News in Depth: Defering the Decision on Ontario’s Nuclear Waste Plans

Back in March, we examined Australia’s efforts to find a site for a new National Radioactive Waste Management Facility. In that report, we also highlighted efforts being made in Canada to find a suitable nuclear waste management site, known formally as the Deep Geologic Repository for Low and Intermediate Level Radioactive Waste (DGR). One of the favoured sites, as of May, was the Bruce nuclear plant in Kincardine, Ontario.

This week, we will explore the recent developments in the DGR project, the story of the Bruce site, and discuss what may come next in this country’s quest to solve our waste management problem.

The Study and Approval Process So Far

In May, a report by the Joint Review Panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) approved the Bruce site and recommended it to the federal environmental minister, Leona Aglukkaq, saying that the “project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects.”

For background, the plan at the Bruce facility to build a repository deep beneath the site where “200,000 cubic metres of low and intermediate level waste from the Pickering, Darlington, and Bruce nuclear plants” could be stored indefinitely. The facility would be more than one kilometre from Lake Huron and over 680 metres underground. The Bruce site was selected after years of consultation and assessment undertaken by Ontario Power Generation (OPG). This project is part of a larger movement in Canada to find safe sites in which we can store used fuel.

In 2002, the Federal government established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to help guide this processIn 2011, Ken Nash, the current President and CEO of the NWMO, spoke with the National Post about the ethical motivations to finding suitable long term storage facilities that doesn’t simply leave materials above ground,

We can’t just leave it where it is, it’s up to this generation to look for something better and not pass on the burden…

The Bruce facility planned by the OPG is just such a solution, one that is designed to safely store materials for years to come. However, as the Toronto Star noted, over 152 communities in the US and Canada oppose the site. Local residents that live near the Bruce plant have also voiced concerns. Beverly Fernandez, of the Stop the Great Lakes Nuclear Dump group, has been particularly vocal on the issue of potential contamination of drinking water. In a March report in the London Free Press, she is quoted saying that

There should be no deep geologic repository (DGR) for nuclear waste anywhere in the Great Lakes Basin… locating it beside the drinking water of 40 million people defies logic.

The CEAA report, however, found that the risk of drinking water contamination “would be extremely low relative to current radiation levels in Lake Huron and negligible relative to dose limits for the protection of the public.”

Site proponents and the CEAA report also argue that there are a number of key components to the Bruce site that make it a good choice, including the stability of the rock, the current safety and security infrastructure, and the presence of engineering and construction expertise at the facility.

When the report was released in May, the federal environmental minister was given till early September to make a final approval. However, with federal elections looming in the fall, the decision was recently made to extend that deadline into December.

The Future Challenges Facing the DGR Decision

Some critics argue that the delayed decision is a sign that the Bruce DGR’s future is in peril. Ms. Fernandez, cited earlier as a strong opponent to the plan, thinks that the deferral reflects the fact that “more and more Canadian are expressing deep concern and strong opposition.”

Meanwhile, another local citizen’s group, Save our Saugeen Shores, has filed an application to the Federal Courts for judicial review, asking that the CEAA’s decision to approve the site be set aside. They argue that the panel “failed to consider Canada’s international obligations, was biased and violated the Country’s environmental rules.” 

This recent court challenge, and the continuing public debate, suggests that in the run up to the federal environmental minister’s December decision, every effort must be made to exhaustively discuss both the practical and political, the global and local. This project, no matter where it is located, will have implications on people and the environment for centuries to come, it’s only right that we take our time over the coming months to discuss and dissect the plan piece by piece, so we can make the best decision we can. 

The deferment, as a result, should not be viewed as avoidance. If anything, it is a reflection of the noted complexity of the project. If anything, it gives parties more time to resolve open questions and to hopefully address concerns regarding transparency. These things take time, and more time we now have.


Update (June 29, 2015) – two corrections were made in the article relating to the management of the Bruce DGR project and the to the approval process by the Federal minister. I apologize for the errors and appreciate reader feedback.

News in Depth: Germany’s Nuclear Phase Out

This week, German electric utitlity company RWE’s Chief Executive, Peter Terium, criticised the German government’s plans for imposing a levy on older fossil-fuelled power plants. Terium, in a shareholder meeting, argued that such a move to tax lignite based plants would lead to job losses and soaring electicity prices at a time when Germany is both trying to maintain economic growth and phase out its nuclear energy capacity by 2022.

This latest news follows a larger pattern of increasing German reliance on fossil-fuels as the country seeks to move away from nuclear – which once provided 25 percent of the country’s electricity – while also maintaining a energy-cost structure that allows Germany’s industrial base to remain competitive.

In this week’s News in Depth, we explore the story of Germany’s National Energy Transition Plan (Energiewende) and ask what lessons can be learned from a relatively rapid and unprecedented shift away from nuclear energy.

The Story So Far

As the World Nuclear Association’s fact-sheet points out, Germany first announced a plan to phase out nuclear energy in the wake of the 1998 federal elections. The plan was abandoned in 2009 following the election of a new government.

However, on May 30, 2011, Angela Merkel’s government announced a new plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, in response to widespread public protests following the Fukushima-Daichi crisis in Japan. The plan, estimated to cost almost 1 trillion euros, was announced by then Environmental Minister Norbert Rottgen. The initial plan was that:

the seven oldest reactors – which were taken offline for a safety review immediately after the Japanese crisis – would never be used again. An eighth plant – the Kruemmel facility in northern Germany… would also be shut down for good. Six others would go offline by 2021 at the latest and the three newest plants by 2022.

At the time of the announcement, the plan was citicized by other political parties and industry leaders. Renate Künast, the co-floor leader of the Green Party, expressed doubt as to the government’s level of prepardness to make the switch to renewables – leading to concerns that such a move would be a step back in terms of cutting carbon emmissions. In addition, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche suggested that the plan presented a “number of risks” to Germany’s manufacturing sectore.

Fast forward to 2014, when Robert Wilson, writing for the Energy Collective, points out that Germany’s nuclear phase is out leading to more coal burning. As he argues, the energy transition is not necessarily a positive one in terms of cutting carbon emissions; between “2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations.” These new plants, as he points out, are not directly tied to the 2011 announcement, but they are a result of Germany’s first foray into nuclear phase out in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Story Today, and Tomorrow

Wilson’s point, then, is that Germany’s growing reliance on coal is real, but it is not simply a result of the 2011 phase out plan. For some time, Germany has been moving away from nuclear. Thus, the move is not purely ideological or politically driven. However, it is also not, in light of the tariff and emmissions issues, a totally practical decision. The question remains, can Germany succesfully pull off a relatively rapid phase out while maintaining a strong and cost-effective energy system to support its manufacturing sector? Can it also do so while cutting carbon emmissions?

Raimund Bleishwitz, a professor at Univeristy College London, is cited in Scientific American as framing the issue in two ways: 1) external competition, and 2) internal burden sharing. Bleishwitz’s taxonomy, which highlights the tensions inherent in a large scale energy transition, is a useful tool for thinking about energy development more broadly.

While nuclear energy’s future in Germany is uncertain today, it’s clear that many other countries, especially developing nations, are looking to nuclear energy to develop a more robust, consistent, and flexible energy supply for their growing economies. Germany provides a counter-example to these efforts, remininding us that energy needs, market dynamics, and political climates change over time. We must remain open to these changes, and be ready to anticipate what may come next.

News in Depth: Global Nuclear Growth in Context

This week, in an article for The Energy Collective, Jesse Jenkins, a writer and current PhD student in Engineering Systems at MIT, aimed at putting the growth of renewable energy in perspective. The article provides more than just an overview of renewable energy however, it also provides some interesting context for discussion of the future of nuclear power.

A year in review: thinking about energy capacity worldwide

Before thinking about what comes next in our energy future, it’s important to have some context. In his article, Jenkins provides a succinct summary of the progress made in the last full calendar year:

The world added 103 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity in 2014… That figure excludes large hydropower projects… and is dominated by wind and solar, which saw growth of 49 GW and 46 GM respectively. More importantly, the share of renewable electricity… in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014.

As is noted, that figure is close to the 10.5 percent of global electricity supplied by nuclear power.

Global_Electricity_Market_Shares_1980-2014

(Image Source: The Energy Collective)

A link to the International Energy Agency’s (IAE) World Energy Outlook 2014 Factsheet is also provided. The factsheet highlights some additional key points:

  • 434 operating commercial reactors worldwide at the end of 2013 (capacity: 392 GW)
  • Nuclear power has avoided the release of an estimated 56 Gt of CO2 emissions since 1971
  • Almost 200 of the 434 reactors operating at the of 2013 are to be retired before 2040

Finally, Jenkins articulates two visions for future growth in renewables. In the first scenario, growth is linear at about 100GW per year. In the second, growth compounds at a 10 percent per year rate. As he notes, neither scenario is perfect, but they “bracket the realm of most likely outcomes.”

What’s next for nuclear power and renewables?

The IAE’s factsheet provides an apt summary of the challenge ahead for the nuclear energy sector, “the industry will need to manage an unprecedented rate of decommissioning, while also building substantial new capacity for those reactors that are replaced.” It is clear that the next few decades will be filled with difficult problems: how do we handle the decommissioning of so many reactors, how do we balance short and long term cost economic and political concerns, and how do we safely and steadily grow nuclear capacity, especially in the so-called BRIC countries?

From a review of conference topics and recent news articles, it’s clear that the industry is well aware of these challenges and is making positive strides. As we’ve highlighted here at Future of Nuclear, companies are continuing to develop new, smaller reactors that can be deployed in both industrialized and developing markets. In addition, governments continue to explore how to safely deal with radioactive waste. In all, the challenges are great but not insurmountable.

This, finally, brings us back to the topic of renewables. As highlighted earlier, there is no single panacea for our energy needs or a clear idea of what the future will bring. Powering a diverse world takes a diverse set of solutions. As Mr. Jenkins points out in his article, the best way to ensure that low-carbon sources continue to grow is to not put all of our eggs in one basket. What is needed is a toolkit of locally relevant and sustainable technologies that can respond to the growing need for reliable, safe, and clean energy worldwide. That is the industries’ north star. The trick, as it were, is to keeps steering towards it.

Nuclear Innovation announced as theme for Future of Nuclear 2014 Conference

In recent weeks, sources as diverse as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Dalai Lama have all commented on the relentless growth of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the earth’s atmosphere and the need to mitigate resultant climate change effects.  In all instances the sources have talked about the need for nuclear energy to play an increased role in the global energy mix.  Along with renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, together with innovations in smart grid and energy storage, leading thinkers believe there still may be a chance to rein in overall global warming before certain irreversible tipping points are reached.

In our post-Fukushima world many leading policy makers, politicians, and stakeholders are revisiting and reassessing the role that nuclear power can play in the global energy mix. What innovations have taken place since the Fukushima generation reactors were designed and deployed?  What innovations have there been in safety, regulation, and decommissioning?  Have there been advances in quantifying the risks and liabilities of nuclear projects?  What are the innovations and considerations in public policy, education and awareness that have prompted several jurisdictions to ramp up their nuclear programs?

On November 4, 2014, Mindfirst will host the second Future of Nuclear Conference that will address many of these questions. We are currently in the process of developing the agenda, content and speaker list.  Interested participants and potential speakers may contact admin@futureofnuclear.com.  Click here to view the agenda from last year’s Future of Nuclear conference.

Early bird registration is available at:
http://futureofnuclear2014.eventbrite.com

 

 

 

Westinghouse and OPG agreement a watershed moment for Canadian nuclear industry

With little fanfare, an unassuming tweet came across my screen yesterday afternoon while attending the global carbon leakage seminar at Bennett Jones. Apparently, Westinghouse and OPG had signed an agreement to collaborate and work on selling their nuclear expertise, products, and services in global markets. Under the agreement, the companies will consider a diversity of nuclear projects including refurbishment, maintenance and outage services, decommissioning and remediation of existing nuclear facilities, and new nuclear power plants.

This agreement could represent a watershed moment for Ontario’s economy, certainly for the nuclear industry. Like a sportscaster that tries to call the definitive momentum shifting play in a game, we won’t know for a while yet. But this agreement could be a gamechanger. Let me tell you why. Ontario has been built on the back of cheap energy, first from Niagara Falls and then nuclear. It is cheap energy that allows us to mine economically and manufacture cars with the best the world has to offer. Similarly, in Quebec, the vast hydro projects underpin their economy. In Alberta, oil and gas are key drivers. Any robust economy in the world has an abundant, secure source of energy.

Ontario’s CANDU technology has been a global leader and a gamechanger for many countries in the world. However, as in all technology driven industries, there is great innovation happening, it happens relentlessly,  and CANDU is not the only nuclear technology that growing nations are considering. The thriving economies of the world, China, India and others, are craving cheap, abundant, clean, safe energy. While Ontario does not have the demand to build new reactors now, other countries do. The challenge for our nuclear industry has been to somehow get our tens of thousands of nuclear related jobs serving the global market, not just maintaining our stable domestic market. This means being able to support the multiple and diverse nuclear technologies that are evolving in the global marketplace today.

The significance of the Westinghouse deal is that it ties OPG to a global leader in a non-CANDU technology. OPG is a globally recognized leader in operating nuclear power generating stations. It has an unblemished safety record that is the envy of the world. What a glorious opportunity this represents to market that operating expertise and enter other markets being served by emerging nuclear technologies. There is certainly a place for CANDU in the future. However, Westinghouse has their APS-1000 line of reactors that are making inroads in several countries. Kudos to OPG for seizing this opportunity and diversifying how they deploy their expertise.

Kudos also to Westinghouse. Westinghouse recognizes that in the 21st century the world will need more nuclear energy if it is to stem the effects of GHG driven climate change. In a post Chernobyl world there has been a relative shortage of young engineers and trades trained in the nuclear sciences. Ontario has almost 300 companies in the nuclear supply chain. There are more than 25,000 jobs related to the nuclear industry. There are nine universities that have courses in some sort of nuclear science. We have Chalk River and AECL, world leading nuclear research in medical isotopes and other applications beyond energy. And we have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) which is increasingly being viewed as an innovator and leading exemplar in nuclear regulation by emerging economies and jurisdictions that need to model their own regulatory regimes.

Ontario’s Green Energy Act has spurred wind and solar energy. Cumulatively, renewables represent a single digit percentage of our energy mix. There are thousands of jobs related to renewables, depending on how you count them. This is wonderful news as renewable energy represents an important part of the energy mix. The Westinghouse OPG agreement reminds us that Ontario’s existing nuclear industry, expertise and workforce are an order of magnitude larger than the current renewable industry.

The full press release may be viewed at http://bit.ly/1m7nPmg .

Henry Vehovec
Chair, Future of Nuclear Advisory Board
President, Mindfirst Inc.

Debate re National Bank Report: “The Nuclear Power Sector’s Dim Prospects”

Earlier this month National Bank released a report with entitled “The Nuclear Power Sector’s Dim Prospects”. This report provides a wonderful opening position to start a debate on the often polarizing topic of nuclear energy. As the report points out, several jurisdictions such as Germany are shutting down their nuclear plants, while others such as China and India are growing their number of nuclear reactors. When is it appropriate to decommission reactors? When is it time to build new or refurbish? What are the benefits of nuclear power? How realistic are the concerns about radiation, proliferation and meltdown? Can the world possibly reign in GHGs without nuclear playing an important role in the global energy mix? Comments welcome. Please view the linked report and let’s start the debate.

Click here to view the report.

The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”