March 19, 2011
The Globe and Mail
444 Front St.
Re: "Keep building nuclear plants" (March 19, 2011)
A team of researchers from York University and the University of Waterloo recently undertook a sustainability assessment of the major electricity supply options available to Ontario, including nuclear, coal, natural gas (conventional and unconventional), a range of renewables, and energy conservation and demand management. The study employed criteria related to social, economic and biophysical impacts, the distribution of risks and impacts in the present and future, resiliance and adaptive capacity, and democratic governance. The major conclusions, published in the leading international journal Energy Policy last August, were that nuclear and coal preformed equally poorly, although for different reasons. Greenhouse Gas emissions, air pollution and permanent upstream landscape distrubance emerged as key considerations for coal, while accident, cost, security and weapons proliferation risks, along with extemely hazardous and long-lived up and downstream waste streams were the critical challenges for nuclear. In the result, neither offers an attractive option for environmentally and economically sustainable global energy supplies in the long-term.
In contrast, energy consevation and demand management performed extremely well on all criteria. Renewables also performed well, with some variation depending on the specific technologies. This is good news, as it highlights the potential to avoid the no-win nuclear vs. coal trade-off, particularly given the very high energy intensity of emerging economies like those of India and China and consequent potential for major efficiency gains. Moreover, last year more power capacity was added in the United States and Europe from renewable energy sources than coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas combined. Rapid growth in renewables is occuring developing economies as well, where serious questions exist about whether large centralized electricity systems represent the best way to meet the energy needs of their citizens.
The Japanese nuclear disaster has renewed the debate of the best path to global energy sustainability. Unfortunately the kind of emotional, 'we have no choice but nuclear' nihilism suggested by Doug Saunders' article does little to contribute to the debate.