David Staples: Want to whip climate change? Go nuclear, says Alberta advocate

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Want to whip climate change? It’s time to embrace the nuclear option, which is, in fact, nuclear power.

So argues Alberta’s most enthusiastic advocate for nuclear power, engineer Sean Wagner, who runs the Alberta Nuclear Nucleus blog to educate folks on the benefits of nuclear energy.

Alberta uses 10 to 11 gigawatts of electrical power each day. A nuclear plant will produce 0.5 to 1.3 gigawatts per day. So with about a dozen such plants we’d meet all of Alberta’s electrical needs with essentially zero carbon emissions, Wagner said.

Many people pride themselves on being radical and daring thinkers, but Wagner, 29, actually fills that bill. He’s making arguments that go against status quo thinking, namely the widespread progressive notion that the only way to fight climate change is to go with solar and wind power taking over from fossil fuels.

For example, the current poster person of progressive opinion, U.S. congressional leader Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has spread fears that the world will end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change, but in her Green New Deal there’s no support for new nuclear energy. Nor will you find mainstream environmental groups like Greenpeace pushing for nuclear energy.

Wagner has always been enthusiastic about solar power’s potential. But while studying for his master’s degree in nanotechnology and materials engineering at the University of Alberta he came to realize just how inefficient solar energy is compared to nuclear energy, especially for a place like Alberta, which gets little sunlight in the winter.

At the same time, he realized how advanced new nuclear reactors could be in terms of safety and producing a stable and massive supply of electrical energy over many decades.

The best commercial solar panels are inefficient at turning sunlight into energy and we’ve only developed batteries strong enough to power a city for minutes, not even hours, Wagner said. Solar panels simply aren’t capable of powering a winter city on a dark day, or to provide the abundant energy needed for gigantic industrial projects, like a cement plant or an oil refinery.

Solar panels take up as much as 100 times more land per gigawatt of energy produced than a nuclear plant. Cutting edge solar panels are also laden with polluting heavy metals.

The meltdown scares around the nuclear industry have pushed us away from this technology, but they also pushed the nuclear industry to focus on safety and to deal with waste material in a way that no other energy industry comes close to approaching, Wagner said.

“All the fear about radiation has made us very, very good at understanding radiation and how to stop it.”

New reactors, such as molten salt reactors, are being designed to shut down automatically whenever a problem arises. “The entire purpose of these Generation 4 reactor designs are what are called, ‘Walk Away Safe.’ You could turn them on and then have everyone leave the building. And they would just plug along until, if something went wrong, they would shut themselves down.”

Nuclear waste is now safely stored in 100-tonne storage casks, multi-layered concrete and steel drums filled with inert gases, Wagner said.

Canada has five plants with 22 nuclear reactors, most of them in Ontario, which produce 15 per cent of the nation’s electricity. Because of the fear around nuclear energy — partly driven by a few high-profile disasters at plants but also due to conflation with people’s fear of atomic bombs — Canada hasn’t opened a new reactor since 1993. Plans for an Alberta reactor near Peace River were shelved in 2011.

It will be expensive for Canada to get back into constructing reactors, Wagner said. But when it comes to reasonable ways to combat climate change, nuclear is the only known option that will work.

The world’s global energy needs are huge right now, about 14,000 to 15,000 gigawatts per day, he said. This consumption is only going to grow.

There’s just not enough free space for all the solar panels, wind turbines and transmission lines it would take to meet that demand, Wagner said. “To really combat global warming we need to intensify our electricity generation. We need to make it as productive as possible in the smallest amount of area because we’re going to need a lot of area no matter what we use.”

Would he himself live next to a nuclear plant or storage facility?

“Without a second thought. I understand that nuclear radiation is understood. We know how to block it. We can model it’s behaviour and model how it works with, basically, unnerving accuracy. So I’m perfectly safe outside of a nuclear storage facility or a nuclear plant.”



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February 27, 2019 |

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