Look at Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar of this blog and you will see the mix of generation sources that are powering the Ontario electricity grid right now. The sources, grouped by the fuel that makes the electricity, are displayed in descending order, based on their power contribution measured in megawatts. Nuclear is always at the top of the list, because it is always by far the biggest contributor of electricity to Ontario’s grid. Notice how much carbon dioxide (CO2) nuclear emits per megawatt of output: zero. That’s an important number. No matter how much electricity nuclear produces, it dumps exactly zero tons of CO2 into Ontario’s air. The amount of waste that it does produce is minuscule—orders of magnitude less than its cleanest competitors—which makes it by far the most environment-friendly electricity generation technology in the world.
Nuclear waste, moreover, is for the most part solid. This means that managing it is far, far easier than managing gaseous waste. When you try to manage gaseous waste you are fighting against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which favours mixing (the opposite of separation). I know this first hand: one of my projects is an industrial R and D effort the aim of which is separating industrial gases on a large scale. It is far more difficult to keep dangerous and problematic gas like CO2 from mixing with the environment than to keep solid nuclear waste from doing so.
Tables 1 and 2 are pretty much real time. They represent what is happening right now in Ontario electricity. Item 1 up on the right gives a hint of how things would be if Ontario’s nuclear fleet had been replaced by natural gas, as many so-called environmentalists wish had happened. Between noon and one p.m. today, that fervent wish on the part of people who call themselves environmentalists would have resulted in the dumping of more than 10,000 metric tons of CO2 into our air. As it actually was, just over 3,900 tons of CO2 were dumped into our air.
Now, I don’t like it that 3,900 tons of CO2 were dumped into my air. The R&D project I mentioned above involves splitting an oxygen atom off CO2. Take it from me that this is very hard to do. This is because CO2 is a very tough molecule. So those 3,900 tons that were dumped into Ontario’s air will swirl around in our planet’s atmosphere, for many thousands of years. Some will absorb into the world’s oceans, making their water more acidic and hostile to life. But most will continue to swirl around in the atmosphere long after the radioactive elements in nuclear waste have morphed into other elements.
But while I do not like that 3,900 metric tons of CO2 were dumped into my air between noon and one p.m. today, I would like it even less if those 3,900 metric tons had been more than 10,000 metric tons—which is what they would have been if the so-called environmental lobby in Ontario had gotten its way years ago and succeeded in its drive to replace nuclear with natural gas-fired generators.
As mentioned, the figures shown in Tables 1 and 2 are pretty much real time. If you familiarize yourself with them you will quickly appreciate the size of the carbon footprint Ontario’s electric power generation sector would have without nuclear. Ten thousand tons per hour, multiplied by roughly 8,760 hours (the number of hours in a year), works out to CO2 emissions of roughly 87 million metric tons per year. Given that Ontario’s power sector emissions were 16 million tons last year, you can see the environmental value of nuclear energy.
I am quite familiar with this data; I watch it every hour of every day. So to me it is fairly obvious to me that nuclear has made Ontario a far, far cleaner place than the next-clean fuel, natural gas. But that is the problem with familiarity. I am familiar with the Ontario electricity data. Not many others are. So figures that tell the sheer size of the CO2 tonnage dumped into our air don’t mean much to others. Which is why other perspectives, other angles, are often useful in conveying the size of the footprint Ontario would have without nuclear.
One of these other perspectives comes from outside Canada, from a country that is famous for its alleged commitment to fighting climate change and its breathtaking inability to withstand the hostility to science and progress that is embodied in the anti-nuclear movement. That country is Germany. A recent blog article in the Guardian laid out the real implications of Germany’s most recent paroxysm of anti-nukery, i.e. the phaseout that followed the casualty-free Fukushima meltdowns of March 2011.
Here is a passage from this article, which is excellent and highly recommended.
You … need to consider the implications of the fact that switching off the nuclear plants led to Germany’s exports of electricity falling through the floor – by a massive 63 trillion units, according to Carrington.
Unless you think the countries which would have used that power simply turned the lights off, the unavoidable implication is that somewhere a bunch of fossil fuel plants were ramped up to pick up the slack. And not just any fossil fuel plants, but those with available capacity – which will generally mean dirty old ones because the cheaper and more efficient ones, along with all the renewables and nuclear, will already have been working at full capacity.
The core point is this: until we get a 100% decarbonised grid, the marginal impact of turning off any existing low-carbon electricity source – or indeed adding to demand by switching a light on – is virtually always to add more coal to a power station.
This analysis assumes that it was coal plants that picked up the slack when Germany nuclear power exports dropped because of the phaseout, and it is probably right. Anti-nuclear environmentalists will argue that picking up that slack with gas would result in fewer CO2 emissions, and they are also right—in the case of Germany.
But my own analysis, given above, shows, again in pretty much real time, the implications of a switch from nuclear to gas in Ontario. Remember: Ontario’s hourly CO2 emissions would have been in excess of 10,000 metric mid-day yesterday, just before the biblical flood hit Toronto.
Another analysis looks at a switch to natural gas far more systematically. Commissioned by the Power Workers’ Union and the Organization of CANDU Industries, this study (available for free download at the PWU and OCI websites) lays out several counterfactual scenarios for Ontario. Apropos of the provincial government’s review of the Long Term Energy Plan (LTEP), it says the following regarding the province’s current drive to put more wind power into the electricity system:
The retained wind scenario results in greater GHG emissions due to the gas-fired generation capacity required to manage wind intermittency and to replace the nuclear base load capacity removed from service.
If you don’t think wind requires fossil for backup, remember last week’s typically dismal wind performance. In the middle of a heat wave, with every air conditioner in the province running full blast, the provincial wind turbine fleet decided to quit working.
This PWU/OCI report should be required reading for anyone who wants to do something about climate-related events such that Toronto just experienced.