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Costs And Benefits Of Pursuing Nuclear Energy Environmental Sciences Essay

What are the costs and benefits of pursuing nuclear energy as a commercially sustainable energy source for Ontario’s future? Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build, yet are also considered in relation to other energy sources, economically efficient to run. Canada’s nuclear energy presence is felt in Canada and around the world with 22 reactors in Canada and numerous projects around the world using Canadian CANDU technology.

Purpose

The purpose of an economic cost/benefit analysis report is to verify whether or not nuclear energy is, in the short and long-term, a sustainable cost-efficient energy source for Ontario. As the Canadian Nuclear Association notes there are numerous blueprints but there are no current plans to build any new plants in Canada (CNA, 2009).

Scope

Cost benefit analysis should involve comparison of cost of building and running a nuclear energy industry with other sources of energy: fossil fuels, Hydro, wind, solar, and other innovative new technologies. The scope of this analysis includes environmental and social cost/benefits, often neglected, as well as more traditional economic cost-comparison methods.

Background

Canada is one of the world’s largest repositories of uranium according to fact sheet produced by the Canadian Nuclear Association the industry spokesperson for advocating continuation of and increase use of nuclear power in Canada (CNA, 2009). In Ontario, 50% of all power generation is from nuclear energy. The association’s cost/benefit analysis factors in value of our energy sold, GDP generated by nuclear power plants, GDP from uranium exports, and employment and revenues, both domestic and international. Nuclear energy is a multi billion dollar industry with over $12 billion in revenue generated in 2005 (CNA, 2009). It is an industry that employs over 70,000 Canadians. The association advocates that increase of nuclear energy by building two new CANDU reactors would double current GDP and employment figures for the industry, a positive case for expanding Canada’s nuclear program (CNA, 2009).

2. Work Completed

A study by DSS Management Consultants and RWDI Air (2005) on behalf of the Ontario Energy Commission proposed four alternative scenarios: maintaining coal-plants as-is, switching to gas, developing a mix of gas/nuclear power or much more stringent control over coal. The cost/benefit analysis factored in not only economics of various energy grid systems but also health and environmental concerns. The gas/nuclear option in all areas proved the most cost-effective. The study reveals that air quality improves with a gas/nuclear energy system to replace dirty energy, such as coal generation. Even clean coal technologies, based on epidemiological studies from the U.S., produce double mortality than gas/nuclear.

University of Saskatchewan Professor Bev Robertson has recently provided a fact sheet based on his own research as well as literature review of cost/benefit of nuclear power. Part of his aim is to show that wind power, one of the renewable, deemed-clean energy sources, has many liabilities. These include reliance on wind patterns and continual replacement of expensive parts (Robertson, 2010). In a discussion of Hydro, the environmental impact is shown to be often very negative. This is a result of the need of redirecting major water sources via dams that affect ecosystems (Robertson, 2010). Research findings also show that coal not only is a dirty energy source, but produces perhaps double the amount of radioactivity as a well-running nuclear plant (Robertson, 2010). As a result, his research compiles enormous amounts of useful information on benefits of nuclear energy from a comprehensive cost/benefit perspective.

Future

Prof. Robertson writes that there is no such thing as zero risk (Robertson, 2010). This is an excellent framework in which to discuss realistic cost/benefit of increasing our reliance on nuclear energy. Costs of new reactors will rise, as he notes, but the exact level will remain uncertain, based on a wealth of economic factors. Similarly, many so-called examples of great harm caused by nuclear accidents or reactor problems have in almost every case been proven to be from a multiple of sources, even in the case of Chernobyl rise in thyroid cancer (Robertson, 2010).

3. Remaining Issues

The major problems lie in the risks and uncertainties despite the positive outcome of the Saskatchewan government debates. For example, as Kessides (2010) writes, the costs and risks of the entire fuel cycle, from construction of plants to long term storage are difficult to measure comparatively (from region to region, country to country, era to era). An economist with the World Bank, Kessides’s shows the degree of sophisticated analytical models that will be required to fully project accurate cost/benefit with regard to the nuclear industry. A problem with the DSS study was its lack of factoring in other scenarios: Hydro-water, wind, solar and other new renewable energy sources. The DSS study and the Robertson Saskatchewan plan suggest advocacy: industry and government wishing to gain more public support for return to nuclear facility refurbishing and construction without an ability to fully convince all stakeholders of a reasoned, balanced view of cost/benefit analysis. Continual ongoing identified low-level problems at aging plants like Bruce and Darlington are cause for concern across all economic indicators, from traditional economic cost to environmental assessment (CNSC, 2007-2008).

4. Conclusion

The truth may be closer to Robertson’s report on Saskatchewan discussions: many of the new technologies, such as solar, are very expensive and need decades of development before being ready for widespread use. Coal is a problematic energy source due to greenhouse emissions and radioactivity. Nuclear power now fuels 50% of Ontario’s energy and there has never been a serious accident, nor proof of dangerous environmental effects from the plants. The problem of storing used materials is one cost that will require more analysis. A second problem is convincing people that nuclear is less risky than it now has a reputation for. Studies like that of the World Bank - which supports nuclear in theory but also raises the potential risks - is a healthy way for the Ontario Energy Commission to proceed in assessing cost/benefit that includes health and environmental concerns. Even if there are some risks, proving that there are always risks and that benefits outweigh any foreseeable problem, can only help the nuclear industry move forward with its goals.

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