Shale oil and gas, clean coal offer plentiful, cheap alternatives to atomic power in Alberta

BY LORNE GUNTER, FREELANCE
I am neither afraid of nor opposed to nuclear power. I just don't see the point of it.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but in the end the crisis at Japan's earthquake-and tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant will likely become little more than a textbook study for future nuclear engineers and regulators -and PR agents. Lessons will be learned by the nuclear industry and by spin doctors on how better to handle the next near-meltdown and how to sell it.

Even though radiation is showing up in milk and tap water and other parts of the food chain in Tokyo, it is showing up only in trace amounts still. More than a week after the reactors at Fukushima became dangerous, nearly all the unwanted radiation they are producing is still being captured in the containment units in which they are housed. The latest estimates from the Japanese capital are that drinking one cup of radiated milk each day for a year would be the equivalent of a single chest X-ray.

Despite frantic news reports of plumes of smoke and radiation spikes in the plant, and of workers abandoning the site periodically because of dangerous levels of exposure, there is no evidence of a major leak that would kill thousands in the area, must less spread around the globe.

Comparisons to Chornobyl, while instructive, are misplaced. The nearer accident is Three Mile Island, because in the hindsight of history, even Three Mile Island wasn't a Three Mile Island.

As has been said over and over during the tense, round-the-clock coverage from Japan, Chornobyl rained radiation down in deadly concentrations on an area the size of Florida (and to a lesser degree on nearly all of Europe) because the reactor there had no containment structure. When the nuclear fuel rods overheated and exploded, their radioactive trash instantly blew tens of thousand of feet into the air. From there, winds carried the deadly cloud around the continent.

Fukushima is more like Three Mile Island, where there was a meltdown, but almost no serious radiation escaped because the containment enclosures held.

People were evacuated, panic ensued, but the concrete and steel around the decaying core was not pierced. Even decades after TMI, there is no evidence of elevated cancers or deaths among nearby residents. But here is the cause of my indifference: why would we want to sit on pins and needles for days wondering whether this accident is going to turn into a worldwide catastrophe when there are plenty of other energy sources that don't carry with them so much drama or real potential for devastation?

Edmonton is only about 150 kilometres farther from Peace River, the possible site of a future nuclear power plant, than Tokyo is from Fukushima. Imagine how tense the last 11 days would have been here if the Japanese crisis had been taking place along the Peace rather than the Pacific shoreline.

There are all sorts of reasons why that comparison is unfair. First and foremost, Peace River is not located where two tectonic plates come together. Nor is it on the beach, where it could be swamped by a tsunami.

Neither of the two catastrophes that have led to the Fukushima disaster is possible in Alberta. What's more, Canadian reactors employ a different design. They use natural -rather than enriched -uranium and are cooled with heavy water.

This makes our reactors more expensive at the beginning, but much safer in the long run because heavy water is about 80 times as efficient at absorbing reactor heat.

Also, Canadian reactors consist of several small-diameter fuel channels rather that single large pressure vessels; meaning the coolant is in contact with the nuclear fuel over a greater surface area and in case of a problem, it may be necessary only to cool a handful of small channels rather than one, large, overheating mass.

Still, a nuclear plant has to fail only once for the consequences to be historic and devastating. If TransAlta's coal-fired Sundance plant blew up, some nearby cottages on Wabamun Lake might be damaged, but the worst most residents would suffer would be clouds of black smoke, a foul smell and some soot.

If a natural-gas power plant explodes, it might level surrounding neighbourhoods. But rebuilding could begin the minute the flames were extinguished. Three-eyed, glow-in-the-dark fish and bunnies would not continue to be found on the site for millennia.

Nuclear power is frightfully expensive, too. A typical plant costs $2 billion or more to construct. Then there are tens of millions more in annual maintenance, not to mention the cost of storing spent fuel rods, which is so exorbitant it is often passed off to taxpayers.

Some, of course, think we need nuclear power because its production emits no carbon dioxide; it won't cause global warming. Being unconvinced by theories of man-made climate change, that concern doesn't alter my indifference.

With coal bed methane, shale oil and gas, and clean coal all possible, there are plentiful, cheap alternatives to nuclear. It doesn't matter whether nuclear is as safe as humanly possible. It just doesn't make sense.

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