Nuclear industry heats up
The rising uranium price, which at the beginning of February was US$37.00/lb U3O8, has made finding and mining uranium 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 acknowledged 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. This 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 favours nuclear power. Nuclear energy is cost-competitive at $0.05 to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour to produce, and sometimes less. 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 16 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 is 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.
An expanded nuclear generating industry will face a few hurdles. 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 9/11 — nuclear power stations must be immune from attack for nuclear energy to be safe.
The nuclear option will probably be popular in 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 would virtually wipe out the coal mining industry in Alberta.
I believe 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. Canada is a big country with a small population offering many possible locations 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.