About the Speaker

Dr. Bob Morrison has served for 17 years as Director General, Uranium and Nuclear Energy, Natural Resources Canada, and worked as a consultant with numerous organizations, including the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, Foreign Affairs, Ontario Hydro, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization, and the Belgian government. In 2008 he was a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s expert panel studying international approaches to sensitive fuel cycle technologies. At Carleton University his teaching has ranged from courses in physics and science to risk management and life cycle analysis. Today Dr. Morrison is a prominent expert in the arena of nuclear energy.

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

This presentation is one of an ongoing series of lectures on aspects of sustainable energy which are part of the Master’s program in Sustainable Energy, organized by the Carleton Research Unit in Innovation, Science and Environment (CRUISE) and the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC). The lecture series was established in 2010, and since then has covered diverse topics ranging from examinations of the sustainability of nuclear power, to Aboriginal energy projects in Canada, and the ability to catalyze action on climate change.

Nuclear Energy in Context

The past decade has been replete with rumblings of a third nuclear renaissance; volatile oil prices, growing energy demand, and fears of anthropogenic climate change have created a favourable environment for increased nuclear energy development. In arguing for a low-carbon future, proponents of nuclear energy have been promoting the mantra that ‘nuclear power alone may not get us there, but we will not get there without it.’ Indeed, nuclear power offers the distinct advantage of generating vast amounts of baseload electricity – exactly the type needed by states like China and India to successfully metamorphose into industrialized nations. Due to the nature of electrical loads, one needs base load, intermediate load and peak load. In industrializing economies where the factories or offices run 24/7, you may need a higher proportion of base load. However, the construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear facilities is hampered by significant financial barriers, questions of operational safety, costs of fuel procurement and storage, environmental concerns, and threats of arms proliferation. Further, challenges abound regarding the full life-cycle of nuclear energy. Dr. Morrison’s lecture, Nuclear Energy: Dead or Alive?,  highlights the breadth of these challenges and, in doing so, strives to answer a complex and critical question: how does nuclear fit into our global energy future?

Today’s Energy Challenges

According to the IEA’s 2011 World Energy Outlook, our energy future will be characterized by rising global energy demand as a result of rapid industrialization of developing nations, and rising emissions from the use of fossil fuels exacerbating anthropogenic global warming. These two phenomena are intrinsically linked, as nations like China and India rely heavily on fossil fuels – a significant source of GHG emissions – to meet their soaring electricity needs. Today, fossil fuels account for roughly 80% of global energy production: 32% from oil, 27% from coal, and 21% from natural gas. Although the global total is predicted to fall to 62% by the year 2035, the amount of coal-generated electricity is still increasing significantly in absolute terms, mainly due to expanded industrial production throughout Asia, where it remains the backbone of power generation.

Coupled with this challenge is the looming threat of runaway global warming as a result of increased GHG emissions. According to BP’s Energy Outlook 2030, global CO2 emissions from energy use are expected to continue rising, from just over their current annual total of 30 billion tonnes, to roughly 40 billion tonnes by the year 2030. Concurrently, the IEA has predicted a tipping point of 450 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2, beyond which the planet becomes locked into a 2ºC surface temperature rise, widely held to be the point of no return for global climate as we know it.

To remain below the IEA’s 450 ppm ceiling, annual CO2 emissions would have to drop to pre-2000 levels by 2030, that is to say to 20 billion tonnes annually, or be slashed by 50% of their projected 2030-levels. Most disturbingly, if we continue operating under the business-as-usual model, simply maintaining the status quo of energy production, then by 2017 all CO2 emissions permitted in the 450 scenario will be accounted for by already-existing infrastructure. Yet, in the next 20 years, the global population is expected to grow by 80 million people annually, with global energy demand rising in lockstep by 1.6% annually. Given this reality, we are simply running out of time to implement appropriate strategies to steer us clear of that 450 ppm ceiling.

The Future of Nuclear Energy

Since nuclear energy can be used to effectively generate baseload electricity, it is thus capable of displacing the use of fossil fuels and the consequent release of GHG emissions. Today there is talk of embracing nuclear energy in an effort to curb GHG emissions, and France is often pointed to as the golden standard for countries aiming to do so – of its roughly 550 TWh of annual electricity demand, close to 450 TWh is met via nuclear generation. Yet, this conversation permeates with an air of uncertainty and distrust – the recent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima and the never-too-distant memory of Chernobyl provide stark reminders of what can go wrong when nuclear power is mismanaged.

In light of these two calamities, risk assessment offers a critical tool in the planning stages of nuclear development. Devising and implementing nuclear policy is a political responsibility, and in politics perception is reality. Numerous factors influence human perception of risk, including probability and consequence; nuclear calamities of the past have been of low probability but of high impact, occurring infrequently but having catastrophic outcomes. Since these are unique events, we have less understanding of them, and of their likelihood. As a result of this trend, some countries – Japan, Germany, and France among others – have vowed to scale back their nuclear programs, or to phase them out altogether. Others – Russia, China, and the United States – have taken a measured risk and continue to push forward with plans to bring numerous reactors online in the near future. In taking drastically different approaches towards achieving energy security, these countries exemplify the polarizing nature of the nuclear energy debate.

Discussion Summary

Not surprisingly, much discussion following Dr. Morrison’s presentation was centered on the fallout of previous disasters and potential mitigating strategies which would prevent future accidents, both natural and man-made. A number of experts in the audience contributed. In the case of Fukushima, it was suggested that Japanese authorities did not take the necessary precautions and that the accident was culturally-induced, or “made in Japan.” This lends credibility to the theory that despite being triggered by natural occurrences, the disaster could have been prevented had there been appropriate management policy and safety culture.  While the tsunami and the Japanese cultural response were both unique, they should not be used as excuses for other countries to be complacent.  If there were a serious nuclear accident in Canada, it would undoubtedly have uniquely Canadian aspects and impacts. Evidently, the Fukushima accident will have crucial implications for the development of future nuclear policy and management.

Notwithstanding their energy-generating potential, the recent development of many nuclear facilities in the West has been undermined by financial setbacks. A major point of discussion was the cost overruns of both new build and rebuild projects in Canada and other Western countries. In juxtaposition, this problem was contrasted with the situation in some developing countries where it was suggested there is a track record of building facilities on time and on budget. Specifically, it was argued that China’s developments do not face costly overruns although questions were raised in the discussion about the transparency and veracity of China’s financial reporting. Differences in regulatory procedures, labour costs, and levels of stakeholder involvement were also offered as potential reasons why.

By and large, today’s reactors are fueled with uranium, which is found in abundance in the Earth’s crust. The full life-cycle costs of the mining, conversion, enrichment, and storage of uranium are difficult to quantify; externalities do not come with a price tag. Moreover, difficulties in regulating these aspects further elucidate the bipolar nature of nuclear energy development in Canada. Here, uranium is the most extensively regulated of all mined heavy metals; unfortunately, due to the multinational scope of nuclear fuel production – mining may occur in one country, refining in another, burning in a third, and storage in a fourth – and the variance from country to country of environmental and safety laws, it is difficult to enforce regulatory policies. Similarly, questions regarding the environmental consequences of fuel procurement remained unanswered. However, it was noted that the uranium companies in northern Saskatchewan have made significant efforts to include native peoples among their employees and contractors.

Finally, nuclear infrastructure presents a potential vulnerability in a country’s national defense. Since 9/11, the fear of a terrorist attack disrupting a centralized energy grid by knocking out a nuclear facility has garnered growing attention. However, according to Dr. Morrison, nuclear facilities represent an unrealistic target for terrorist activity – they are heavily guarded, well-monitored, and rarely the site of significant weapons-grade materials.

More realistically, it was suggested that nuclear infrastructure is vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate, as extreme weather events can disrupt their continued functioning. Reactor cores operate at very high temperatures and thus require extensive water-cooling mechanisms to avoid meltdown. Often drawing on nearby ocean water means that facilities can be inundated in the event of sea level rise; meanwhile, heat waves can raise the temperature and deplete the level of water in nearby lakes and rivers to the point where it can no longer be used to cool a reactor core, and facilities need to be shut down for the duration of a hot spell.

Final Thoughts

Nuclear Energy: Dead or Alive? analyzed the prospects of nuclear energy as an energy source, both locally and abroad, and in the near-term and more distant future. Despite their international scope and import, many of today’s challenges inherent in nuclear energy development hit close to home: for example, Ontario generates more than half of its electricity from nuclear power. Dr. Morrison’s presentation brought to light the pros and cons of nuclear energy in a clear and concise manner, and offered potential solutions to several of its most critical challenges, but questions remain about the financial liabilities of nuclear development at home and abroad.

Written by Mark Bolotenko and Patrick Pickering, students in the Masters of Sustainable Energy Policy Program.

To view a PDF of Dr. Morrison’s presentation, click here.