Henry Sielmann of Summerland BC discusses Canada's nuclear future.
Pairing Renewables with Nuclear Power Generation to meet 2050 GHG Emission Reduction Targets
Over the years several studies have been published comparing GHG reduction potentials by replacing fossil fuel electrical power generation with either nuclear or renewable alternatives. These studies are typically based on existing nuclear reactor technology classified as Gen (Generation) 1, 2, and 3. This article examines why, in the opinion of the author, new Gen 4 reactor technology combined with renewables, is the key to meeting 2050 GHG emission reduction targets.
CAN NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION BECOME AN ACCEPTABLE ALTERNATIVE TO POWER GENERATION BASED ON FOSSIL FUELS?
Classic Gen 1-3 reactor types are all based on enriched Uranium 235 fission technology that has been employed almost unchanged since the 1970s.
While Gen 1 reactors were early research engines, Gen 2s were built for military (primarily submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion) and commercial use (electrical power generation for public utilities).
Gen 3 post-Chernobyl reactors employ similar fission technology, but incorporate walk-away safety features including gravity fed cooling, which requires no operator action should there be a malfunction. These features help guard against melt-downs of the nuclear core which can lead to catastrophic failure of the containment structure and massive release of nuclear materials and radiation (example Chernobyl which was extremely damaging as it was equipped with neither walk-away safety features nor a containment structure).
The political landscape has been hostile to nuclear power generation for decades though the safety record of 100s of reactors around the world is excellent with a very few, well-understood exceptions.
The US currently operates over 100 reactors producing 20% of its electric power with only one notable accident (Three Mile Island).
France has been operating nuclear power plants since the 1970s and now produces over 70% of its electric power using various types of nuclear reactors. There has been only one notable accident in France (classified as a level 4 accident out of 7 levels on the International Nuclear Event Scale) when in 1980 a reactor was damaged by overheated reactor material.1
The Three Mile Island accident (1979) was one of three level 5 events recorded at nuclear power plants. Canada and the UK experienced one level 5 event each, both in the 1950s. The only Level 6 event worldwide was at a Soviet military nuclear waste reprocessing facility (1957) while Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) were the only level 7 events.
In addition to reactor safety, the cost of construction and the effects of long-term storage of spent nuclear material and radioactive waste have long been of major concern. Costs have been brought down to a point where nuclear can compete with fossil generation though it is unclear for any of these technologies to what extent published data includes the cost of decommissioning, environmental clean-up and waste disposal/control. Disposition of spent nuclear material and radioactive waste remain an ongoing challenge.
Given these longstanding issues, should we even consider nuclear as an option? Why not just move to 100% renewable power generation such as solar and wind?
Let’s assess what that means.
CAN WE MOVE TO 100% RENEWABLE POWER GENERATION?
Just like fossil power plants burning coal or natural gas, most commercial Gen 2 and 3 nuclear power plants are high capacity (1-4 GW) generators, providing centralized electrical power capable of supporting industrial plants, urban centres, and entire regions.
1 The severity of unplanned nuclear events is measured on a sliding scale of 7 levels (the International Nuclear Event Scale - INES). Like the Richter scale for measuring earthquake severity, each successive level on the INES represents an event of ten times the severity of the level below. That is, an accident of severity 4 on the scale is ten times as severe as an incident of severity 3. Events ranging from 1-3 in severity are named incidents while events of severity 4-7 are named accidents.