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Getting nervous about nuclear power Add to ...

"So the renaissance was already in some difficulty before this happened, but this is clearly taking it to a new level."

How is the Global Nuclear Industry Responding to Fukushima?

Though no one in the industry wants to publicly blame Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns Fukushima, they will point out that the plant was 40 years old and was not built to withstand the devastating combination of massive earthquake and giant tsunami that overwhelmed its emergency systems. Ontario Power Generation chief executive Tom Mitchell is chairing a committee of the World Association of Nuclear Operators to examine the Fukushima accident and offer recommendations to the industry.

Around the world, regulators have ordered operators to reassess their safety systems. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that nearly a third of the country's 104 nuclear plants are ill-prepared to meet serious and simultaneous emergencies.

In a report to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission filed last Friday, Ontario Power Generation, the provincially owned utility, said there were "no significant safety issues requiring immediate corrective or compensatory measures" at its Darlington and Pickering stations east of Toronto. But it added it would reduce the risk of fire by speeding up the installation of equipment needed to vent hydrogen, the buildup of which caused explosions that were a significant factor in the disaster at Fukushima. OPG will also review the way it stores contaminated fuel rods to lessen the risk should fire break out.

Industry officials point out that new reactors have safety features that did not exist at Fukushima, including cooling systems that rely on gravity rather than an outside power source, the failure of which was another critical factor in the accident at the Japanese plant.

What Impact Would Nuclear's Decline Have on Climate Change?

Most government and industry experts have concluded that nuclear energy is a critical component of the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and limit the impact of climate change. In its scenario for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, the International Energy Agency says nuclear's share of the global power supply would have to grow to 24 per cent from 14 per cent currently to achieve that goal.

Some environmentalists are willing to accept that nuclear power should play a significant role in mitigating the effects of global warming, but most still oppose it, citing concerns about safety, waste management and weapons proliferation.

Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, noted that nuclear energy would not be commercially viable if the industry were required to cover its liabilities. Like most industrialized countries, Canada has legislation that caps liabilities in the event of accident.

Can Renewables Replace Nuclear?

Germany's move to shutter its nuclear plants is a vote of confidence in the renewable energy industry, which is generally seen by governments and industry as incapable of providing a base load of reliable and affordable power.

"You see a lot of naysayers out there saying its too expensive and it can't be done. But now you are seeing a country saying it can be done," said Kent Brown, chief executive officer of BluEarth Renewables Inc., a Calgary-based startup that is investing in wind and other green power projects. "This is an example of a developed country with a commitment to renewables."

Germany plans to cut its power consumption and rely more heavily on offshore wind, as well as solar, and is confident that it can make the transition over a reasonable period of time. It says it will sharply increase the amount of renewable energy in its portfolio from the current 17 per cent, while cutting power consumption by 10 per cent through conservation measures.

In Ontario, where most of Canada's nuclear plants are located, it would actually be easier to shift to renewables than in Germany, said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental think tank. That's because Ontario has fewer consumers than Germany and more reliable renewable-energy resources - mainly wind and sunlight.

But critics say renewables remain too unreliable and expensive to provide secure, base-load power - and will remain so until major technological advances are made that allow energy from inconsistent sources to be economically stored and recovered.

Andres Carlgren, Sweden's Environment Minister, criticized the German plan as "unrealistic." All it means, he said, is that Germany will now have to rely more heavily on coal and on imports of nuclear-generated electricity from France.

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