The rising uranium price, which this week was US$36.50/lb U3O8, has made finding and mining it a priority for many companies. Large and small, they are going over ground in Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland & Labrador, Quebec and several U.S. states. If uranium is seen as a clean fuel for the future, the price will remain strong due to demand.
Ontario’s premier Dalton McGuinty has promised to close all the province’s coal-fired generating plants. The move has been hailed by environmentalists as a way of reducing airborne pollution and greenhouse gases.
To replace the generating capacity of the coal-fired plants, the Ontario government is looking toward nuclear power. Nuclear energy is cost-competitive at $0.05 to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour to produce, and sometimes less. A nuclear plant emits no carbon dioxide; according to information from the Canadian Nuclear Association (at www.can.ca), on average a fossil fuel generating plant emits 5.0 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. CANDU reactors are reliable; they have uptimes of 80% to 95%. All wastes from nuclear plants are accounted for and stored, unlike the smokestack emissions from fossil fuel-fired plants.
Coal-fired plants produced only 17.5% of the electricity generated in Ontario in 2005. Closing them will remove about 7,500 MW of electrical capacity from the grid. The 15 operating nuclear plants supplied 50.2% or 10,700 MW of Ontario’s power needs last year. Hydroelectric projects supplied 25.6% of the power needs, but the number of sites for future hydro development are limited. Natural gas-fired generating plants, which supplied 6.5% of the power demand, are cleaner than coal-fired plants, but the cost of natural gas is rising quickly as supplies shrink.
Only a few problems face an expanded nuclear generating industry. One is the need to provide secure storage for spent fuel. The spent fuel is radioactive and will remain that way for thousands of years. The second is the huge capital costs for building and servicing nuclear plants. Planners count in billions of dollars for such projects. The third has been apparent since 9/11nuclear power stations have to be immune from attack for nuclear power to be safe.
The nuclear option will probably be popular Ontario, but not in the Prairie Provinces. There the majority of electricity is produced by coal-fired plants located within trucking distance of the mines. To replace coal-fired with nuclear capacity in those cases would be cost-prohibitive and virtually wipe out the coal mining industry in Alberta.
Nuclear power is also the topic of heated debate in Europe. Many governments are divided over whether nuclear plants should be allowed to continue operating. Fear of a catastrophic accident in a densely populated area and the need to provide long-term storage for spent fuel are part of the discussion. The industry also suffers from the association of uranium with military applications.
I am a believer in using nuclear energy to meet the increasing demands of Canadian consumers. My father worked nearly three decades testing reactor configurations for safe, reliable and efficient design. I know they can be operated safely, and our CANDU reactors are among the safest in the world. Canada is a big country with a small population offering many options for generating and fuel storage facilities away from large urban centres. We mine more uranium than any other country, so the security of supply and transport are not an issue. And we are a peaceful country. Canada is a signatory to protocols that prohibit the sale of uranium for military purposes.