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Smoke is seen coming from the area of the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan. Some say the disaster is a fresh reminder of the dangers of nuclear power. (Tokyo Electric Power Co./REUTERS)

In anticipation of the 25th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev penned a reflective essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Along with his own memories of the incident, he outlined his position on nuclear power, ultimately coming to the conclusion that it is imperative for the world to wean itself off it.

'The disaster has reawakened this generation to the threats of nuclear power.'—Joshua Pearce, Queen's Univesrity

"We must still be extremely careful when constructing and operating nuclear power plants around the globe today," he said. "In the worst of cases, a nuclear reactor accident may devastate huge territories where little if any human life can exist."

This essay was written before the  disaster  at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, where workers are trying to avoid a serious meltdown following extensive damage to the plant’s cooling systems  by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11. But it sums up the nuclear energy debate that has simmered for years since Chornobyl, and which events in Japan have brought back to a boil.

Joshua Pearce, an assistant professor in the mechanical and materials engineering department at Queen’s University, has studied our proclivity for nuclear power  and says Fukushima has brought back some forgotten fears.

"The disaster has reawakened this generation to the threats of nuclear power," he said. "It really calls into question the need to burden the public with this potential for an enormous calamity."

Nuclear industry drove current need

Pearce says our latest obsession with nuclear power began when the need for non-emitting energy sources became dire.

By the numbers: Nuclear power in Canada

6 — Number of nuclear power plants with a capacity of at least 50 MW in operation in Canada as of 2011. These stations supplied 14.5 per cent of the country's energy needs in 2010.  

75% — France is among the world's top consumers, generating about 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.

436 — The number of nuclear reactors in operation as of late 2009, producing about 15 per cent of global electricity.

9,476 — Tonnes of uranium mined in Saskatchewan, valued at $835 million in 2007. Canada is home to the world's largest reserves of high-grade, low-cost uranium, according to Natural Resources Canada.

85% — Amount of the uranium mined in Canada that is exported.

40 — The number of years Canada's know uranium deposits are expected to last given current extraction rates, though Natural Resources Canada notes there are likely undiscovered deposits.

"We need to find a way to rid ourselves of the majority of fossil fuels, and nuclear energy has already … shown that it can produce large quantities of energy with a relatively low CO2 emission equivalent," Pearce says.

Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, counters that this new nuclear initiative was largely driven by the industry itself.

"About 10 years ago, the nuclear industry started promoting something called the nuclear renaissance," he said. "Nearly 20 years after Chornobyl, the industry started to realize the need to start building reactors again. Otherwise they would disappear, as aging reactors shut down.

"What we've seen over the past 10 years in Ontario, one of the targeted areas, was the promise they [reactors] would be cheap. And that has not materialized."

In 2005, for example, the government of Dalton McGuinty made a commitment to build new reactors at Ontario's Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants, which it estimated would cost about $6 billion. According to Stensil, that estimate has since ballooned to $26 billion.

Moreover, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the country's nuclear body, is in troubled waters  following similar cost overruns at the Point Lepreau facility in New Brunswick.

Ontario has since decided to scrap the Pickering portion of the project and now plans only to build two new reactors at Darlington.

"After that, projects run by companies in New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan all disappeared," he said. "The last [new] project left standing is the Darlington project in Ontario."

If approved, the two new reactors planned for Darlington are expected to go into service in 2018. The province started environmental assessment hearings  on the project in March, days after the earthquake in Japan disrupted the Fukushima plant.

Risk of disaster too great 

Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid maintains that nuclear power is vital to Ontario's energy grid, despite the cost, because it is better than polluting alternatives.

"Ontario needs nuclear power to ensure we have a reliable power grid in this province," he said. "It’s non-emitting, so it's much less harmful to the environment and to our health than coal."

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The control room of reactor No. 4 in the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. ((Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo))

Stensil, however, anticipates that there will be a global chill around nuclear power in the wake of events in Japan, much like there was in the years after Chornobyl. In fact, he says rising costs over the past decade for building reactors have already caused many countries to shy away from further nuclear expansion; similar cost increases were seen in the years leading up to Chornobyl as well.

"Chornobyl was the straw that broke the camel's back for the nuclear industry," he said. "You saw a dramatic drop-off in the completion and construction of new reactors worldwide. That was dependent on the cost and the immense safety risk governments were not willing to take."

Duguid says the Candu reactors  in place at Darlington and Pickering do not pose the kind of safety risks Stensil is talking about.

"Safety is something that is built into our nuclear program," he said. "They're built to withstand anything that mother nature could dish out to them in this part of the world."

Ted Gruetzner, spokesperson for Ontario Power Generation, which operates the Darlington and Pickering plants, agrees with Duguid. But also says the nuclear industry in Ontario and Canada can still learn from what happened in Japan and use the disaster to further improve safety standards.

"What the industry does is to learn from each other," he said. "There are a number of reviews being conducted to figure out what exactly happened and what can we learn from that to bring back to our own facilities to make our safe plants even safer."

'It is necessary to realize that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change.'— Former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev

According to Stensil, these same statements were made following Chornobyl.

"These are called low-probability, high-consequence events," he said. "However, you can't say Japan is not technologically advanced like you could say about the Soviet Union. Japan is a leading country, arguably more technologically advanced than Canada in a lot of ways.

"They told their public they knew they built on an earthquake zone, but that the reactors would be strong enough to withstand these events. And they missed something. That can happen here as well, no matter the design."

Nuclear not the only green alternative

In his essay, Gorbachev acknowledges the global dependence on nuclear power and says it should be treated as an effective alternative to greenhouse gases. However, he also stresses the importance of research in other fields.

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Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said the world needs to wean itself off nuclear power. (Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS)

"Access to affordable and safe energy is vital for economic development and poverty eradication," he said. "We cannot therefore simply reject nuclear energy today with many countries hugely dependent on this energy resource.

"But it is necessary to realize that nuclear power is not a panacea, as some observers allege, for energy sufficiency or climate change."

An Ontario government document says nuclear power represented 52 per cent of the province's electricity output of 157 TWh in 2010, and projects it will represent 46 per cent of the expected 198 TWh output in 2030.

In 2010, the document adds that hydro represented 19 per cent of Ontario's electricity output. Wind power was 2 per cent, and bioenergy was 1 per cent.

Duguid says while Ontario is planning to expand the contribution renewable energy sources make to its power grid  — to 13 per cent by 2018 — that won't lessen the province's dependence on nuclear power.

"There is no reasonable assessment of nuclear power that could conclude it won't be part of long-term power generation," Duguid said. "I have yet to see an alternative that is as clean and that can provide the amount of reliable power that we need at the cost that we will get from nuclear power."

Pearce says this type of thinking is faulty. "The key thing is that would not be some sort of silver bullet," he said. "Nuclear power is so tempting because of the high yield. But you also get a high yield if you put wind and geothermal and solar, and you tie them all together."

Further conversation needed

Although Greenpeace is known for its anti-nuclear stance, Stensil says government officials use this to unfairly dismiss any discussion of the prevalence of nuclear power.

"Whether you're pro-nuke or anti-nuke, we can at least have a discussion about the options," he said. "A portfolio of green energy would be cheaper than building new nuclear plants.

"Those options are there, and they're real, and what the government does, all the time, is they conflate the debate for new reactors with nuclear power in general."

He admits it would be silly to think nuclear power will be fully removed from the province's power grid any time soon, but adds that it's time to start working towards a phase-out of reactors.

"As the plants operate, nuclear power will be in Ontario until 2030," he said. "The decision before us now is how we replace the Pickering nuclear station, and that's our first opportunity to reduce our dependence on nuclear power and the risk of a Fukushima-type accident.

"Unfortunately, that discussion is avoided at every step."