While the media focuses on greenhouse gases, global warming, and clean air, possibly the most devastating, and costly threat to the environment slides stealthily under the radar. Radioactive waste produced by 16 Canadian nuclear reactors is still stored on-site, which means, for example, that the waste at Pickering is accumulating in a toxic, radioactive cesspool surrounded by concrete, less than 50 kilometers from the largest city in Canada.
Ontario Power Genera-tion (OPG) is storing – and has done so for more than 4 decades – one of the most lethal and toxic wastes ever created, right here in our backyards, primarily because they have no idea what to do with it.
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering why our government continually chooses to back nuclear power, when what the public ultimately wants is renewable energy. As a business investment, nuclear continually underperforms. In fact, when all costs (including disposal of toxic waste) are taken into consideration, the price of nuclear escalates to such a degree that it makes a bad business investment. Private investors have stayed completely away from the nuclear power industry since its inception. But I think there is much more at play than meets the public eye. Both the history of power generation and the politics surrounding alternative energy in this country play a huge part.
The history of the OPG is one filled with grand schemes promoted by power-hungry (excuse the pun) tyrants relying on an atmosphere of desperation and stupidity.
In the 1970s Ontario decided to base its future on nuclear energy. My guess is that the Nuclear Power Association presented a sly, polished, and legitimate-sounding “business” model to a government frustrated by environmental lobbyists pressuring it to stop building hydro facilities.
Nuclear sold itself then as it does today – as a “clean” alternative with little impact on the environment. Prop-aganda has a way of slithering into popular culture, distorting the truth, and the machine behind the nuclear movement is well oiled. Over time, as the actual costs have surfaced, nuclear proves to be far more expensive than estimated. One can only hope that the environmental risks haven’t been severely underestimated as well.
Today there are only a few environmentalists in Canada who have managed to build successful businesses in the energy industry, and I imagine that in the 1970s they were virtually non-existent and probably half stoned. It’s one thing to be an environmentalist and an entirely different thing to run a reliable energy company capable of providing a necessity to thousands of Canadians. The government then didn’t have much choice but to accept the recommendations of Ontario Hydro (now OPG) and hope for the best.
Last year’s Pembina Report estimated that “About 85,000 used fuel bundles are generated every year by Canadian nuclear reactors.” It goes on to explain that, “When a spent fuel rod is removed from a CANDU nuclear reactor, it is extremely radioactive: an unprotected person standing within a metre of such a bundle would die within an hour.”
Although radioactivity decreases with time, it takes about one million years for the level of radioactivity of spent fuel to return to that of natural uranium. Used nuclear fuel also has the potential to release chemically toxic elements, including heavy metals.
With so much focus put on clean air and greenhouse gases, nuclear power provides little more than a simulacrum offering a quick, expensive, and non-renewable stopgap. What’s needed now are a few good ideas, accompanied by some great business plans, and some savvy business types to implement them with the same amount of support and backing this government is giving to the nuclear power industry.