You can tell right away that this report from the World Uranium Symposium in Quebec City is not very friendly toward nuclear energy, but I have to hand it to redoubtable attendee Arnie Gundersen for coming up with the least apropos simile ever:
The nuclear industry is gamely trying to rebrand nuclear power as the solution to climate change, but, as former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen quipped at the symposium, "Trying to solve global warming by building reactors is like trying to solve global hunger by serving caviar."
Gundersen means that nuclear energy is as expensive in its way as caviar.
But caviar is also a deluxe food product. That works better. Caviar may be a poor choice for solving world hunger because its output is relatively sparse. That’s what makes it deluxe. The deluxe nature of nuclear energy is that, once you spend the (admittedly lush) sum to build a reactor, you have inexpensive, emission-free energy for 60 or more years that is far from sparse. Caviar, for all its yumminess, is, shall we say, a one-and-done affair.
Caviar is also a renewable resource. It depends on precise conditions to generate those salty little eggs. If those conditions falter, and sturgeon don’t spawn, then caviar becomes an even dearer commodity. If the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, etc… Perhaps Gundersen could have found a more precise match in the energy world there.
Because nuclear energy putters along without worrying about the elements. Like sturgeon, it needs water, but otherwise, it just keeps pushing out energy – more efficiently, we should note, than sturgeon can produce roe but just as reliably.
Like any base load energy source, nuclear energy does not insist that its users maximize energy efficiency to realize its utility. Leaving aside the benefits of energy efficiency – which are considerable – that means that electricity flows even in an age of transition. The article kicks off with this:
On Saturday, April 11, 25,000 people marched on Quebec's National Assembly to demand action on climate change. Canada's premiers discussed energy and climate policy at their meeting on Tuesday, April 14, one day after Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Philippe Couillard of Quebec signed off on a cap-and-trade system to reduce CO2 emissions.
With new rules coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there will be a lot of uncertainty about base load energy sources in the short term. That will get sorted in time, but one thing is sure: nuclear energy is utterly unaffected, because it doesn’t produce any carbon emissions. Only nuclear and hydro among baseload energy generators can claim that –and as we’ll see, that’s important to eastern Canada.
That gives these energy sources extra value: as reducing carbon emissions becomes a priority in energy policy, nuclear and hydro remain stable providers. (Call it rebranding if you must, but it has always been true. It just wasn’t an issue in the early years of domestic nuclear energy – or hydro, either. That they have these qualities should be considered environmental lagniappe.)
We can’t know, but we’ll assume Gundersen likes caviar just fine. In the fish egg world, the drive is toward sustainability, something that ought to appeal to Gundersen about nuclear energy in the energy sphere. The value of caviar sustainability is that it stabilizes both its price and availability, the same as has long been true about nuclear energy.
So nuclear energy and caviar have a few points of contact. Maybe there’s one more. Nuclear energy helps caviar farmers and fishermen do their work reliably and sustainably. And perhaps caviar does contribute to the well-being of plant workers, at least on big splurge nights. I think we can conclude without fear of contradiction that the nuclear-caviar reciprocity is heavily weighted toward the atom.
Note: Quebec has no operating nuclear reactor, but a lot of hydro – making about 97 per cent of Quebec’s electricity. Its neighboring province Ontario derives almost 60 per cent of its electricity generation from nuclear energy. Frankly, the cap-and-trade bill referenced above seems almost a symbolic gesture – what is there left to trade much less cap?