Gas-fired electric power generators in Ontario produced more waste on a single day, September 1 of this year, than the entire Canadian nuclear generator fleet has produced in more than 40 years of operation. Unlike the nuclear fleet, Ontario’s gas-fired generators dumped their waste product, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2, the principal greenhouse gas), into the air. It is now impossible to retrieve that CO2. And because CO2 is such a tough and stable molecule, it will swirl around in our atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years, before dissolving into the world’s oceans, turning them more acidic.
Here is a summary of the performance of the Ontario electric power generator fleet for that day. (There are 140 generators that report to the Ontario grid operator; bear in mind that this number includes the 15 wind farms each of which consists of many individual generators.)
|Fuel||Output (MWh)||CO2, metric tons|
As you can see, the gas generators’ waste product was not insignificant. On that lazy long-weekend Saturday, Ontario gas-fired generating plants dumped 43,340 metric tons of CO2 into our air. That was en route to generating 79.5 million kilowatt-hours.
For comparison, the nuclear fleet on the same day generated three times as much power, and less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the waste. (All nuclear generators in Canada have produced around 40,000 metric tons of used fuel. They have taken roughly 40 years to accumulate this, which works out to an average of 2.7 tons per day. That amount is 0.0063 percent of the amount of waste that the gas-fired plants dumped into the air on September 1, 2012.)
Operators of the gas-fired plants were not charged a dime for the privilege of dumping those 43,000 metric tons of CO2 into our air. If they were charged the commonly-recommended $30 per metric ton, the gas plants would have incurred a one-day carbon cost of more than $1.3 million dollars. Who would have sucked up that cost, them or us (the rate-payers)? Probably us.
Compare that with the situation in Canada’s nuclear generating industry, where every gram of used fuel (commonly and erroneously referred to as waste) is already paid for, through provincial electricity rates, and included in the low price of nuclear-generated electricity. I mentioned in “One gram of ‘garbage’ per day” that the physical amount of nuclear spent fuel, accumulated over four decades of reliable operation, is minuscule. It would fit easily into one of the three landfills in my hometown of Ottawa. Unlike regular landfills, in which methane gas continually accumulates and must be flared or otherwise burned in order to prevent dangerous explosions, nuclear spent fuel poses no threat of explosion.
And unlike regular garbage, nuclear spent fuel is recyclable, and capable of providing both massive amounts of fuel and other isotopes—such as neptunium-237, the raw material for the manufacture of plutonium-238, which is the power source on the Mars Curiosity rover.
I suppose it is debatable whether the free dumping privileges for gas-fired generators constitute a subsidy. But it is not debatable that gas-fired generators do receive handsome subsidies, in the form of cold, hard-earned cash, from Ontario rate payers and taxpayers. Scott Luft at Cold Air has an excellent article that outlines the obscure mechanisms through which these subsidies are handed out.
Gas, as I have pointed out before, is the preferred and politically correct alternative to coal when it comes to power generation. Every mainstream environmental group in Canada supports replacing both coal and nuclear plants in Ontario with gas-fired ones. Why a self-styled environmentalist would prefer an expensive, dangerous, waste-heavy fossil fuel to a clean, safe, and inexpensive one like nuclear is a question rarely asked.
That is a shame. I would love to hear the answer.
Minor quibble: it’s not waiting. It’s already acidifying.
Major quibble: it is possible to retrieve CO2. Or not retrieve, necessarily, but precipitate and make harmless.
That is because, stable though it is, it is not as stable as solid magnesium carbonate (mineral names magnesite, hydromagnesite, and a few others). It is not as stable as oceanically dissolved magnesium bicarbonate.
This means thermodynamics are on our side when we go to remove the excess CO2 we have added to the atmosphere. It, so to speak, wants to be removed. More at “Olivine against climate change and ocean acidification”, R.D Schuiling and O. Tickell.
Interesting, and I stand corrected on both points. I am somewhat (perhaps kneejerk) skeptical of the potential for large scale applicability of the Olivine proposal, but it is very interesting nonetheless. Of course, I would rather see the following scenario play out:
1. All new large scale power generation be nuclear and oxy-fuel coal, not gas.
2. Capture the coal-plant CO2 and recycle it in liquid hydrocarbon fuel, thereby reducing the amount of new carbon entering the atmosphere from petroleum.