Nuclear Energy and Alberta
Dr. Duane Pendergast, Ph.D., P. Eng., August 26, 2008
Speaker’s notes (Check against Delivery)
Good evening! Thank you for inviting me to talk about nuclear energy.
When I moved to Lethbridge eight years ago, there was little talk about
nuclear energy in Alberta. Interest has begun to build. The climate change issue
seems a major driver. We hear doubts about the reality of that. We also hear
continual bleating from environmental organizations that Alberta is doing
nothing to reduce emissions. In fact Alberta was the first province in Canada to
impose legislation to monitor and mange carbon dioxide emissions.
Several international and national organizations object to the way Alberta’s
oil resources are being produced and used. They don’t like nuclear energy
either. They are very vocal and we’re hearing amplified calls from them about
the 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.
Alberta can become a major source of future oil supply. The world looks to us
to replace dwindling conventional oil resources. 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 – and leave us with
more fossil fuel to sell.
Our government has promised that Albertans will be consulted on nuclear
energy. A discussion paper authored by energy experts has been commissioned and
is to be completed this fall. Some time later we can expect a consultation
process will be undertaken. I’m hoping it will be similar to the Alberta Royalty
review. Individuals and organizations were able to provide significant input to
that – unlike many more cursory public consultations that have been undertaken.
To contribute to the nuclear discussion, you will need balanced facts to
consider the benefits and risks to you, your community and to humanity.
Personally, I’m a little skeptical that carbon dioxide emissions will bring
about the dire changes in climate many claim. We can envision shortages of
fossil fuels with more certainty. I’m also convinced that managing climate
change, should we really find a need and a way, will take more energy – not less
as we often hear from most environmental organizations. No matter what, our
society will need bounteous energy. Nuclear science and technology can provide
Albert Einstein allegedly 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 a 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
On the more serious side, we do take for granted the role energy plays. If we
stop to think about it we recall it is essential to all life on earth. Almost
all energy we use now 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 animals. 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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 basic
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.
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
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.
Before we start with questions I note that 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, universities, and from the general public. We try our best to
provide factual information on nuclear technology.
Cosmos Voutsinos, also a member of our Alberta Branch, spoke to the Southern
Alberta Council on Public Affairs in October of 2006. He outlined a developing
opportunity in Alberta to integrate nuclear energy with the production of oil
from our tar sands. His talk was based on his booklet; “Using Nuclear Energy to
Get the Most out of Alberta’s Tar Sands” published by the McIntyre Collegium.
Our national president, Eric Williams, also spoke to SACPA last fall.
More recently, I had an article titled “Gone Fission: Alberta on the
Threshold of the Nuclear Age” published in the summer issue of “Alberta Oil”
magazine. It illustrates the huge amount of energy available from Canada’s
uranium resources and discusses the potential role of nuclear energy in Alberta
oil and electricity production.
I’m providing copies of both.
Thanks for listening. I look forward to your questions.