Suzanne Waldman: I'm primarily concerned about climate change, which is primarily caused by burning fossil fuels for energy. The adequacy of other carbon-free sources of energy besides nuclear energy has not been demonstrated except in unusual cases, as when countries are blessed with a lot of hydro power. Other than in those special cases, the only way countries have been able to significantly reduce their dependency on fossil fuels so far has been with nuclear power.
Solar and wind power, for instance, are not very efficient or reliable sources. People who promote those technologies do not have a plan for how they are going to overcome the difficulties energy sources like wind and solar present in producing the bulk of the world's energy. They are going on faith that the problems can be solved later.
To me, risking the planet on faith in innovations that have yet to be developed, and that may actually go against the laws of physics, does not seem smart when nuclear energy has already been used by countries like France to replace the bulk of their fossil fuels.
May: James Hansen has been announced as a speaker at the Canadian Nuclear Association's winter conference, what impact does his support have on the industry?
Waldman: It's great to see climate scientists like James Hansen as well as environmentalists here and there speaking for nuclear power. They compute that nuclear power would let people keep the modern lifestyles we have become used to with fossil fuels, whereas a renewable powered world would be a world with a lot less power, likely leading to a great deal of conflict and inequality. Even more probably, people will reject the option of less energy and keep burning fossil fuels, and the world will keep getting hotter and more erratic in its weather, and resources like food and water will become very strained, which will also likely lead to a great deal of conflict and inequality.
Honestly, I'm worried the world may have to painfully experience some of these problems before people see nuclear risk is vastly outweighed by climate risk. Look at Fukushima. 16,000 people died from the tsunami, which geologists think there will be more of due to climate change, whereas there have been no proven harms to people from the nuclear meltdown.
Maybe that understanding that nuclear risk is not such a big deal relative to climate risk will emerge gradually or in a hurry, I don't know. In the meantime, it's good to have James Hansen and other prominent figures beating the drum for nuclear power so that when the industry is called on again in a big way--and I think it will be--it will still be around to respond to that call.
May: The CNA also announced that they will be releasing a report on the environmental impact of nuclear energy (http://talknuclear.ca/2014/09/cna-fall-energy-seminar-features-release-of-2015-life-cycle-analysis-of-canadian-electricity-options/). What does this report mean for Canada and the nuclear industry?
Waldman: One argument people will sometimes throw out against nuclear is that mining for uranium and building and maintaining nuclear plants as well as dealing with waste takes a lot of energy, and since a lot of that energy could be fossil fuel energy, nuclear might have a large "carbon footprint" over its life-cycle despite its own power generation being carbon-free.
Of course the same could be said about solar panels and wind turbines, which all have components that need to be mined and processed, typically in factories fired by coal. As well, solar and wind use tons of fossil fuel backup energy, so some researchers factor that in as well. Their analyses find nuclear is far less carbon intensive than solar and wind.
Personally, I think the idea that nuclear is high carbon is a transparently ridiculous one, given the long life in which nuclear power stations produce CO2-free energy. But it is a point anti-nuclear people make. Presumably CNA has done a study comparing all of the life-cycles that shows nuclear comes out well against other energy sources. It's a pretty technical question and I think they probably want to use the study to counter the absurd anti-nuclear argument that nuclear power is high-carbon. Although maybe they also intend to use the study in P.R. for the industry more broadly, to showcase the relative sustainability of nuclear energy.