Monday, April 28, 2008

GNEP in doubt: implications for Canada’s nuclear plans
Canada joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) in late 2007, under somewhat ambiguous terms. The GNEP is a U.S.-led international effort to promote nuclear power while ensuring strict control over the proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle.

GNEP envisions two types of members: fuel-cycle states, and fuel-recipient states. Fuel cycle states will provide enriched uranium fuel to recipient states, and will take back the spent fuel for possible reprocessing. Recipient states are thereby guaranteed a supply of fuel for their reactors and spared the fuss and expense of manufacturing fresh fuel and storing highly radioactive spent fuel.

Control over the fuel cycle will, in theory, minimize the number of states possessing proliferation-sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

Canada’s role in GNEP, as I discussed back in September, is interesting. We currently don’t use enriched fuel in our power reactors (all current CANDUs use natural unenriched fuel). But we soon will. Whichever reactors Ontario decides to buy, they will require either slightly- or low-enriched fuel.

Does this mean we would “lease” enriched fuel from one of the fuel-cycle countries under GNEP? Not necessarily. With last week’s announcement that the U.S. will no longer oppose Canada’s plan to enrich uranium, Canada is closer to getting the green light from the Nuclear Suppliers Group to develop its own enrichment facilities. If that were to occur, Canadian companies could sell enriched fuel to an Ontario nuclear utility. And we could also be on the verge of becoming, at least potentially, a fuel cycle state in the GNEP.

This is where it gets really interesting. If Canada were to supply enriched fuel to a recipient state, GNEP, in its original two-tier incarnation, would have obliged us to deal with that state’s spent fuel. However, when we joined GNEP our Natural Resources minister, Gary Lunn, said Canada will not—repeat not—receive other countries’ spent fuel. So presumably Canada-origin spent fuel would go to a full fuel cycle state for reprocessing, or to another state that is willing to host a spent-fuel repository.

Well, the ultimate fuel cycle state is the good old U.S. But GNEP’s crucial reprocessing component, which would see fast reactors destroying the fissile material in spent fuel, is quickly losing its appeal among the congressmen and senators who control the funding dollars on which the entire enterprise depends. As for the spent-fuel repository, even Yucca Mountain’s strongest congressional supporters are starting to talk about alternatives.

If the fast-burner GNEP dies, Canada would either have to abandon its no-repatriation position or just forget about supplying enriched fuel to any country other than itself and full fuel-cycle GNEP members. The second scenario is the more likely.

Once again, the U.S. is our biggest potential market. Oh well, there are worse things that could happen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Winter pays big power dividend: Ontario emissions plummet as snowmelt jacks hydro output
Like many others, I cursed last winter’s massive snow dumps when I was driving, and blessed them when I was skiing.

And now, with most of the snow gone, I’m blessing them again. That’s because I’m watching winter’s second big payoff in near real-time, as all that melting snow starts thundering through Ontario’s 60-odd hydro generating facilities.

How has this affected the emissions from the provincial electricity system? Emissions are way down, of course: they would be even if only average amounts of snow had fallen during the 2007–2008 winter. That’s because of the generally moderate temperatures, which have resulted in daily system load in the neighborhood of 420 million kWh, compared with around 480 million in March. This reduced demand translates into daily emissions that have not exceeded 123,000 tonnes in April, as opposed to totals that went above 139,000 tonnes in March. At this rate, April’s emissions will have been roughly 480,000 tonnes less than March’s.

Reduced demand plays a part in that, but so does the increase in hydro’s contribution to the supply mix. As I write this (two p.m. on Tuesday, April 22), hydro was putting nearly 5,900 megawatts into Ontario’s system. Collectively, the provincial non-emitting generation sources (hydro’s 5,900 MW, plus over 8,600 MW from the nuclear plants, and the whopping 50 MW from wind) accounted for over 77 percent of Ontario’s electricity.

This meant power-sector emissions were 3,800 tonnes in the hour between 2 and 3 p.m. today, over 1,000 tonnes less than in the corresponding hour on March 22 (which was a Saturday). Not bad for Earth Day in a heavily industrialized jurisdiction like Ontario.

And here’s something else to think about. If Darlington unit 1, Bruce unit 4, and Pickering units 7 and 8 had been available at two p.m. today, then over 90 percent of Ontario’s power would have come from non-emitting sources. In that scenario, power sector emissions between 2 and 3 p.m. would have been 1,300 tonnes, nearly one-third of the 3,800 they actually were.

Anybody who advocates meeting our Kyoto emission reduction targets and is anti-nuclear should explain how else we could achieve this kind of emission reduction. Anti-nuclear Kyotophiles will surely point to wind power as a big part of the answer. But as I mentioned above, at two p.m. today wind was only putting 50 MW—not even 11 percent of the provincial installed capacity—into the system.

They built all those windmills, and the wind didn’t show up.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Earth Hour Ontario post mortem: what the numbers tell us
I mentioned on March 30, and it bears repeating: Ontario electricity output increased during Earth Hour. Some media stories claimed that there were decreases in power consumption in cities like Toronto and Ottawa during the big event, and they may be right (though the cynic in me suspects they are not). But make no mistake: Ontario generators collectively produced more electricity in that time.

More to the point, since we are talking about Earth Hour, and Earth Hour was supposed to encourage environment-friendly behavior, generators in the province put nearly 4,500 tonnes of emissions into the air during Earth Hour, up from just over 4,200 the previous hour.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Earth Hour participation in Ontario was weak. It does seem to have been a popular event; it was widely covered in the media, and I personally know many people who participated. For all I know, this part of it may have been a success. But if provincial generation and generation emissions increased in spite of this high uptake, what does that say?

It might say that the way in which people were urged to cut consumption—turning off lights for an hour—was perhaps not the one most likely to produce decisive results. I pointed out on March 30 that much better results would have occurred had people voluntarily curtailed consumption for one hour beginning at 5 p.m. the day before, which was a Friday. Power-sector emissions in the hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. that day were over 5,400 tonnes.

But how realistic is it to expect people to cut consumption at 5 on a Friday afternoon? Not very. And that’s the whole problem with the emphasis on cutting consumption as the way to help the environment. It disrupts our normal economic and leisure activity. Some would argue that this is good. After all, power output in Ontario was just over 478 million kWh on February 18, 2008, the inaugural Family Day. That was eight percent more than the previous day, which was a Sunday, and 12 percent less than the following day, a normal working Tuesday.

Was the loss in economic productivity worth the 52,000 tonnes of emissions that were “avoided” during Family Day? Perhaps. But the last day in February, a working Friday, saw power output of 442 million kWh, eight percent less than Family Day. Surprisingly, power sector emissions were 26 percent higher on February 29 than February 18. If the 29th’s lower power output were the result of a public campaign to curtail consumption, there would have been no payoff in emissions reductions, which was the whole point of Earth Hour.

A much more effective and less disruptive way to cut power sector emissions in Ontario would be to simply add more non-emitting generation to the provincial system. The Ontario government is actually taking steps to make this happen, with the request for proposals to add 3,500 megawatts of new nuclear capacity. This is a good move, and we could use more.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

India’s nuclear expansion: climate change and the Great Game
Climate change and nuclear weapons proliferation are the biggest dangers facing humanity. The two issues are inextricably and dramatically linked in the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal.

In its drive to industrialize, India will need enormous amounts of electricity. As in many other major economies in the world, most of India’s new power will come from two main sources: nuclear and coal. More nuclear means less coal, and vice versa. If we, the developed world, want developing economies to expand without massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions becoming a permanent fixture of these economies, we have to encourage expansion of nuclear. Otherwise, coal will predominate and efforts to curb global GHG emissions will be futile.

The situation is already urgent. India suffers from chronic shortages of fuel for its 17 existing power reactors. Electricity output from the reactors was 10 percent less last year than in the year before. This is no way to expand an economy. Hence the urgency with which the Indian government is trying to finalize the deal with the Americans. It faces a formidable challenge from its leftist coalition partners, whose opposition to the deal threatens to at least delay it by a few years.

Of course, the rollout of nuclear power in the developing world has to take place within strict non-proliferation rules. Nuclear trade has to be for peaceful purposes only.

This is where it gets interesting. India is also a nuclear weapons state and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It joined the weapons club in 1974 without the club’s permission (see article), and has been barred from the international civilian nuclear trade ever since.

For strategic reasons, the U.S. badly wants India as an ally. America’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, especially since September 11, has led to diplomatic and military maneuvering in what has become the latest round of the Great Game—the international struggle for influence in Greater Central Asia. Good relations with the greatest power in South Asia will help immeasurably in dealing with Iran. Civilian nuclear trade is the vehicle through which the U.S. hopes to solidify the rapprochement with India. Other weapons states—especially Russia and France—feel the same way, so if the deal is successful India will be an accepted member of the nuclear weapons club and will have international help in expanding its nuclear power sector.

Allowing nuclear trade with India requires significant changes in rules, policies, and legislation in many countries, and it requires those countries’—including Canada’s—permission. This is a huge and ambitious diplomatic undertaking. If successful, it will be a major step forward on both climate change and non-proliferation.

Canada appears ready to support the deal. If and when it comes to a vote in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Canada’s position could become a public issue in this country. Regardless of its salience in our public discourse, our stance on India’s nuclear expansion is a momentous decision. Together with our presence in Afghanistan, it will define the nature of our relationship with the post-9/11 diplomatic world.

Whether we like it or not, Canada is playing the Great Game.