Sunday, November 27, 2011

How should we meet baseline energy demand?

For over two decades, I have held the firm conviction that the best way to meet baseline energy demand - the amount of electricity that is always needed, before any spikes (such as during a particularly hot summer day) - is with nuclear energy. Other means of generating electricity can be used to meet additional energy needs - perhaps a combination of natural gas (because it's relativity easy to increase or decrease the energy generated to meet demand) and solar (because the biggest spikes in energy demand tend to be during those times when the sun is shining). But the base load? The answer is clearly nuclear.

I have heard many arguments against nuclear energy, and found none of them compelling. 
  • Nuclear energy is the same as / supplies the raw materials for / implies support for nuclear weapons. This is simply false. Canada's CANDU reactors use natural uranium. US, French, and Japanese reactors require uranium to be enriched to approximately 3% of a more fissile isotope. Uranium needs to be enriched to contain over 90% for a nuclear bomb. And though there are small amounts of other elements (such as plutonium) in the waste products of some nuclear plants, there are (unfortunately) several easier methods of getting hold of weapons-grade nuclear materials. No one intent on building a bomb will bother dumpster diving outside a nuclear plant. One can both favour nuclear energy and strongly advocate against nuclear weapons.
  • Three Mile Island demonstrated the inherent dangers of nuclear energy. I have always found this argument curious. Yes, something went wrong at the Three Mile Island plant and the operators there made mistakes that compounded the problem. But the automatic safety systems kicked in exactly as they should have. The containment structure was never breached (and was only filled with hydrogen, which could have made a loud noise if ignited but little else). No radiation was ever released to the public. You could have been standing right outside the plant at the time and nothing would have happened to you. It was a black eye for the industry from a public relations perspective, but nothing transpired that ever threatened the health of a single human being. 
  • Chernobyl proved that the fallout from a meltdown far outweigh any potential benefits. I agree that Chernobyl was a disaster, and only the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian, Russian, and international engineers that erected an improvised containment building prevented it from being much worse. Chernobyl clearly showed that the Soviet design principles of the RBMK reactor were fatally flawed. RBMK reactors have a combustible graphite core.When there was insufficient water in the core to cool the graphite, it got hotter and hotter until there was an explosion and full meltdown. In western designs, the coolant also serves as a catalyst - if all the coolant instantly disappeared, the reaction could not continue. I am certainly in favour of shutting down all existing RBMK reactors (none with this design will be built again). Without minimizing the scale of the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, I find it to be a credible argument against the RBMK design, not nuclear energy in general.
  • Uranium mines despoil natural habitats and pollute water sources. Strictly speaking, this is accurate. As with all mining activities, some mines / companies do better than others, but most or all have nontrivial environmental effects, and uranium mines are no exception. But consider the environmental impact of coal mines, natural gas extraction (especially the increasing use of the technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which injects "hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals" into the water table), hydroelectric dams (with the massive tracts of land that are flooded), or oil (especially Canada's Albertan tar sands). In any fair comparison, uranium mines are not pristine but come out looking pretty good - if for no other reason than much less uranium needs to be extracted from the earth to keep a 1,000 MW nuclear reactor running than coal or gas for the same power output.
  • Nuclear waste is dangerous for [tens or hundreds of] thousands of years, and we have no way of safely storing or managing anything over these timescales. The byproducts of nuclear energy, when compared to other sources of generating electricity, are one of the strongest arguments in its favour. Yes, there is some toxic stuff, but most of it is dangerous only if ingested or inhaled. The material that is very hazardous also doesn't last long. Look at it this way - the more radioactive a substance is, the more harmful it is to humans, but also the faster it decays into something else. The stuff that lasts for a long time isn't very radioactive and isn't nearly as hazardous to human health. There is so little waste from a nuclear plant that it's relatively easy to manage. With coal, there are enormous quantities of ash. This is a real waste problem. For example, in December 2008 a retaining wall failed in Tennessee and over 1 billion gallons of coal fly ash (contaminated with extremely toxic heavy metals such as lead and thallium - just watch the scale of it in this video) escaped into tributaries of the Tennessee River. This stuff isn't harmful for hundreds of thousands or millions of years - it's poisonous forever.
  • Nuclear energy is more expensive than hydro, coal, oil, or gas. This is generally true historically, though the large price fluctuations in recent years for oil and gas leaves it open to question whether this will continue to be the case. But overall, the economic case against nuclear energy is cogent and accurate. There are two things to consider about the cost of nuclear energy: it produces energy under far more stringent conditions than any other energy source (coal plants emit 100 times more radiation into the environment than nuclear stations), which naturally drives up costs; and perhaps it is worthwhile to pay more for an energy source that, when compared to any other, is essentially non-polluting (especially since we are cooking the planet with our carbon dioxide emissions).
Thus, for many years I have been quite comfortable holding the opinion that nuclear energy was the best way to meet our baseline energy needs.

All that started to change in March 2011, with the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. Over the past several months I have had to reevaluate an opinion I have staunchly held for many years.

The Fukushima plant was constructed to withstand an earthquake up to 7.9 on the Richter scale. The quake in March was 9.0, or over ten times the maximum design threshold. The seawall was 5.7 metres high, far less than the 14 metre height of the tsunami that followed. Though the severity of these events was surprising, the result (given how far they exceeded the design thresholds) at Fukushima was not: there was major damage to the plant, which resulted in a meltdown.

Unlike Three Mile Island, this was a serious event (according to an October 2011 paper in Nature, the radiation emitted from Fukushima is now half that of Chernobyl). And unlike Chernobyl, Japanese plant designs are just as rigorously safety oriented as their western European and North American counterparts. Japanese nuclear physicists, engineers, scientists and construction workers are world-class. In other words, if a meltdown can happen in Japan, it can happen anywhere.

What happens in Canada or the US when an earthquake, flood, or hurricane of unprecedented magnitude strikes in an area with a nuclear plant?

In 2010, a nuclear plant in Nebraska failed a safety inspection due to insufficient flood defenses. In response, the operator improved them to be effective for a high water level of 1,010 feet. In June 2011, an unprecedented flood peaked at 1,008 feet. Though the surrounding terrain was flooded, there was no damage to the plant. But it could have turned out quite differently with a single additional heavy rainstorm.

If this year's floods had occurred even months earlier, the plant itself would have been at least partially under water. The mandated improvements to the facility's flood preparedness enabled it to make it through June 2011 undamaged.

It's a happy ending, but illustrates a key requirement for nuclear safety: the existence of a strong, truly independent regulator to enforce the rules. Otherwise, safety inevitably gets compromised. Not operational safety, necessarily; but it requires a firm enforcement agency to get a power company to build (as in the Nebraska example) expensive flood barriers in areas not prone to them. Or to ensure numerous secondary and tertiary independent backup systems are continually checked and monitored so that they will perform as expected should primary systems suddenly fail for any reason.

The U.S. federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission behaved commendably in Nebraska in 2010. Its action likely prevented significant damage to a major power generating facility. But I am unconvinced that enforcing objective rules independent of industry influence is typical of this US regulatory body, especially after reading this four part series by the Associated Press. 

The situation is no better in Canada. In November 2007, Linda Keen, the president of Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission followed the law and refused to allow the Chalk River nuclear plant to restart after a planned shutdown until two coolant pumps were connected to backup power systems that could withstand a major earthquake. In December, the Canadian Parliament overruled this decision and ordered the facility to restart operations. In January 2008, Ms. Keen was fired.

(In May 2009, the reactor had be shut down again due to safety concerns. It did not re-open until July 2010.)

If Canadian nuclear plants consistently pass safety inspections and their operating permits are regularly renewed, is this due to the industry taking safety seriously and meeting or exceeding all guidelines? Possibly. Or perhaps no inspector, remembering Ms. Keen, wants to lose his or her job. Her dismissal was not an erosion of the traditional independence of the nuclear regulator - this act destroyed it with one brazen decision.

Beyond these examples, and many allegations of a cozy relationship between TEPCO (which operated the plants at Fukushima) and JNISA (the Japanese national nuclear safety regulator), I have one more reason to doubt the long-term independence of any nuclear regulator.


Nuclear energy is not just about scientific research, defense in depth engineering design, and precision construction. It is a business. With tens of billions of dollars at stake, considerable time, expertise, and expense will be dedicated to regulatory capture. We've seen this happen in numerous other industries, such as telecommunications and finance. Regulatory bodies have occasionally provided the mandated oversight of their assigned industry but more often have lobbied on their behalf. Nothing I have seen makes me think that nuclear regulatory bodies are immune to the pressures and corrupting influences that their peers have succumbed to, time and again, all around the world.

If I have my doubts about nuclear energy, how do we meet our current and future demands for energy? I don't like any of the major alternatives. 
  • Coal is cheap and plentiful. It is also highly polluting, with emissions of high amounts of particulate matter (leading to smog and respiratory ailments), sulphur (leading to acid rain), and carbon dioxide. Coal mining is literally changing the landscape in many areas, as entire mountains are flattened for the coal they contain. The scale of some coal mining operations is staggering. 
  • Natural gas is cleaner than coal, though it too generates a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. There is an increasing environmental cost of extracting gas from remote or hostile areas from beds with ever lower concentrations. Also, there are serious allegations that fracking has led to an increase in the number and severity of earthquakes in Oklahoma and England.
  • Oil has numerous issues associated with it: implicit support for regimes with horrendous humans rights records (Saudi Arabia and Iran spring to mind immediately); accepting the enormous environmental costs associated with oil extraction (think of any number of breached tankers, Canada's tar sands, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010); or ignoring the simple fact that there is a finite amount of oil in the ground, and we should be planning to meet our ongoing energy needs with a source that is not at risk of being depleted in our lifetime.
  • Hydro: My understanding is that most of the attractive sites in North America have already been exploited for their hydro potential. There may be a few good locations remaining, but I question whether we should place much effort in developing the marginal sites given the fiscal and environmental costs of damming and flooding large, fast-moving waters.
  • Renewable sources: I think investment to obtain greater efficiencies from solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal sources is worthwhile. Every bit helps, and placing a greater emphasis on reducing demand from large central electricity generating plants by meeting needs locally is a good idea. But each of these also require nontrivial amounts of water, concrete, steel, and rare earth metals if they are to produce a meaningful contribution to our energy supply. Putting these issues aside, and even granting significantly higher energy conversion rates and much lower costs of production, renewables can only contribute a small percentage of our energy demand - perhaps enough to build one less large coal, gas, or nuclear plant (which typically produce 800-1000 MW). This is fine as far as it goes, but the overall question remains.
It is clear to me that a multi-pronged approach is called for. We should make a serious effort to decrease the growth of our energy consumption needs (install high efficiency furnaces in new or renovated homes, replace expired incandescent bulbs with equivalent CFL or LEDs, turn up the thermostat in the summer and down in the winter, etc.). We should reduce energy waste (such as with high efficiency power lines and better insulation - especially in large, older buildings). But according to a column in Nature, even if we could replace all "cars, appliances, boilers, buildings and power plants with today's state-of-the art technology, replace and expand current electricity generation with non-emitting sources and produce as much biofuel as possible by 2050," California's greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 60% from 1990 levels, well below its stated target of 80%.

We (as a country, and as a species) will only need more and more energy. If the trend to hybrid / electric cars continues it will reduce smog, but also increase electricity demand substanitally. We cannot have heated homes, personal computers, and other conveniences of our modern existence without an energy-intensive infrastructure, nor can we alter this dependency without a significant impairment to our quality of life. Do we sacrifice some of our creature comforts? If so, which ones? Do we take steps to limit the global population? If so, how would we accomplish this is an ethical and humane manner?

On this topic, I no longer have a strong opinion - only many questions. So I turn to you: how should we meet baseline energy demand?


  1. We should meet baseline energy demand by utilizing as heavily as possible the method for generating usable energy that scores best in the following areas in the aggregate:
    - human health impact per watt-hour
    - environmental impact per watt-hour

    (I am deliberately not including cost per watt-hour because I don't think it should be a factor in the decision).

    The relative weighting of those two categories would be a subjective matter, and therefore could spur serious and difficult debate if there were serious differences in the ranking between the categories. But I have a feeling that nuclear is still pretty high up there on both sides, even accounting for Fukushima.

  2. I like the idea of weighing the impacts on human health and environment when considering meeting energy demand, but am not convinced that cost should be completely irrelevant.

    Imagine a technology (for example, fusion - commercial application has been about a decade away for the at least twenty years) that is reliably safe and clean, but costs $10 per kilowatt hour (versus less than ten cents per kWh today). I would be happy to advocate paying a premium for clean, safe, reliable energy. Though I don't know precisely what the threshold is, two orders of magnitude is too much - this would have the effect of pricing too many aspects of modern existence out of reach for most people.

    I would assign cost a lower weighting than safety and environmental impact, but still include it in the calculation.

    You may be right that nuclear is still our best option, given these criteria. However, as licenses for existing reactors are renewed (often well past their engineered life span), I remain unconvinced.

  3. Great post, Leslie. Really comprehensive.

    I tend to agree with the multi-pronged approach but, as I said the other night, I don't think there is enough emphasis on the demand-side part of the equation. I really hated the disingenuous "my grandmother does laundry at 2 a.m." nonsense we saw during the provincial election. Smart meters and time-of-use pricing is a great way to help smooth out demand and shift the conservation from generation/supply to consumption.

    As parts of the world import our lifestyle, the global sustainability of our energy-intensive culture gets seriously thrown into question. We see in papers the classic "if the rest of the world lived like we do, we would need X number of planets to support it" and just turn the page. We need to really pause and critically examine our point in history and chart a sustainable path forward. I know from personal attempts at energy conservation that there is much we can do that would collectively yield a substantial impact.

    We will still need a diverse mix of supply but, on the specific types and proportions, I'm worried that I have more questions than answers too! :)

    Was nice meeting such an engaged person - great blog!


  4. Good post. Agree that nuclear is the way forward.
    The Al Gore crowd would have you believe we could power the world on rainbows and unicorn farts. Joking aside renewables just can't meet the ever-growing demands.
    We're all energy hogs, and that will only get worse as China and others develop. Nuclear is our best "worst" option.
    -brian (your cousin)