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Nuclear issues get our short attention spans

When the 24-hour news hole meets an increasingly short attention span, old news is swept aside at lightning speed. That which captivated our attention yesterday, well, that’s yesterday’s news as soon as something more compelling comes along.

That’s probably a good thing if you’re Charlie Sheen. Libyan revolutionary? Not so much.

The earthquake and resultant tsunami in Japan brushed aside the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that so captured our attention. Oh, we’re talking about no-fly zones in Libya, but that’s not where the public’s attention is right now.

Of course, even the quake-tsunami combo has been swept into the background, the nuclear peril taking center stage. The goings-on at Fukushima Daiichi could potentially have more dramatic consequences, across a much larger area. And, true to form, news coverage soon shifted to past nuclear disasters and, more compelling still, the possibility of meltdowns at other facilities, which brings the story much closer to home.

That’s certainly the case in Ontario, where about half of our electricity comes from nuclear plants. While nobody’s worried about an imminent China Syndrome playing out here, both critics and proponents have been quick to react to the situation in Japan. The provincial government has defended its plan to go ahead with more nuclear projects.

Still, it’s a troubling event for the beleaguered industry, which already has a very poor reputation. Opponents maintain that if even the much better prepared Japanese system can suffer catastrophic failures, who’s to say it won’t happen here?

Count the Ontario Clean Air Alliance among those expressing reservations.

The group’s chair, Jack Gibbons, notes the aftereffects of the Japanese crisis will be felt throughout the industry, worldwide. That could have consequences in Ontario, where at least $45 billion has been earmarked for nuclear plants.

“We need to rethink: Simply telling ourselves that ‘it can’t happen here’ is a dangerous copout. What Japan has shown is that it is very difficult to predict the exact series of events that can trigger a loss of control of the most dangerous energy system on Earth,” he says.

“We don’t know what will happen next with Japan’s nuclear plants, but we do know this: New and existing nuclear plants are going to require a serious safety review, and safety standards and equipment are likely to require significant improvement. That means that already costly nuclear plants are going to become even more costly – and uncompetitive with energy efficiency, Made-in-Ontario green power, water power imports from Quebec and combined heat and power.”

OCAA argues there are alternatives to a costly nuclear program that makes Ontarians uneasy.

Alternative energy supplies and a push toward conservation would be more effective and far cheaper than the nuclear option, he stresses.

Conservation efforts, for instance, work out to a cost of about $0.03 per kWh versus $0.21 for nuclear power. Then there’s a cost of $0.10 to $0.14 for electricity from wind farms or $0.09 per kWh for hydro-based power from Quebec.

With greater efficiencies, we could reduce overall demand by as much as 50 per cent by the time many of Ontario’s aging reactors reach the end of their lifespans in 2021, says Gibbons.

That’s in addition to meeting the province’s goal of phasing out coal-fired plants, what the alliance calls the single-largest greenhouse gas reduction initiative in North America, equivalent to taking almost seven million cars off the road.

The Ontario Clean Air Alliance also advocates investing in co-generation opportunities: using the heating systems in larger buildings to generate electricity. In effect, that would provide two
services for the price of the same natural gas being burned today.

Combined heat and power (CHP) plants can be installed in apartment buildings, condominiums, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, airports and factories. Electricity supplied by such facilities would cost less than $0.06 per kWh.

The government doesn’t go down that road because there’s a strong bias in favour of big, centralized megaprojects.

That approach – “1950s thinking and policies” – is entrenched, and its proponents have the ear of government. Convincing Premier Dalton McGuinty to take another path will be difficult, but Gibbons sees reasons to be optimistic.

While most of us want only to have the lights come on when we flip the switch, paying little heed to how the electricity flows there, there is a growing awareness about environmental concerns. And, failing that, there’s the issue of our wallets: we certainly don’t want to see rates rise dramatically, which is what could happen if we opt for expensive nuclear reactors.

While nuclear proponents point to the absence of greenhouse gas emissions, Gibbons discounts that. First off, the lifecycle of nuclear – from construction to decommissioning – is fraught with environment downside, including the release of greenhouse gases. More to the point, the long lead time for rolling out nuclear means it won’t have the desired impact: we have to act now to start countering the climate change models.

To date, given nuclear’s track record of breakdowns and under-delivery, reliance on that technology hasn’t meant a reduction of greenhouse gases: every time there’s a shortfall, the province presses in to service the coal-fired plants – the worst emitters – it wants to mothball.

Already controversial, the nuclear option just got a whole lot more dicey. Even if it is soon pushed off the front page by the next big thing.

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