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Probus Lethbridge “Why Nuclear Energy for Alberta.”

Dr. Duane Pendergast, Ph.D., P. Eng., May 21, 2008

Speaker’s notes (Check against Delivery) 


Good morning! Thank you for inviting me to talk about nuclear energy. 

I’m a member of the Canadian Nuclear Society and the fledgling Alberta Branch. It’s a voluntary non-profit science and engineering based organization. Members are drawn from nuclear industry people and from the general public.  We try our best to provide factual information on nuclear technology.  Eric Williams, our national President, spoke to the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs here in Lethbridge just last fall. 

Cosmos Voutsinos, also a member of our Alberta Branch, spoke to SACPA in October of 2006. He outlined a developing opportunity in Alberta to integrate nuclear energy with the production of oil from our tar sands. Since then, nuclear energy has become a hot topic – maybe I should say a controversial topic. 

Alberta is a major source of future oil supply. The world looks to us for help. Alberta is growing and needs more electricity. Nuclear energy can help us produce oil and electricity while decreasing pollution and greenhouse gases in a major way. 

Several international and national organizations object to the way Alberta’s oil resources are being produced and used as energy. They don’t like nuclear energy either.  They are opening offices here. They are very vocal and we’re hearing from them about the dire dangers of oil and nuclear.  Alberta citizens are caught in a tug of war over the pros and cons of developing both our oil industry and nuclear energy.  

You will soon be asked by your government to tell them what you think about nuclear energy in Alberta. I’m hoping the process will be similar to the Alberta Royalty review. Individuals and organizations were able to provide significant input to that in a transparent way. To contribute, you will need balanced facts to consider the benefits and risks to you, your community and to humanity, so you can come to your own conclusions.  I’m sure you already have many questions. I won’t try to anticipate them with my talk. I’ll just outline my experience, as an Albertan, with our need for energy and the development of nuclear energy. 

Albert Einstein once wrote: "If you succeed in using the nuclear- physical findings for peaceful purposes, it will open the way to a new paradise". I don’t think we’re quite there yet. However, Einstein’s insight into converting a little mass into a lot of energy is the key. Energy is essential to life and to human achievement.  Over the years I’ve developed near reverence for energy. 

My parents were refugees from the dirty thirties climate crisis in Alberta. They moved into the bush where there was enough moisture to support farming. The family homestead, halfway between Rimbey and Rocky Mountain House, was my home for sixteen years following my birth in 1938. Our main energy supply was wood from forests cleared to provide crop land. Sometimes we had some coal. It would burn through the long winter nights. Our water supply was a nearby spring. An outdoor biffy served as plumbing. Our lighting was from coal oil and gasoline lamps. We had no telephone or electricity with one exception.  Our radio was powered by a big battery pack. My mother’s prize appliance was a washer powered by a gasoline engine. Sun and wind served as the dryer.  I’m reminded of that energy poverty every time I flick an electrical switch. 

The radio and lessons at school introduced me to nuclear energy. My first impressions were shaped by the atomic bomb and the cold war. We learned at school how to survive nuclear attack. My wife lived in Calgary. She remembers the city evacuation plan would take her to Red Deer. I dreamt about waves of bombers flying north and south. 

Those were dismal thoughts for kids, but we had some fun with the bomb too. My brother and I set out to make a mushroom cloud. We thought a sealed gallon can filled with gasoline heated on a burning brush pile might do the trick. It worked! As we watched, the can failed and blew the gasoline into the fire. The subsequent explosion produced a splendid mushroom cloud. It also scattered a lot of burning brush around and set a fire which charred much of the quarter section. We were reprimanded! Our father told us it was still too wet for a good burn. 

On the more serious side, we do take for granted the role energy plays. If we stop to think about it we recall energy is essential to all life on earth. Almost all energy originates from the nuclear powered sun. It drives the wind and the water cycle. It provides the energy needed to grow plants which in turn support all animal life. Solar energy transformed and stored in fossil fuels has provided temporary energy bounty to make life much better for many of us.  

Earth is evolving through human use of energy. We are playing a bigger role as our smarts and numbers expand. We’re having effects on the planet and some of those are not pretty. Some blame energy. I believe we will need to use even more energy to counter negative impacts. For example, we are planning to pump carbon dioxide from burnt fossil fuel underground, just to avoid putting it in the atmosphere. That will take more energy. We talk about using hydrogen as an alternative to the fossil fuels we depend on now. That too will require even more energy to produce and use.  

Alberta’s population is five times bigger than when I was born. World population is growing too.  Many people still live in energy poverty, relying on a little wood or coal. All these people need energy. Where will it come from? Einstein understood the benefits which could come from all the additional energy that we could get from nuclear processes. We now have enough knowledge to pursue his dream in earnest.  


My mother was a teacher.  She was convinced education is the key to the future. Since she wanted her kids to have one, we left that idyllic farm life. She saw to it that I got to high school and the University of Alberta.  I graduated and went to work in Calgary. After a couple of years I developed an urge for more education. My wife and I moved south where I set out to become the proverbial rocket scientist at New Mexico State University.  I earned a Ph.D. there in the relevant disciplines of fluid flow, heat transfer, combustion and physics. Unfortunately, I was a little late to find a rocket scientist job as we had already flown to the moon by the time I graduated. I became a professor for a few years at Gonzaga University in Spokane, and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.  

Nuclear Reactor Design and Safety 

One day, while browsing through a bookstore in Nigeria, I picked up a copy of New Scientist. Atomic Energy of Canada was advertising for engineers. I’d come to know a little more about nuclear energy. Fellow students and staff at New Mexico State had projects at Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs. My colleagues at Gonzaga were involved with the Hanford Project and Idaho National Lab. I’d become familiar with nuclear energy and had lost my fear. I had the qualifications, and we wanted to return to Canada, so I applied.  

I started work at AECL in 1974.  Four CANDU reactors had just been completed at Pickering in Ontario. Sixteen more were underway in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick Argentina and Korea. That’s a $35 billion task at today’s prices. It was the heyday of CANDU construction, just seven years after the completion of the prototype CANDU reactor at Douglas Point on Lake Huron. 

That was an interesting time to become involved. Visionaries who proposed peaceful nuclear power were still around. I worked with and came to know many dedicated scientists and engineers who established the knowledge to ensure the risks associated with nuclear energy were recognized and managed. It was also a time when the know-how of safe design was growing.  

Safety analysis was becoming much more sophisticated, thanks to computers.  We developed computer models for reactor systems. They allowed us to calculate what would happen to the reactor as a result of a wide range of postulated failures. For example, suppose a reactor cooling pipe breaks. Coolant is discharged. That, in turn changes the nature of the nuclear reaction.   Coolant pressure and temperature change throughout. Signals which are intended to initiate shutdown or possibly emergency cooling supplies are detected by the model. The effect of coolant discharges on containment is computed. Should an accident progress to the point that nuclear fuel is damaged, releases of radioactive material into containment are determined. Possible releases of radiation to the environment are calculated and the effect established by health physicists. 

Perhaps the most important feature of these models is that they help provide understanding of just how the system will behave. They provide a “fine toothed comb” in the design process to “weed out” any potential for dangerous failure.  

We discovered gaps in our knowledge. Tests were devised to establish missing information and to confirm computer simulations. This was undertaken at research reactors in Chalk River and at facilities built at the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Manitoba. We also learned from international cooperation. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency is the world’s Atoms for Peace organization. Many of our safety experts participated in IAEA programs. 

All this knowledge is available to independent regulators. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission establishes standards for the design and operation of facilities, provides an independent review throughout the licensing process, and assigns staff to oversee each operating power reactor and other large nuclear facilities. 

There have been, and still are,  some growing pains. In spite of all the care taken to ensure designs are fool proof, there have been some failures. The industry has learned from them too. Many were of a relatively minor nature and revisions to prevent them have been worked into the design of nuclear plants with little fanfare. The most notable incidents which led to great loss are Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  

The safety systems at Three Mile Island worked well enough that there was no identifiable damage to the health of any person in the plant or the public. At Chernobyl they did not work as planned and a lot of radioactive material was spread over a wide area.  Still, the catastrophic consequences postulated by many do not seem to be happening. Continual monitoring of Chernobyl indicates fewer than 100 people have died to date from radiation exposure. Some thirty of those were heroic firemen who put out fires started by radioactive materials falling on nearby buildings. There is also evidence of increased thyroid cancer in children. Most of these have already been cured. Possibly there will be additional premature deaths. If so, they will likely be so rare as to be impossible to differentiate from the normal death rate of the affected group of people. 

Let me elaborate here. Doctors and health physicists know a lot about the effects of radiation at higher doses. At low doses it is impossible, so far, to distinguish the effects from other causes of cancer and background radiation. If it is assumed that any dose of radiation could cause cancer in proportion to the dose, a low dose multiplied over millions of people can provide estimates of many thousands of earlier deaths for events like Chernobyl. Experts also cite evidence that low doses of radiation are not harmful. People living in areas with high natural radiation are healthy. Some believe low doses are beneficial. This is an area of controversy still studied. If there is a risk to individuals it needs to be considered in the context of risk from a future energy shortage.  

The very public reporting of the Three Mile Island accident provided me with a “light bulb” moment. I was a containment expert at the time working on postulated “severe” accidents of the sort that inspired the movie; The China Syndrome. At one point during the broadcast the officials monitoring the progression of the accident announced that pressure in the containment building had suddenly increased. They didn’t immediately know what had happened. To me it was an indication that hydrogen had been released into containment, from overheating of the fuel and a reaction with cooling water, and that the hydrogen had burned. The containment design easily withstood the burn. Post accident analysis confirmed that.  The containment system thus functioned to limit releases of radioactivity. The less robust containment of the Chernobyl reactor was breached by the rapid initial release of energy from the reactor. 

I was involved in long reviews of both of those events. We studied them in detail to ensure our reactors were not prone to similar failures. CANDU shutdown systems did not suffer the flaws found in the RBMK reactors at Chernobyl. I do recall great emphasis on so-called human factors design following those accidents as both involved operator errors. By the way, the RBMK reactors have been fixed and a dozen of them are still operating. They produce more electricity than the entire Alberta electrical system. 

I’ve visited most of Canada’s reactors as part of my work. I saw the same attention to safety there that I did in the design office. Monitoring for radioactivity is religious. As staff and visitors pass through the buildings they are continually checked for contamination.  Plant operators keep track of any dose to personnel and visitors. Equipment failures are analyzed and recorded providing yet another learning mechanism to enhance safety.  Uranium mining and fuel manufacturing operations are also monitored to ensure the whole nuclear fuel cycle is safe. 

From the beginning the nuclear power industry has recognized the potential risks from nuclear energy and radiation. Perhaps that was underlined by the awe-inspiring effects of nuclear weapons. My reactor physics colleagues incorporated a reminder into the name of their three dimensional computer model. They called it CERBERUS, after the three headed dog from Greek Mythology said to guard the portals of hell. The risks from nuclear energy have been managed and it has become one of the very safest industries around the world. 

Nuclear Energy to Sustain Society 

About 1990 I became interested in global warming. I assessed the potential for nuclear power to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. My studies considered operations associated with construction, mining of uranium, and the preparation of fuel. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal are a hundred times more than from CANDU reactors. Even emissions from solar and wind power are higher. I also found there is enough nuclear fuel available to make nuclear fission energy essentially inexhaustible.  

I’ve found anti-nuclear organizations can tell some tall tales about nuclear plant emissions with a few little truths – while leaving out some big ones. For example, our own Pembina Institute estimated carbon dioxide emissions from uranium mining and fuel preparation for CANDU reactors. They came up with about one million tonnes per year and conclude emissions from nuclear are highly significant. They forget to point out CANDU reactors avoid about 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the coal plants that would have been built in their stead.  

Others assume that fossil fuel will be used to mine low grade uranium ores, so that emissions become large. They forget nuclear energy can be used for mining.  

Some say we should abandon nuclear and fossil fuels, and move to wind power.  Wind turbines are beautiful machines. Their emissions are very low, even considering the material used to make them. I wish we’d had one to power the radio on the farm. 

Still the intermittent nature of the wind makes them impractical as a source of energy. Much is made of the $6 billion cost of the 2200 Mw nuclear plant once proposed for Whitecourt.  Wind turbines to provide the same amount of electricity would cost about $13 billion. That does not include the cost of transmission lines, energy storage and backup systems to make them practical. Those costs could drive us to energy poverty. 

Shortly after Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, I was assigned to represent the nuclear industry as one of 450 experts enlisted from government, industry, and environmental organizations to begin greenhouse gas emission reduction planning for Canada.  

I learned from my colleagues that their main concern with nuclear energy came from a belief Canada did not have a way to deal with used nuclear fuel.   We advised that a substantial fund be established to review the status and recommend a way forward. The goal was to ensure nuclear energy would be a viable greenhouse gas free alternative to fossil fuels. I’d like to think that recommendation was followed. Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization was set up soon after.  Over a three year period from 2002 to 2005 extensive public consultations were held and a plan was proposed to the federal government. The plan was accepted, and the Nuclear Waste Mangement Organization is now responsible for implementing it. Their first stage actions and plan, known as Adaptive Phased Management, were opened to public review in April. Unfortunately the closing date for first input was May 16. I suspect we’ve all missed it.  

Over the years, I’ve become skeptical about the dire claims of some that our world will end in a blaze of warming from carbon dioxide emissions. I thus hesitate to encourage nuclear energy just on that basis. I am convinced that we will need lots of alternative energy and nuclear can provide it.    If climate change is a problem we will need even more energy to have any hope of managing it.  

Future of nuclear energy 

Our current nuclear technology is well established.  There is great potential to develop it further to provide essentially unlimited energy.  So called spent fuel is not really spent.  We are currently getting only about 1% of the energy available from it. Engineered systems have been established to get it all through recycling and new types of reactors which make fuel from leftover uranium. Further engineering and commercial development is still needed to tap the full potential. 

The World Commission on Environment and Development established a concept known as sustainable development back in 1987. That’s a word now used often - usually without much thought about its meaning. The originating definition was; 

”Sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations” 

Nuclear energy could be the ultimate sustainable energy resource. Past and current generations have established much of the knowledge needed to use it to enhance the status of humanity and the environment. The heritage of nuclear information and resources we’ve provided to our children will empower them on their way to the future. Einstein’s new paradise may prove elusive but this energy nirvana is something I believe humanity can achieve.  

Closing commentary 

This is a big subject. I’ve provided a few handouts which identify some additional reading material – both printed and Internet based. I’m also handing out copies of the Cosmos Voutsinos booklet; “Using Nuclear Energy to Get the Most out of Alberta’s Tar Sands”. I thank the McIntyre Collegium for publishing it and making copies available.

Thanks for listening.  I look forward to your questions.


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