyo. Closer to home, Ontario Power Generation has recently been inviting comments on its planned Deep Geologic Repository at the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station. This will be a facility buried six hundred and eighty meters underground and a kilometer away from the Lake Huron shoreline, used a storage facility for low- and intermediate-level waste. Just what is this waste? Intermediate waste is primarily used reactor and water filter parts, stored in steel-lined receptacles, and low-level waste takes the form of "mop heads, rags, paper towels, floor sweepings, and protective clothing used in the nuclear stations during routine operation and maintenance."

It says a lot about the Ontario nuclear industry that it goes to this sort of trouble to dispose of items that are only minimally radioactive. Unfortunately, the big problem here is not only that the average person doesn't have much idea of what nuclear waste is, but that the vague ideas they do have are probably informed greatly by The Simpsons - that is, rusty containers of fluorescent green ooze. Given that, it's no surprise that the public review process for the Deep Geologic Repository has attracted detractors.

Last week, the Toronto Star reported on the nature of many of the comments that have been received. Some are calm and reasonable, like the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group's request for further investigation into temperature increases in underground works. Some are less so - many are Americans calling for the cancellation of the repository because of its proximity to Lake Huron, with messages that give me the impression that they jumped straight to point "B" and looked no further than "Lake Huron" and "nuclear waste disposal." There's one, however, that after reading it left me infurated for hours. It's from Rich Moser in Santa Barbara, California, and funnily enough, the original email the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was flagged as SPAM by its email system.

"It's time Canada leads the way and does what Japan finally found out is the best thing for the Earth: quit nuclear altogether," Moser wrote. "If canada leads, maybe the stupid USA (my country) will follow."

I can understand people who think nuclear power is dangerous. I can understand people who don't want nuclear reactors near their homes. I can even understand the protests in Japan, as much as I think they're counterproductive. To claim that a nuclear phaseout is "the best thing for the Earth," however--that's going way beyond ideology. It's planting your flag on the summit of Mount Look How Goddamn Ignorant I Am, and what that flag says is that you don't actually know anything about nuclear power that's more advanced than "ATOMZ = BAD."

I mean, look at all that steam! Isn't that just so sinister?

Hell, though, I'm game--let's go through this hypothetical. Nuclear power currently accounts for around 13% of the world's electrical generation capacity, with most of this found in France, Japan, and the United States. Now, a knee-jerk anti-nuclear person who makes claims like the above would probably say that all that nuclear power would be replaced by clean, green, renewable power like solar and wind. That's what's happening in Germany, right? Think again. Last year, Germany embarked on a plan to use a clean energy fund to finance the construction of--wind turbines? Solar farms? No! Coal and gas power plants! Because, you see, they have to make up for the thirteen gigawatts of generation that will disappear when its nuclear plants are taken offline over the next decade, because oh my god! A nuclear plant built next to a seismic zone on the other side of the planet and operated by a criminally negligent company got swamped by a thousand-year tsunami and experienced a meltdown!

Let's take this back to Ontario, though. Let's say that for whatever crazy reason, the Ontario government agrees with Mr. Moser and phases out its nuclear capacity. Is it going to be replaced with renewables? Don't make me laugh, man. Ontario's renewable energy infrastructure is essentially limited to two wind turbines, one of which is already on the grounds of a nuclear plant. New hydroelectric plants are not particularly likely; as early as 1955, almost all of Ontario's hydro-potential rivers had already been dammed. They didn't go up to survey the Little Abitibi for their health, you know. Not with all those blackflies. No, especially given the current economic climate, what the Ontario government would most likely do would be tear up its phaseout pledges and build new coal power plants.

Coal power plants like the Nanticoke Generating Station, the last coal plant left in Ontario, the largest of its kind in North America, and Canada's largest single producer of greenhouse gases. People have been agitating for its shutdown as far back as 2004, and though the original shutdown timeline of 2007 was missed, Ontario seems on-track to step away from this most primitive of generating technologies in 2014. As for its emissions? Well, that's a thing.

In 2002, according to PollutionWatch, Nanticoke's pollution output included 5,514 tonnes of toxic particulate material with a diameter less than ten microns, small enough to penetrate the lungs and be absorbed into the bloodstream. In 2006, when unit shutdowns were already underway, it produced 1,640 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 5,500 tonnes of carbon monoxide, and nearly sixty-two thousand tonnes of sulfur dioxide, one of the building blocks of acid rain. These pollutants were spewed in a shadow that stretches as far as Montreal, a shadow that I lived my entire life in until I moved out west.

For comparison, here's how much hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide a nuclear plant emits into the atmosphere: zero tonnes. Oh, and there's also the issue of greenhouse gases--each 676-megawatt CANDU-6 reactor, the kind used at Gentilly in Quebec and Point Lepreau in New Brunswick and Qinshan in China, prevents the annual emission of 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that would happen if that electricity was instead produced by coal.

I found that out back in 2003, when I was doing research into the history of Ontario Hydro for a university essay. That was one of the big things that convinced me that nuclear power was the best way forward, and that nuclear power was the best for Earth.

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