Published: Wednesday, October 08, 2008
The idea of building a nuclear power plant has started to take root in Alberta in the last couple of years. However, some issues need to be looked at in great depth before any more steps are taken down this road.
If the costs aren’t astronomical enough to make Albertans think twice about nuclear power, perhaps the health safety concerns that preoccupy Dr. Helen Caldicott might prove a major source of consternation.
The Nobel Prize nominee was in Calgary this week to raise awareness about the medical issues around nuclear, specifically the untold genetic damage that can take generations to unfold. Unfortunately, the renowned physician was refused a meeting with the government-appointed expert panel preparing an “unbiased” examination for the province, but was to have an audience today with Energy Minister Mel Knight.
It’s important people such as Caldicott are heard. If the Alberta government is to develop a safe and responsible policy for nuclear energy, all sides of this contentious issue must be fully debated.
Let’s start with the costs. Nuclear is the only energy technology that has the double whammy of high up-front and back-end capital costs. That price tag is a big unknown as industry and governments struggle to figure out how to decommission a plant, and deal with its highly radioactive waste over the very long term.
Alberta would be signing up to be the operator of a radioactive dump for years, as nuclear waste falls under the jurisdiction of the province, not the federal government. Before Alberta’s government decides to give nuclear a go-ahead, besides holding a referendum, it needs to get a handle on all hidden costs, including security, monitoring and containment expenses of managing the waste for thousands of years — until the material is no longer radioactive but long after the production life of the plant has ended.
Even the up-front costs are dubious. Bruce Power’s estimate of $10-billion-plus to build a generating complex near Peace River seems low, setting up the potential for taxpayers to subsidize the rest.
The facility will produce up to 4,000 megawatts of power from as many as four reactors. But in the U.S., the estimated cost of just one new reactor typically falls between $8.5 billion US and $14 billion.
In an analysis earlier this year, credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service estimated it would cost $7.5 billion to build a new 1,000-megawatt plant south of the border. That would put the cost of the four reactors proposed for Peace River at $30 billion, begging the question of who will pay the rest.
If the experience of Ontario facilities is any indication, it’s federal taxpayers. They’ve been on the hook for billions of dollars required to correct mechanical problems, maintain old reactors and cover cost overruns.
Several new reactors have been scrapped in Canada after being built, and without ever working, because of problems with the technology. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. shelved a pair of new MAPLE reactors in Ontario after the government-backed project went millions over budget and years behind schedule. “This is a good business decision,” Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn told the House of Commons earlier this year. “This is the right decision for the Canadian taxpayers.” This after more than $300 million was wasted and now it’s going to cost $10 million just to close it down safely.
Does Alberta want to find itself in need of cutting its losses after hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into building a reactor that won’t work? The question of real costs must be determined first, before the province moves in this direction.
Then there are the medical dangers which Caldicott says are life and death. “You don’t make money by doing things that will kill people,” she said during a visit to the Herald editorial board.
Panel chair Harvie Andre says Caldicott is a biased advocate. The panel unanimously agreed it won’t “entertain requests from proponents or opponents of nuclear power.”
In its researching of the report that will form the backbone of the province’s policy on nuclear, the board has “made a decision not to meet with anybody,” Andre told a member of the Herald editorial board Monday.
That’s too bad because Caldicott is passionate and knowledgeable about the subject, with 35 years of experience studying the medical hazards associated with nuclear energy. She’s a physician who understands things like new mutations of recessive genes — such as those caused by nuclear waste. Because they’re recessive, they take up to 20 generations to reveal themselves, she says.
The issue of going nuclear raises important questions that don’t have clear answers. If the public interest is to be protected, medical concerns must be part of the debate, along with hidden costs that so often aren’t properly calculated. Most importantly, the facts must be made available to all Albertans to consider before any decision is made.
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