Nuclear power no defence against a new oil crisis

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
December 19, 2000

After Egypt and Syria invaded Israel in October, 1973, to start the Yom Kippur War, the Arab oil-exporting nations punished the West for its support of Israel by slashing oil production and raising oil prices. Western governments, seeking energy independence, hastened their plans to adopt nuclear power, which they universally saw as the fuel of the future.

After Muslim fundamentalists toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979, they installed Ayatollah Khomeini in his place and punished the West with a second OPEC oil crisis. The West made even bigger plans to get off oil and on to nuclear-powered electricity.

Today, the Middle East is again in turmoil. A new Palestinian Intifada is in full force, and peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians are in disarray. The United States is more dependent on foreign oil than in 1973. A militarily strong Saddam Hussein is once again flexing his muscles, and oil prices are once again high.

Many in the West are again seeking salvation in nuclear power. They forget that it failed utterly to counteract the clout of the Arab oil-exporting countries in the previous two OPEC oil crises, and they don’t understand that a new attempt to turn to nuclear power could only make us more dependent, not less, on Arab oil.

Over the entire history of nuclear power, North American utilities built 150 nuclear reactors. All of them were planned or under construction before the first OPEC embargo. North American utilities subsequently placed hundreds more nuclear reactors on the drawing boards. None of these post-OPEC reactors were built — none — despite overwhelming public support, despite the utilities’ monopoly powers, despite the billions of dollars governments provided in subsidies. Canada’s last nuclear plant to be completed was Ontario Hydro’s Darlington station outside Toronto. Ontario Hydro first started spending money on Darlington in 1970; it formally ordered it built in 1976 after receiving government permission; and it finished the job in 1993, more than 20 years later. The last U.S. reactor to be completed was ordered in 1974.

Most electric utilities abandoned their nuclear plans by the late 1980s — some of them 90% or more complete. In the quarter-century since the first OPEC oil crisis, the frantic pro-nuclear efforts by North American governments to ramp up nuclear production were for naught: Apart from plants already in the pipeline, not one additional kilowatt-hour of power was produced.

Elsewhere in the world, nuclear power’s failure to replace oil is little different. Only Third World and Eastern Bloc countries still aggressively pursue nuclear power — largely because Western governments seeking to keep their nuclear manufacturers alive have plied them with nearly free reactors. In 1974, the International Atomic Energy Agency predicted 4,500,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity. In fact, the world now has less than 10% as much and, according to U.S. Department of Energy projections, the relatively small amount that does exist will be halved over the next two decades, as reactors reach the end of their useful lives.

In Canada, despite mammoth subsidies by governments, nuclear power meets less than 3% of our energy needs, about half as much as provided by wood. Yet because most of that 3% is concentrated in just one province — Ontario — and in just one type of energy production — electricity — it has made us extremely vulnerable to disruption. Of Ontario’s 21 nuclear reactors, nine have produced no power for at least 21 months, and some or all of the remaining 12 could be permanently shut down should a common design problem surface.

North America overcame the OPEC energy crises without the help of new nuclear plants. It did so partly by developing new oil and gas fields at home and mostly — overwhelmingly — by insulating our homes, improving our industrial processes and otherwise increasing our efficiency. Ontario, the most nuclearized jurisdiction in North America, consumes about as much power today as it did a decade ago, despite an economy 30% larger.

In the event of a new OPEC crisis, nuclear reactors couldn’t be built quickly enough to help, but we would nevertheless be secure. In part, our energy needs would be met from the great untapped potential for conservation and efficiency improvements and in part from small-scale technologies that can be brought on stream in 12 to 18 months, compared with the 10 to 14 years typical of nuclear plants.

When the U.K. fully deregulated its power system a decade ago, the free market rapidly shut down many existing nuclear and coal plants and embarked on the biggest building boom in the country’s history, much of it small-scale and almost all of it based on co-generation and other high-efficiency gas technologies. Unlike the highly politicized, partial deregulations we’re seeing in California, Alberta and other jurisdictions now facing power shortages, the U.K.’s approach — privatizing everything but a few nuclear plants (which no one then wanted) and deregulating the power sector to encourage investment — created a power glut while lowering rates and phasing out the most environmentally harmful forms of energy.

Because nuclear reactors take so long to build, and because they are so susceptible to premature closure — few are now expected to last their predicted service lives — they are the most vulnerable of technologies. Had the International Atomic Energy Agency’s prediction come true, our society truly would be dependent on nuclear power, and when serious problems arose, as they invariably have, we would truly have been vulnerable to OPEC blackmail.

Reprinted on the web site.

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