A Nuclear Nerd Presents to the Edmonton Energy Transition Leadership Network

Foreward: So I didn’t post on friday last week because I was busy writing a presentation. It was not in fact this presentation that is below, it was an entirely different one that I determined was crap and scrapped late friday night. Thus forcing me to build this new one from scratch 4 days before I was to present it when I had had 3 months to work on it previously. Suffice to say, that was not a fun saturday/sunday morning, but I think it turned out quite well. The presentation went quite well and the panel afterwards was quite productive. The ETLN will be posting up a compiled transcript/overview of the entire days events in the coming days which I will also post up here once I receive it. But until then you will just have to enjoy my attempts at banging the pro-nuclear drum.
Sean W.

Hello Everyone,

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you all here on this Treaty 6 land. My name is Sean Wagner I’m sure you’re curious about why there are M&Ms on your table, please don’t eat them yet, they are a prop for me to make a point.

More often than not nowadays we hear that regulations are only negative additions, preventing groups from being as efficient as possible or as profitable as possible. But what I want to argue is that the regulations that are currently in place on the nuclear energy industry are good, not only for the nuclear industry, but should also be used as a bar for every other industry to attempt to match. 

The Edmonton Energy Transition Strategy pushes a consistent message of efficiency in all sectors. More efficient buildings, more efficient transit, more efficient generation methods in an effort to reduce the footprint of all the constituent parts of our city and associated municipalities. But the laws of energy conservation are intractable and patient. Increasing the energy efficiency of a system, ironically, costs a great deal of energy up front. Higher quality products, tighter tolerances, better materials, additive manufacturing, these are all things that give better returns to the end user at the expense of being more costly to produce in terms of both money and energy.

But if that energy comes from a cheap, polluting source of energy like coal, oil, or natural gas then much of the purported benefits of those energy efficient upgrades are lost in the big picture, even if they save the consumer everything that they advertised.

To truly gain the most benefit from our admittedly impressive pursuit of efficiency in all sectors it needs to be based on a firm foundation of clean, abundant, reliable, and materially efficient energy source. 

They might both be below the threshold, but there is still a big difference

So here is the first revelation, in terms of the amount of materials needed to produce a kWh of energy, nuclear fission is handily the least materially intensive form of energy production that we have available.

This fact usually throws people for a loop since Nuclear facilities are usually thought of as these huge hulking stations, usually only smaller than hydroelectric dams. But it is in fact due to the combination of the long operating lifespan (most facilities began being rated for 40 years, but many have now been rated for 60 or are seeking uprating to 80 years), high capacity factor (most current nuclear facilities have greater than 90% uptime, in fact Canadian nuclear facilities regularly operate for 2.5 years between scheduled maintenance times) , and finally, shockingly high power density of the fuel that allows nuclear energy to be the most materially efficient method of producing energy that we have yet constructed.

It’s a bit pithy, but it’s true, uranium does actually have over 1 million times the energy density of any other energy source we have. Image via Randall Munroe

It’s a bit pithy, but it’s true, uranium does actually have over 1 million times the energy density of any other energy source we have.

This means that the “savings” in the whole chain of production begin right at the source by producing more energy from less materials.Since all materials require energy in order to be mine, refined, formed and eventually combined into a final product, the less energy you have to use to source them, the more you have to use to do other things. I like the idea of circular economies, but if you spend too much of the energy you make on making more energy that circle gets small enough that all it does is make everyone dizzy.

But materials usage is not the only measure of the cleanliness of our power, there is also emissions and waste. And in this field nuclear is unique, though probably not for the reasons you are thinking of though. In fact it is because nuclear generating stations are required by law to keep track of and store every fraction of a gram of fuel that they use and waste that they create. This includes requirements to fully decontaminate, decommission, and remediate the facility and the land it was built on. On top of that, the limits for any secondary radiation allowed to be released is orders of magnitude below what the health limits are. Compare that to fossil fuels where they are allowed to dump their waste directly into the atmosphere or keep it in giant piles on the facility grounds with no protection from rain or wind.  

This document states that the allowed limit for tritium in drinking water in Ontario is 7000 Bq per litre. This level is meant to prevent any population from exhibiting any statistically significant uptick in cancer rates. But I bet that Becquerels per litre still doesn’t really put it into perspective to most people here, so show of hands, who thinks that this limit is equivalent to parts per million? Parts per billion? And parts per trillion? In actuality, 7000 Bq/L is equivalent to 5.9 parts per quadrillion. That is equivalent to turning all of the money in the world into pennies, putting it all in one big pile, and then hiding one nickel somewhere in it.

 And that is just the regulated limit for Ontario drinking water, here are the recorded numbers for drinking water sources downstream of nuclear plants in Ontario.

That 114.7 actually triggered an internal review of monitoring procedures since it was so high.

This is what strong, enforced regulation that mandates a culture of safety with proper maintenance leads to. An operation that can exceed even the most stringent requirements that are based in reality. And this is true not just for emissions and releases, but also for the elephant in the room, nuclear waste.

I know the topic of nuclear waste is a contentious one, People are consistently concerned about the effects of spent nuclear fuel on the environment and people. But allow me to be a touch contentious myself. If you have ever been told that there is no viable solution to nuclear waste, the person that told you that was at best lied to, and at worst purposefully lying to you. Currently, all spent nuclear fuel in Canada and in the majority of the world is stored on-site at the generating stations where it was used.

so dangerous….

This is approximately 50 years of spent fuel, contained in a building the size of 10 tennis courts. It has never leaked because it is solid, it has never harmed anyone because it is shielded, and it has never been stolen because each of those casks weighs approximately 100 tonnes and requires a crane and a team of technicians to open. Remember my point about the vast difference in energy density of fission compared to current energy sources? That fact means that your personal entire energy requirements for your entire life equates to a chunk of that spent fuel about the size of a soda can. And here’s a neat little hint for those of you that still have your M&Ms in front of you, those are related to a future point about nuclear waste and efficiency.

So with regulations ensuring superior safety, reliability, environmental safeguards, and public safeguards, what can nuclear do for Alberta and Edmonton in our goals to reduce our impact on the environment? I say that nuclear can enable every other industry and organization to step up to the challenge of operating under the same standards. Imagine driving past refinery row on the Henday and never again seeing flare gas stacks or getting a smell of burning eggs? Imagine a North Saskatchewan river that is cleaner after it passes through the city than it was when it entered it? Picture the dump in the northwest corner of the city slowly shrinking as everything in it is reprocessed into usable materials for manufacturing, construction, and agriculture thanks to easy access to plentiful energy? And all of this being done with minimal impact on the citizens of Edmonton other than a bunch of new, stable, high paying jobs. 

I’m betting more than a few of you are rather dubious of this utopian claim. We’ve tried to simplify and improve things such as waste management and recycling in Edmonton before with… Let us call it mixed success. So how can an energy-generating technology like nuclear suddenly make these attempts succeed where before they failed to live up to expectations? First I ask that you think about this, does it make sense that two similar groups have two different sets of rules to abide if they both operate in the same environment that we all share? Why were “legacy emitters” excluded from the carbon levy? If regulations are applied unevenly it is only good for allowing groups to rest on their laurels and neglect the necessary advancement we need to not only protect our environment but also to continue to lead the way in how we extend that protection around us. In a world where Every industry and business was made to operate at the same standards that the nuclear industry did, we would have mountain clear air in the heart of downtown Edmonton.

But operating at this level of environmental responsibility would be economically ruinous with our current energy mix. This is due to fundamental physics. In any process, the higher the purity of the final product that is desired, the time or energy required to reach the desired level increases exponentially. Think of it like cleaning up the house before your partners parents come over for dinner for the first time, so you want to make the effort. The big stuff like picking up laundry lying around and doing the dishes go pretty quickly, but then comes scrubbing the bathroom, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and changing the sheets and making the bed,. Each step is a smaller amount of messiness that needs to get cleaned than the previous one, but it requires more and more effort compared to the increase in cleanliness. 

And now imagine that you had to do this much, every day. That’s what environmental regulations are, the in-laws of the world. They force us to recognize that we have to take care of the world around us because we really like the people we share our space with and we want them to have nice air and clean drinking water. The problem is that a not insignificant portion of people think that the best way to do that is to reduce our reliance on heavy industries. The same heavy industries that we need in order to make all the things we use to combat climate change. 

So to go back to the metaphorical apartment cleaning. Imagine how much more difficult that level of clean would be if you had to go to the laundromat to do your laundry, or didn’t have a dishwasher? How long before something gives? You’ve only got so much energy in you to do all this work even though you know that your partner and your place are worth putting in the effort you just can’t keep up. If we don’t have ways to multiply our efforts, we won’t be able to keep up with the demands placed upon us in this transition. 

So what if we look down the other path? Where we double down on our industry but aim them towards meeting the challenge of these stringent requirements. We get the metaphorical Roomba, HEPA filters on every vent, antimicrobial coatings on every surface in the bathroom, a water softener, high capacity washer and dryer, and a restaurant grade high speed dishwasher. Our Energy usage doubles or triples, but the apartment is sparklingly clean and we have extra  time that we can spend on ourselves and our loved ones. Rather than barely keeping our heads above water, we are suddenly lounging on a pool floaty with a mai tai in our hand and an umbrella over us while we read a nice book.

It’s a great metaphor right? But metaphors don’t convince companies, politicians or people. They simply paint a picture worth investigating. So let’s investigate a little bit. I apologize for any math, I’ll try to make it as painless as possible. Currently Edmonton uses about 3.5 – 4 GW of electricity and heat all day every day. We use ~0.8 GW of electricity, almost all of which comes from Coal

2012 data for edmontons energy useage, and here’s how you can figure out how much CO2 eacho of those numbers equates to

Same for the ~2.8 GW of heating and natural gas. How much would it cost just to make all our electricity needs with clean energy. Well let’s assume we build a CANDU facility like the Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station. It produces 6.29 GW of Power with a capacity factor of 87.5% and cost $27.6 Billion in 2013 dollars.We don’t need anything quite so big but identical for relative price and capability. So a 1 GWe plant would cost about $4.4B dollars and produce 7665000 MWh of energy per year. 

Now to compare it we will check 2 competing scenarios: 100% wind, 100% solar. For wind we will be basing our numbers off the Blackspring Ridge which was completed in 2014

and for solar we will be using the Brookes 1 Solar Farm which was completed in 2018.

I would have used the number for the new Vulcan county solar project or that wind farm that just came online but there aren’t any hard numbers for capital costs that I could find yet

Seems like there is a clear winner doesn’t it? If those numbers were the only consideration then sure, but remember earlier when I said that nuclear facilities are extremely material efficient due to their long life spans? Even if our theoretical plant only operated for the minimum 40 years expected of nuclear facilities, both of our hypothetical city powering farms would have to be completely replaced at least once. And the longer the nuclear facility operates for, the more the balance tips in nuclears favour economically. Plus, I am purposefully not mentioning the cost of storage needed to actually firm those renewable sources.

But what about operating costs and fuel? That’s a definite price advantage since renewables don’t require fuel supplies. And when comparing against fossil fuels that would be a truly insurmountable obstacle, but it’s not nearly so daunting for nuclear. Because per unit of energy, Uranium is Cheap. Dirt cheap. Remember as I said earlier that your entire lifetimes worth of energy could be contained in a chunk of uranium the size of a soda can? Plus if uranium ever does become expensive there are technologies coming down the pipeline that will counter that. Molten salt reactors, integral fast reactors, or liquid metal reactors. And here is where I explain what the M&Ms are for.

Those 4 little chocolates are the same size as how little uranium or thorium is Actually required to supply your entire life’s worth of energy when utilized fully. Right now, since uranium is so cheap we are horribly, hilariously fuel inefficient with it.

Hilarious because if you don’t laugh at it, you’ll cry….

About 0.5% efficient in terms of CANDU reactors as shown. And this has major implications for how the energy economy can scale up. Since the fuel requirements can drop to such low levels, the price of fuel is almost completely decoupled from the demand for fuel. Meaning that it doesn’t matter if you have 1 GW, 10 GW or 50 GW of nuclear power generation, the cost of fuel remains supply driven. 

Which is great news since if we do decide to enforce the same quality of regulation upon all industries that the nuclear industry is currently governed by, we are going to need many times the energy budget that we currently have to get and keep our environment spotless. But what about how long it takes to build a reactor, wouldn’t it be too late to help by the time we build one?

Thanks to the Energy Matters Blog for making this chart from the IAEA PRIS database

The truth is that nuclear reactors only take a long time to build because we haven’t built any. But like any other industry, the more practice you get, the more economical it becomes. You can see here that the mean construction time is only 7.5 year, and that includes siting. And there are many streamlining opportunities such as following in france’s footsteps and licensing reactor designs instead of individual projects, thus allowing for batches of reactors to be built much quicker than expected. South Korea and Japan at their height were building reactors in under 5 years on average and during its nuclear build-up, France built 42 reactors between 1977 and 1987 having only committed to a nuclear energy buildout in 1974. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/france.aspx 

In conclusion; strong, stringent regulations governing how our industries operate and interact with our environment can open the door for nuclear energy in Edmonton and Alberta in both its current incarnations and for the future technologies coming whether we are ready or not. If we make the decision to invest now, Edmonton can reap benefits far outweighing the investment in all aspects, but only if we are prepared and already moving when the future gets here. Drastically reducing not only our CO2 production but also every other waste stream from every other industry by providing reliable, high quality energy at affordable and decreasing costs. Simultaneously keeping our heavy industry workers employed instead of asking them to retrain into other lower energy industries that would not be able to sustain the build rates needed to decarbonize our economy in time to do our part to limit climate change to the 1.5 Celsius targets.

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