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RETHINKING NUCLEAR POWER



Published: Fri, June 15, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Toronto Globe and Mail: Two news items this week illustrate the divergence among major Western economic powers on the future of nuclear energy.

Tuesday, the chairman of British Energy, the U.K. power company that recently took over operations of the Bruce nuclear plant in Ontario, said it is considering whether to build new nuclear power facilities in the province.

Just a day earlier, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder signed a deal with major energy companies to shut all 19 of Germany's nuclear plants within 20 years. Germany joins a growing list of European countries abandoning nuclear power.

This divergence of opinion on nuclear power has at its heart a difference in environmental priorities. Environmental goals are not always harmonious, and their costs and benefits must be weighed in the cold light of day.

Greenhouse gases: At an air pollution summit on Monday, Environment Minister David Anderson reiterated Canada's commitment under the Kyoto protocol to slash greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Given that we produce about 13 per cent more greenhouse gases than we did in 1990, we have a huge mountain to climb to meet our Kyoto targets. Nuclear power could help.

Nuclear power generation doesn't emit greenhouse gases. Considering our Kyoto commitments and some of the other options that Canada faces for fuelling new power plants -- most notably heavy polluter coal and no-longer-inexpensive natural gas -- that's a factor that's hard to ignore.

The International Energy Agency, an arm of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, argues in a recent report that Kyoto requirements "could have a dramatic positive effect on the prospects for nuclear power over the coming decades."

Reliable and safe: Nuclear power plants are relatively cheap to operate. Despite the tragedy of Chernobyl, they have generally proved to be reliable and safe. And substantial progress has been made over the past 20 years on storage and disposal of nuclear waste, long a major downside to nuclear energy.

In fact, the IEA said the high cost of constructing nuclear plants, rather than environmental concerns, will be the biggest obstacle to developing more nuclear facilities in the future.

Ontario well knows the crippling expense of nuclear construction, having seen the mountain of debt from government-owned Ontario Hydro's nuclear program. But the introduction of competitive electricity markets will open the door for private companies such as British Energy to take over that financial risk, which they will do under the right market conditions. Assuming the federal government implements tough emissions standards that drive up the cost of other power alternatives, this should create the sort of conditions that make those risks bearable.




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