Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Nuclear Alternative

This week, Canada's Environment Minister Jim Prentice informed Canadian electricity producers that they will have to gradually wean themselves from coal-fired generation and replace their use of coal with cleaner sources including natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind. Canada has targeted an increase in reliance on low-emitting sources of power with the ultimate goal of reaching 90% by 2020.

Canada has an advantage in changing to alternate, less environmentally unfriendly sources of fuel. One of the primary alternatives that should be considered by Canadian utilities is nuclear.

Canada has the world's leading source of uranium in the Athabasca Basin in Northern Saskatchewan. The Athabasca Basin contains the largest and richest concentrations of uranium in the world and currently supplies about 30% of the world's uranium production. The Basin has proven uranium reserves of 1.4 billion pounds; at current production rates, the reserves will last at least 25 years. The energy equivalent of the proven reserves is equivalent to 19 billion barrels of oil. While not as large as the Athabasca oil sands in terms of energy equivalent, the extraction of uranium is a far cleaner process in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The new generation of Advanced Candu reactors produce 50% more power with the same core diameter as earlier generations meaning that investment in new power plant structures is more economically efficient. The new reactors also create 30% less waste fuel and use less heavy water coolant. The Advanced reactors use slightly enriched uranium fuel and extends fuel life by 300 percent, reducing fuel waste volume by 66 percent. This is most important from an environmental standpoint since safe disposal of waste fuel is one of issues facing owners of existing nuclear reactors. As well, with the new reactors, plant life is extended to 60 years.

Canada has a great advantage over the United States when it comes to mothballing its coal-fired generation. There are over 650 coal-fired plants in the United States that generate over half of its total electricity compared to only 21 plants in Canada. The United States also has the world's largest coal reserves with a 27% share of the world's entire proven recoverable reserves. It has an estimated reserve life of 230 years and is the second largest coal producer in the world after China. In the United States, the multi-tentacled coal lobby is very powerful and mothballing coal-fired plants in the United States will prove to be a political minefield. Fortunately, this is not the case in Canada where most of our coal-fired plants will reach the end of their useful life within the next 10 to 15 years.

As well, the anti-nuke lobby in the United States is far more vocal than what is presently active in Canada. Although the United States is the world's largest producer of nuclear power at 30% of the world's total production, there is a strong NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement with regard to construction of new nuclear reactors, especially after the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979. No new nuclear generating stations have been built in the United States since the early 1980s and no new power reactors are expected to be built until at least 2017 - 2018. Recently, President Barak Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to help build the first new U.S. nuclear plant in 3 decades and more federal financial assistance is anticipated, although I would anticipate a ramping-up of anti-nuke sentiment as the approval process gets underway.

While natural gas is a viable alternative to coal, I suggest that with Canada's huge reserves of uranium, this is the option that best suits what we will need in the future. Natural gas is only a viable alternative if production profiles from the newly exploited shale gas reserves are sustainable over time. Conventional natural gas reserves in Canada are declining at up to 5% annually; with declines this steep, supply constraints could become an issue, especially in Eastern Canada where gas-fired power plants would have to rely on imported LNG.

Since the time required for design, approval and construction of nuclear power plants is very long, Canadian power companies will have to act quickly to ensure replacements for their mothballed coal-fired facilities. We need look no further than the example of France to see how effective and safe nuclear power generation can be in Canada.

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