In the May 2008 edition of Energy@Gowlings, Scott Whitby and Chiara Woods outlined in detail the prospects for developing nuclear power generation to serve the energy market in Alberta. As noted by Scott and Chiara, the Government of Alberta appointed an expert panel in April 2008 to "prepare a balanced and objective report for the Government of Alberta on the factual issues pertinent to the use of nuclear power to supply electricity in Alberta". Since the May 2008 edition of Energy@Gowlings, we have seen the retraction of the world economy and considerable volatility in commodity prices, which together have caused the pace of developing Alberta's energy resources to slow considerably. Notwithstanding these difficulties, there have been a number of developments to indicate that the conditions in Alberta are ripe for a discussion on the use of nuclear power:
- in March 2009, Bruce Power Alberta announced that it had selected the Whitemud site, approximately 30 km north of Peace River, as the location of a nuclear generation facility;
- the Nuclear Waste Management Organization is in the process of selecting a single site for the underground storage of used nuclear fuel; and
- the newly formed Alberta/Canada Fusion Energy Program is looking to raise money and establish a research centre to study fusion technology 7 and its commercialization.
Arguably the two most important developments to date are the Nuclear Power Expert Panel: Report on Nuclear Power and Alberta released in February 2009 ("Report") and the release at the end of April 2009 of the Alberta Nuclear Consultation Workbook ("Workbook"), constituting the basis for Alberta's nascent public consultation process.
The Expert Panel's Report
The expert panel which issued the Report was composed of Dr. Harvie Andre, Dr. Joseph Doucet, Dr. John Luxat and Dr. Harrie Vredenburg ("Expert Panel"). The Expert Panel was asked to refrain from taking a position on whether or not nuclear power should be incorporated into Alberta's energy grid, but rather to discuss the various scientific attributes of nuclear power generation technology.
The key conclusions of the Expert Panel include:
- significant additional electrical power will be needed to maintain and improve the standard of living of all Albertans;
- all energy technology has associated trade-offs, including the availability of generation technology, environmental impacts, costs and operating implications;
- the decision to create energy-generating facilities is a private-sector decision that requires approval from relevant government and regulatory authorities;
- nuclear power has been generating electricity for more than 50 years, with more than 400 units in operation worldwide, and they are safer, more efficient and easy to control and operate than other forms of electricity generation;
- nuclear power has a minimal carbon dioxide footprint;
- a significant amount of radioactive material can be recycled and reused as nuclear fuel, dramatically reducing the amount of waste to be dealt with;
- the Federal Government and the Government of Alberta will have to work together in their respective fields of constitutional competence in the approval and regulation of any nuclear facilities; and
- the construction of any nuclear generation facility will have social impacts on schools, hospitals, transportation infrastructure, Aboriginal communities, local economies and housing.
Fundamentally, the purpose of the Report is to provide a clear understanding of the nature of nuclear power generation and its relative risks and benefits as compared to other generation alternatives. The Report states that the technology of nuclear power has evolved significantly over the past decades, with nuclear plants in Canada having a triple redundancy with respect to safety 8, and that nuclear power has a smaller physical footprint on the landscape than the alternative technologies that use coal or natural gas as feedstock. According to the Expert Panel, the social issues relating to the construction of a nuclear power generation plant are not unique. Rather, associated social issues will have to be addressed, ameliorated or supported as with the construction of any large generation facility, regardless of the type of fuel used to generate electricity.
The first round of public consultation was concluded on June 1, 2009 with the Government of Alberta allowing citizens to complete an online interactive survey based on information contained in the Workbook. The Workbook information included:
- an explanation of how nuclear power works;
- an overview of nuclear power in Canada (there are 22 existing nuclear power reactors);
- environmental impacts (such as water use, CO2 emissions);
- fuel management (where it comes from, how it is used, how much waste is generated, and how waste is dealt with); and
- lessons from past nuclear accidents.
For those not able to participate in the first round of consultation, the Government of Alberta plans to expand the public consultation process by holding discussions with stakeholder groups representing environmental, business, energy, and other interests, forming discussion groups in communities across Alberta, and conducting a public opinion survey of Albertans.
There is still much discussion to be had on the future of nuclear power in Alberta, the extent to which the Government of Alberta will support the nuclear power industry (both financially and politically), and the impact, if any, of Saskatchewan's nuclear aspirations (the Government of Saskatchewan has made it clear that it will support the nuclear industry). At the very least, it can be said that the conversation about nuclear power has begun in Alberta.