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In this photo from a footage of a live camera released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), black smoke billows from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan,Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News)
In this photo from a footage of a live camera released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), black smoke billows from the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan,Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News)

Neil Reynolds

What is the right size for nuclear power? Add to ...

Somewhat ironically, Premier Brad Wall now says Saskatchewan will probably prohibit the federal government from building a nuclear-waste dump anywhere in his province - which supplies 20 per cent of the world's uranium, worth more than $1-billion a year. "Frankly," Mr. Wall said a few days ago, "what's happened in Japan has got people thinking."

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Well, better late than never. Before people got thinking, Mr. Wall had reserved judgment, leaving open the possibility that two million highly radioactive bundles of spent nuclear fuel rods would one day be carted from Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick to an underground depository in Northern Saskatchewan.

His decision will make it harder for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), the federal agency responsible for selecting the dump site, to find an adequately receptive province - and an adequately isolated town - willing to assume responsibility for Canada's nuclear waste for hundreds of years. Two months earlier, The Canadian Press reported that the NWMO had identified only seven interested towns: three in Northern Saskatchewan and four in Northern Ontario. The NWMO can now short-list the four in Ontario (though what's happened in Japan may yet get people thinking in Ontario, too).

The federal government decided in 2007 that it would build a single centralized dump, deep underground, to hold the country's nuclear waste - at a cost that could hit $24-billion in the first 100 years alone. The economic spinoff for the town that takes the dump would be enormous: Among other benefits, it would gain 1,000 jobs. By centralizing the dump, the government simultaneously centralized the economic benefits, making the deal look as much bribe as economic boon.

But then centralization is mostly what's gone wrong with nuclear power from the beginning. Always an intimate collaboration of science, industry and government, nuclear power remained primarily a Cold War military enterprise for decades. This wasn't how atoms-for-peace was supposed to develop. A few weeks ago, Time magazine vividly recalled the original vision: "Nuclear-powered cars! Nuclear-powered airplanes! Nuclear-powered fridges and freezers! In the heady days of the 1950s, nuclear optimists imagined a world powered by tiny nuclear reactors." It was now perhaps time, the magazine said, "to dust off these old dreams."

The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe has, indeed, got people thinking - as Mr. Wall demonstrated. Saskatchewan is in no position to deny all responsibility for Canada's nuclear waste, of course: It's a bit rich for the province to plead NIMBY. It can hardly assert a right to exploit the most profitable uranium reserves in the world and simultaneously refuse to dispose of some part of the ensuing waste.

Fukushima, however, may well mark the beginning of the end of centralized nuclear power. Significantly, Mr. Wall pledges that Saskatchewan will now begin "a new nuclear option" - based on small decentralized reactors. In the 1960s and 1970s, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. produced its celebrated SLOWPOKE reactors, the size of shoeboxes, mostly for research purposes. A SLOWPOKE could heat a bathtub of water - without needing end-time surveillance - nuclear power on a human scale.

Hundreds of uses now exist for advanced micro-reactors. The nuclear industry is on the verge of producing relatively safe, tiny and commercially insurable nuclear reactors - nuclear batteries, really. Hyperion Power Generation (a spinoff from the U.S. government's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico) has off-the-shelf reactors of this kind under performance review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Global companies such as Toshiba, Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox are either narrowly ahead or close behind.

These next-generation devices are nuclear with a difference: They're inherently much safer. "The smaller the reactor, the easier it is to make it safe," says Jeremy Whitlock, a nuclear physicist and former president of the Canadian Nuclear Society. "These are power plants you don't need a nuclear PhD to run." They apparently produce one-40th of the radioactive waste of conventional nuclear-power plants.

These reactors can be small - or tiny. An off-the-shelf reactor for electricity production - for, say, 20,000 homes - might be as big as a refrigerator (and cost $100-million versus $6-billion, plus colossal cost overruns, for a conventional nuclear-power plant). Alternatively, a nuclear reactor for consumer-product purposes might be as small as a penny. The right size for nuclear power, in a word, is downsize.

 

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