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Nuclear power and the land

EnvironmentScience and Technology

In the fight against climate change, what we are on the hunt for are safe energy solutions. And of all the options, nuclear is the safest, writes Leigh Phillips. Photo from iStock.

How much land will it take to completely decarbonize the Canadian economy?

It’s not always a question at front of mind when considering the different technology and policy options. Cost certainly is, most especially to politicians and businesses. Workers and their unions will understandably prioritize good jobs. Comparing the carbon intensity of different options obviously has to take centre stage. Perhaps in the face of heat-domes, ‘wildfire season,’ and deadly floods in Germany and China, you might be focussing most on how fast we can go.

Land-use intensity is much less discussed. Yet we can see from the controversy over the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam in British Columbia and its Muskrat Falls counterpart in Newfoundland, land use does matter to people, First Nations no less than anyone. And land-use intensity can also be deployed very roughly as a proxy for biodiversity loss. The more land used, even with careful ecological management, the greater the potential for disappearance of habitats and species.

Hydro may be a clean source of electricity (four grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour in the case of BC’s large dams, compared to a global average of 41 gCo2eq/kWh for solar). BC already has one of the cleanest grids of any major economy in the world, at 98 percent clean electricity, primarily from large-scale hydro. Quebec just pips the West Coast province, clocking in at a world-beating 99.8 percent clean. It may also be cheap, delivering to BC and Quebec some of the least expensive electricity in North America. It certainly is what is termed ‘firm’—available whenever we want it, unlike variable solar, wind, wave and tidal. But it doesn’t tick all important boxes.

But even the disputes over these two dams and their land-use footprint have not prompted many Canadians to draw the broader logical consequences regarding land-use and deep decarbonization. This is a grave error.

In 2019, a research paper from a group of University of Victoria engineers and energy systems modellers with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions concluded that to electrify road transport in BC atop projected growth in electricity demand (or what is called in the business, ‘load’) from population and economic growth, the grid would need a total of 37 gigawatts (GW). For comparison, BC’s 2015 capacity was 15.6 GW.

This means that just for road transport electrification, generation needs to more than double. A back-of-the-envelope calculation of the extra needed would thus be the equivalent of 16 dams the size of Site C. Even heroic levels of energy efficiency and demand management would only be able to shave away so much of this. And remember, this is just road transport. This is before we add in the increased load from electrification of heavy transport (shipping and aviation), heating and the increased, life-saving need for cooling, industrial and extractive processes, and the powering of any negative emissions technologies later in the century to draw down atmospheric CO2 to levels optimum for human flourishing.

And here’s the kicker. The land footprint of the wind and solar if we opted for these options instead would not really be too different (or sea-area footprint, surface or seabed, with respect to offshore renewable options). According to an assessment of land-use intensity of various energy sources by the US National Climate Assessment office, by 2030, wind would take up 72.1 square metres per gigawatt-hour (m2/GWh), while hydro takes up 54 m2/GWh. Solar photovoltaic clocks in a bit lower at 36.9 m2/GWh (although given Canada’s low solar insolation in most regions given its high latitude, this figure can likely be kicked up a few notches domestically).

If we think the fights over Site C and Muskrat Falls are a challenge, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Isar Nuclear Power Plant, Essenbach, Germany. Photo by Clemens van Lay/Unsplash.

Yet the electricity source with the absolute lowest land footprint by far? Nuclear, with its teeny weeny 2.4 m2/kWh, even taking into account the land footprint of uranium mining. Bruce Power Plant, a nuclear plant in Ontario, takes up just a few acres. It’s about the size of a large factory. It can produce up to 6.4 GW. If it were not for BC’s ban on nuclear power, legislated by the province’s Liberal Party in 2010, it would take maybe just three nuclear plants the size of Bruce instead of the 16 extra Site Cs.

Nuclear power is the most environmentally friendly of all energy sources. There are (at least) two major ecological challenges our generation faces: climate change and biodiversity loss. We cannot save the climate only to doom biodiversity. Nuclear allows us to avoid both problems.

In Canada, we might add that the minuscule land footprint of nuclear allows us to avoid sleepwalking into a bitter fight between decarbonization and decolonization.

Moreover, each of the world’s eight major economies that have managed to largely or fully decarbonize their grids—France, Quebec, Ontario, Sweden, Norway, BC, Paraguay and Switzerland—primarily depend on nuclear or hydro or some combination of the two. The reason is simple: both these sources are firm. They do not have to depend on fossil-fuelled back-up when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. In every jurisdiction where nuclear has been shuttered, such as New York, Germany and California, the generation has been replaced not by renewables, but by fossil fuels instead. After Indian Point nuclear plant closed in April this year, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 67 percent on the previous year, according to federal generation data, as natural gas picked up the slack, a total of 870,000 more tons of CO2 per month. A similar act of climate vandalism is about to happen in Ontario once the Pickering Nuclear Generating Stations closes its doors by 2025.

Germany receives hosannahs from many environmentalists for its Energiewende (energy turn), in which the country has spent half a trillion euros via a neoliberal policy of feed-in-tariffs that worked to redistribute wealth upwards from the poor to the middle class in order to build out weather-dependent renewables like wind and solar while shutting down its nuclear plants. This has resulted in some of the most expensive electricity in Europe, with some of the highest energy-poverty rates. And for a few years, its emissions were actually increasing, as it had to open new coal plants and coal mines.

Yet the fastest grid decarbonization in history occurred when France replaced its petroleum-fired power plants with nuclear reactors built and owned by the public sector over about a decade in the 1970s and 80s. If your primary concern is how fast we can decarbonize, then nuclear is your best bet.

It is for these reasons that just as 97 percent of scientists accept reality of anthropogenic global warming, similar numbers of energy systems researchers and engineers recognize that nuclear needs to be part of the mix. The debate instead is over what percentage of that mix, and what sort of reactor types, is required. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers up four illustrative pathways of what sort of energy mix the world will need if we are to stay within 1.5°C of warming by 2100. All include nuclear in the mix, and one even assumes a 500 percent increase in the global share of energy (not just electricity) coming from nuclear by 2050.

It is also for these reasons that we are increasingly seeing many of the most climate-focussed activists on the left changing their minds and embracing nuclear, joining figures like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Jeremy Corbyn, Lula Da Silva and Evo Morales. There is a new pro-nuclear climate movement emerging, and trade unions are increasingly vocal that nuclear, with its high-skilled, family-supporting jobs needs to be the cornerstone of the clean transition.

But steady on, isn’t nuclear power bad for the environment? Doesn’t uranium mining have an egregious history with respect to Indigenous people? Can’t we just use batteries and other forms of energy storage to back up wind and solar instead? Do we even really need electricity to be firm, to be available 24/7?

It is true that some on the green left (and also the climate-sceptic right) argue that capitalism cannot run without fossil fuels because capitalism demands 24/7 energy to run its factories. But socialism, including public healthcare, needs 24/7 energy as well. When you are in the hospital, you don’t want to have to wait for the wind to blow to power a ventilator in the COVID ward. So yes, we do need electricity to be firm.

Batteries are best used for ancillary services—such as Tesla’s utility-scale battery in Hornsdale, South Australia, which allows it to respond to power plants tripping (suddenly going offline) in milliseconds instead of minutes that it takes conventional backup, natural gas, to respond. This is great. But it can only supply the needs of 30,000 homes for about an hour—a small number of homes for a very small amount of time. This is very far from the weeks or even months of seasonal storage that we need at a minimum. Let’s invest more in battery and energy storage research to enhance as much as we can the role they can play in the clean transition. But they are a complement to nuclear power, not a replacement.

Beyond batteries, seasonal energy storage is actually very simple: rocks in a train can be pushed up a hill and then released back down the hill when electricity is needed. Much the same effect is achieved via compressed air in caverns. But the simplest, cheapest, least carbon intensive version of this sort of exploitation of potential energy is pumped storage hydro. But once again all these options take up a great deal of space (when you are lucky enough to have the right sort of geography—ain’t no mountain valleys on the prairies). Put another way, they have very poor energy density, or the energy available per unit of space.

A smart load-balancing, continent-spanning supergrid, taking electricity from where the wind is blowing or the sun shining to where it isn’t is another proposed alternative, albeit at enormous cost. But this only reduces intermittency. It doesn’t eliminate it. And then there is the land footprint of all those extra transmission lines that need to be built, fragmenting habitats. Anti-nuclear advocates say they don’t like centralization of energy production and want decentralisation. It seems hard to imagine a more centralized entity than a machine that straddles a continent.

Ironically, small modular reactors could provide that very decentralization to a community, especially where it is needed such as remote off-grid communities in Alaska or Canada’s north currently dependent on dirty diesel generators, or for that matter parts of India or sub-Saharan Africa. This is why Nunavut is exploring small modular nuclear reactors as an option.

We should be very clear about the racist, colonial history of uranium mining in northern Canada. Indeed, the story is more central to the origins of Indigenous struggle, and the birth of the nuclear industry—and nuclear weapons for that matter—than many Canadians know.

We might start this tale in the village of Port Radium in the Northwest Territories, the subject of the 1938 painting “Radium Mine” by Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson. The painting depicts the Northwest Territories mine that produced uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb. Upon the sale of the piece in 2012 after decades being held by the family of the owner of the mine, Gerald LaBine, the catalogue entry said of the painting: “At its heart is the story of two exceptional Canadians—a gifted artist and a bold entrepreneur—linked by their thirst for adventure, imagination and love of their nation.”

A.Y. Jackson’s “Radium Mine” (1938), one of a series of oil paintings and sketches of the Port Radium mine by the iconic artist. Refining, the company that owned the mine at Port Radium, was nationalized in 1944 to supply uranium ore for the Manhattan Project.

UBC art historian and author of several books on the Group of Seven movement John O’Brian, told a reporter: “Jackson, more than any other member of the Group of Seven, wanted to possess Canada in paint… There was a kind of compulsion to keep moving, as if somehow he could literally possess the land by painting it.”

The Group of Seven, influenced by European Impressionism, had wanted to demonstrate that the Canadian landscape was just as worthy of being painted as any in Europe. A tale of a British dominion standing on its feet for the first time is perhaps a noble one worth telling. But it omits much.

Eldorado Gold Mines Limited had established themselves at the site in the 1930s to extract radium ores for use in cancer treatment and medical research, but silver, copper and uranium were also mined there. In short order, the federal government built a post office, a government office, a radio station, and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police post. There was also a Hudson’s Bay Company post. Uranium mined here was Canada’s main contribution to the Manhattan Project during the Second World War.

Many of the miners were Dene from Deline, the nearest Indigenous community. Because Dene workers were given last priority for safety protections, these miners would go on to suffer high rates of cancer, and many died, giving rise to Deline calling itself a “Village of Widows” with women left to raise their families without breadwinners. Activities at the mine prompted one of the earliest cases in the Aboriginal rights movement in the 1940s. Radium and uranium tailings were also dumped into Great Bear Lake. All of this occurred without consent of the Dene of Deline. Mining at Port Radium halted in 1982 and remediation was completed in 2007.

Such colonial theft and racist treatment of Indigenous workers was not unique to uranium mining, but common to every type of mining, and every type of industry. The struggle against colonialism in Canada, the US, and Australia, which also has large uranium deposits, is far from over. But thanks to decades of Indigenous and trade union struggle, today in northern Saskatchewan, where all of North America’s uranium comes from, uranium mining is safe, unionized, high-paid work and is the largest industrial employer of Indigenous people in Canada.

Today, rather than an imposition on First Nations, leaders such as Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations (FSIN) has issued public concerns that the closure of nuclear plants in the US will lead to layoffs. In 2018, the Canadian mining firm Comeco announced an indefinite shutdown of its uranium operations. At the same time, the FSIN has forcefully told the government of Saskatchewan that resource exploration permits for a Toronto-based uranium exploration company had no authority on First Nations’ lands. This occurred after representatives of the firm were spotted on the Birch Narrows Dene Nation without the band council’s consent. “Resource developers must understand that provincial permits don’t give them the green light to run roughshod over our inherent and treaty rights,” Birch Narrows Dene Nation Chief Jonathan Sylvestre told reporters at the time.

These are not at all inconsistent positions, as mining is not inherently good or bad. Mining’s effects simply depend on the social relations surrounding the practice. If there is genuine respect for Indigenous sovereignty, strong trade unions, good regulation and independent inspection of adherence to regulations, then mining is a genuine good for a community, bringing with it family-supporting union jobs. And in any case, it is not as if the variety of minerals, from copper and lithium needed by electric vehicles and wind turbines to heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic required by solar panels, and even the steel and aluminium for bikes and buses can be plucked off trees. To deliver all the benefits of the modern world, from ventilators to saxophones, if we do not grow the inputs required, then there is no getting around digging things out of the ground.

Finally, we have to understand that there is no such thing as a perfectly safe energy option. There’s no such thing as a perfectly safe anything. What we are on the hunt for instead is the safest options. And of all energy options, nuclear is the safest, with the fewest deaths per unit of energy. A comparative analysis by the New York State Water Resources Institute put the mortality rate of nuclear at 90 deaths per trillion kWh compared to 440 deaths for solar and 150 for wind. Of course, all of these are far lower than those of fossil fuels. The global average mortality rate for oil is 36,000 and for coal is a whopping 170,000 deaths.

The names Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island are tossed about as bogeymen by anti-nuclear campaigners, but in the latter two cases, zero people were killed. Chernobyl was a genuine disaster, but it was the product of a decrepit Stalinist system, not nuclear power itself. Modern reactors in any case are designed with passive safety systems—that is, they don’t need active intervention by humans or a computer to turn them off, and take advantage of natural forces such as gravity to disable them; it is no more physically possible for them to melt down than it is for balls to spontaneously roll up hills.

As to the question of nuclear waste, most of it is actually just unused fuel. With reprocessing, almost all of that can be reused. France already does this. At the end of the reprocessing some four percent of the fuel is left that cannot be reprocessed, but the end product has far lower radioactivity and only needs to be stored for about 300 years before. It presents very little risk stored above ground. But if we want to be extra safe, we can store that waste underground isolated from the biosphere. Some two billion years ago, deep underground in what is now Gabon, West Africa, a deposit of uranium began fissioning entirely on its own. It was what geologists call a ‘natural nuclear reactor.’ It of course produced its own radioactive waste, but that store of waste has not moved for all of those billions of years. Those are the sort of locations with those same features that we use for deep geologic repository (DGR), such as Finland’s DGR and what Ontario is exploring near Bruce County.

Meanwhile, solar, other variable renewables and their battery back-ups produce 300 times the volume of waste that nuclear produces. This includes the aforementioned heavy metals whose toxicity is elemental, a product of their atomic structure, so it doesn’t decline over time. This waste, which is very hard to recycle, is often shipped to developing countries to be picked over not infrequently by children as solar panel and wind turbine firms are, unlike nuclear plants, not responsible for their end-of-life waste.

The story we have been told by anti-nuclear campaigners since the 1970s is simply incorrect. Increasingly, climate activists are realizing this and campaigners in Ontario, France, New York, California and further afield, alongside the unions representing nuclear workers, are fighting to keep open these climate wonders as well as for the sort of regulations and public-sector infrastructure development required to expand the fleet. There are few acts of climate activism more important in Canada right now than trying to save Pickering from closure. Why not join them?

Leigh Phillips is a science writer and EU affairs journalist. He is the author of Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts and co-author of People’s Republic of Walmart.

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