The World Energy Council has rated Canada the third-best country in the world for energy sustainability, behind only Sweden and Switzerland. Almost simultaneously, Climate Action Network released its annual Climate Change Performance Index, on which Canada placed fourth worst, beating out Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
The question arises, why doesn’t our sustainable use of energy produce better results on reducing climate change? Don’t the two go hand-in-hand?
To some extent the discrepancy may be explained by methodology. While the Climate Action Network study “examines current emissions levels, development of emissions, renewable energy, efficiency, and climate policy” the World Energy Council’s conclusions were, according to a report from the Tyee, “in part based off more than 40 interviews with energy industry CEOs and senior executives, including from oil and gas pipeline firms Enbridge and TransCanada.”
Setting aside the question of whether 40 oil execs are the right group to ask whether the country is doing a good job on the sustainability file, what led the WEC to conclude that tar sands-exporting, gas-guzzling, Kyoto-rejecting Canada is a world leader in energy sustainability? There were a number of factors. For one thing, one of our 10 provinces, B.C., has a carbon tax, which our prime minister considers “dumb.” For another, our patent office has issued a fairly high number of “clean energy” patents. Most significant of all, perhaps, is that much of Canada’s electrical needs are served by clean, efficient, nuclear power.
The notion of nuclear energy as clean and green is a relatively new one. Until recently, it was generally believed that a power plant which produces 20 tonnes a year of the most toxic substance on Earth, in a form that will remain toxic for more than 200,000 years, was a dirty source of energy.
Modern research, however, has shown that by simply ignoring the existence of plutonium-239 and a host of other ghastly toxins, and focusing on the fact that nuclear fission itself produces no greenhouse gas emissions, it’s possible to identify nuclear power as sustainable and green. George W. Bush, speaking to power plant workers in 2005, summed it up like this: “The 103 nuclear power plants in America produce 20 per cent of the nation’s electricity without producing a single pound of air pollution or greenhouse gases.”
In her 2006 book Nuclear Power Is Not The Answer, doctor and author Helen Caldicott dissects the belief that using nuclear energy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down global warming. Starting at the supply end, she examines the quantity of hydrocarbons used to mine uranium, then to transport it from remote mines to major cities, where nuclear plants tend to be.
She looks at the construction cost of nuclear power stations, not in dollars but in real costs, like hydrocarbon consumption and greenhouse gas production. She takes into account the fuel used in refining uranium, in storing and transporting nuclear waste, and in constructing storage sites.
The title of Caldicott’s book is a pretty clear clue to its conclusion. As she states in her introduction, “Nuclear energy creates significant greenhouse gases and pollution today, and is on a trajectory to produce as much as conventional sources of energy within the next one or two decades.”
As existing uranium mines are played out, she finds, we will be forced to go farther afield, mining weaker veins, extending the supply chain, and increasing fossil fuel consumption. As the high-grade uranium ore gets used up, refining costs will grow. She concludes that “within 10 to 20 years, nuclear reactors will produce no net energy because of the massive amounts of fossil fuel that will be necessary to mine and to enrich the remaining poor grades of uranium.”
Even these figures don’t reflect the true cost of nuclear power. A recently released study found that men living near a nuclear waste disposal site in Saxony, Germany have twice the normal rate of leukemia, and women are at three times the risk of thyroid cancer. In the event of a nuclear accident, those figures skyrocket. The Chernobyl disaster has been linked to 50,000 cases of thyroid cancer, and people living downwind of the Three Mile Island accident report 10 times the average rate of leukemia.
Forty oil executives might believe that Canada’s partial reliance on nuclear power is an example of energy sustainability. They’re wrong. As Caldicott points out, “If the entire world’s electricity production were replaced today by nuclear energy, there would be less than nine more years of accessible uranium.” Nine years of electricity and 200 millennia of toxic waste. Does that sound like sustainability to you?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.