Monday, December 24, 2007

Negotiating in the media: multi-billion dollar Ontario nuclear decision gets down to brass tacks
Last week there was a telling exchange between federal environment minister John Baird and the Toronto Star’s Ian Urquhart. On Monday, Urquhart published a column claiming that Baird had said that Ontario’s coal plant closures wouldn’t qualify for emission credits under the trading scheme the federal government is contemplating. Baird responded in a letter to the editor saying that any sector that achieves an 18 percent emission reduction—within two years—would be eligible for credits.

Neither Urquhart’s column nor Baird’s letter mentioned the critical baseline year from which reductions would be calculated. I have heard that the feds like 2006.

There is only one sector in one province that can achieve an 18 percent emission reduction by 2010. And that is the electricity generating sector in Ontario. As I have pointed out, Ontario’s power-sector emissions were 15 million tonnes lower in 2006 than in 2003. This was due entirely to the return of previously mothballed nuclear reactors at the Pickering and Bruce generating stations.

If I’m right about 2006 being the baseline year, then Ontario would have until 2010 to chop power emissions to 24.6 million tonnes (which is 18 percent less than the 2006 total of 30 million tonnes). Those who pay attention to these things will know that 24.6 million tonnes is just a bit below the original Kyoto target for this sector. So much for all the talk about the Conservatives abandoning Kyoto targets.

Is it possible to reduce power sector emissions by 18 percent?

It is possible but not certain. After the dramatic reductions of 2003–2006, Ontario’s power sector emissions shot back up in 2007 because longer-than-expected nuclear outages forced the province to shift back to coal. For Ontario to meet Baird’s 18 percent reduction target by 2010, the nuclear power plants—run by OPG and Bruce Power—have to keep their downtime well below the 2007 mark. It is already looking like that may be possible, at least in the case of Bruce Power: unit 4 came back online last week.

Determining Ontario’s eligibility for emission credits is a negotiation with multi-billion dollar implications. When Ontario decides to renew part of the provincial nuclear generator fleet, the feds want the new reactors to be Canadian-made. The McGuinty government, the ultimate decider, is more likely to agree to this if the feds sweeten the pot. Hence the wrangle over emission credits.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Congress is Santa and Scrooge for U.S. nuclear industry: but presents new Energy bill brilliantly
A year ago I encouraged the Canadian federal government to offer financial incentives to jump-start investment in new nuclear power plants. The incentives would emulate those in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005. Ontario’s stunning record of reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the power-sector—fifteen million tonnes less in 2006 than in 2003—had proved that nuclear power is the way forward to massive reductions in national emissions, and that it is worthy of incentives. The problem, for the politicians to whom I was offering this advice, was selling these incentives to influential, and skeptical, elites.

To sell them, I proposed that the Harper government expand the Wind Power Production Incentive (WPPI) to include nuclear generation, and announce it as an expansion of wind power.

Well, it looks like the U.S. congress and administration have done something very similar. Congress and the administration have agreed on a new energy bill, and the media is touting it as support for a “six-fold increase in ethanol use and energy-efficiency standards for appliances and lighting ... [and] in commercial and government buildings.” House speaker Nancy Pelosi says the bill is “groundbreaking in what it will do.”

It’s groundbreaking, all right. But not because efficiency measures will play anything bigger than a marginal role in reducing U.S. GHGs. The truly important part of the bill is the confirmation of financial incentives for new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power, and not efficient lightbulbs or ethanol-blended gasoline, is how America will reduce GHGs.

Ask any of the environmental lobbyists who are applauding the bill’s efficiency measures if they like its nuclear incentives. Most will say no, and emphatically no. But they generally applaud the bill, which means it has been skilfully presented.

While congress was generous with nuclear construction incentives, it was stingy with the critical back-end of the industry. It cut funding for the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository. This means the U.S. nuclear regulator will very soon be asking hard questions about what exactly utilities will do with the spent fuel piling up on their generator sites. If it can’t go to Yucca Mountain, where will it go? To one of the fast burner reactors proposed under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)? Not much relief on that front either: congress gave the GNEP less than half what the president had asked for.

Moreover, a fast burner doesn’t currently exist in North America. Few experts are convinced fast burners can economically dispose of spent fuel. So the spent fuel problem remains unresolved.

Nevertheless, the new U.S. energy bill is a model for how the Canadian government can ramp up investment in true GHG-reduction technology in a way that is palatable to public opinion.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Chalk one up for the system: isotope flap proves it works
The Chalk River reactor shutdown escalated into a political issue last week, because a shortage of medical radioisotopes had developed along the worldwide supply chain. What does it say that the federal government overrode the nuclear regulator by ordering the reactor to resume production?

It says that the Canadian nuclear regulatory system works, and that everyone—from the regulator, to the company that runs the reactor, to the government and opposition—did their job, and did it well.

This is not a case of the government ordering an unsafe reactor to restart; the reactor works just fine. It is a case, unprecedented in our history, where the government (and opposition parties, I might add) decided to place concerns over medical well-being ahead of concerns over the possibility of a devastating earthquake in Chalk River. No one, including the nuclear regulator, believed or argued that the latter will occur over the next 120 days. After the 120 days, AECL will have to make the safety upgrades the regulator originally demanded.

All the rest—question period accusations, counter-accusations of partisan motives, etc.—is politics as usual. Canada is a Parliamentary democracy. What else should we expect?

U.S. observers should take note. Utilities down south are reaching a tipping point where on-site storage facilities for spent fuel rods are reaching their capacity. The U.S. nuclear regulator might not grant reactor extension licenses unless those on-site storage facilities are relieved. Meanwhile, Yucca Mountain remains unresolved. What will happen if a U.S. utility comes to a point where it cannot get regulatory approval to continue generating electricity?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bawling over Bali: while greens whine, Japan rolls out climate investment plans
Japan has announced it is considering investing $4.5 billion to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Organization of Asia-Pacific News Agencies, this money will be for energy efficiency, new energy sources, and nuclear power.

The Pint of Old Harper on this list is nuclear power, of course. If the Japanese money materializes, that’s where the bulk of it will go. As well it should. Nuclear power is the world’s technological route to substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. Energy efficiency and new energy sources are politically correct drops in the bucket.

The main recipient country will, probably, be China. Japan is still not comfortable with allowing India, the developing country with the next-biggest nuclear investment plans, back into the club of legitimate nuclear nations.

Meanwhile, a chorus of condemnation emanates from mainstream environmentalists the world over. This is in response to the climate discussions in Bali, which have disappointed the greens because the conversation is not sufficiently anti-corporate. If anybody notices Japan’s announcement, they will either commend the energy efficiency and “new energy” components, or condemn the nuclear component. Either way, the greens still don’t get it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Nuclear power and Kyoto: Baird’s guest-list hints at climate strategy
Environment minister John Baird has taken some interesting people with him to the Bali climate discussions. Among them is Elizabeth Dowdeswell, an adviser to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization. As I have pointed out, the countries involved in the Asia-Pacific Partnership are members of another partnership, the GNEP.

What’s the connection? The APP focuses on a technological solution to climate change, rather than Kyoto’s bulky, unwieldy everyone-aboard-one-big-spaceship approach. No technology will reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than nuclear-generated electricity. And if nuclear power is to develop worldwide beyond its current capacity, and it will, then there absolutely must be a safe way to deal with spent fuel from reactors.

Hence GNEP, and Canada’s decision, announced last week, to join it. Whether or not you like GNEP’s central technological proposal—which is to use special reactors to destroy certain dangerous components of spent fuel—you have to agree that there must be close international supervision of the nuclear fuel cycle. And hence Dowdeswell’s presence in Bali. Her organization will be closely involved with spent fuel management in Canada.

But now that Canada is in GNEP, “management” in this country might mean more than directly storing spent fuel in a geologic repository. It might mean reprocessing, i.e., separating plutonium from spent fuel and burning it using either CANDU or fast-neutron technology.

I like the idea of recycling fuel, but we should think hard before we start separating plutonium. It is safer when this stuff is entrained in highly radioactive spent fuel. Separating it from spent fuel requires close monitoring and supervision, which is fine as far as Canada is concerned. But if other countries do the same with their spent fuel, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring responsibilities increase in complexity. South Korea secretly produced small amounts of plutonium in 1982; the IAEA only learned about it in 2004.

On the other hand, disposing of U.S. spent fuel in CANDU reactors (i.e., DUPIC) doesn’t entail separation beyond mechanical reformation of fuel rods. DUPIC spent fuel maintains the radiation shield. I hope Canada hasn’t succumbed to the accepted wisdom which says CANDU won’t sell in the U.S. The situation has changed since AECL’s last failed attempt to sell to a U.S. utility.