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1:24 a.m.: “Under intense heat, the core began to break down. Fuel assemblies fragmented, control rod channels warped, steam built up furiously and, finally, steam tubes burst. Tons of steam and water shot into the reactor, causing a tremendous steam explosion. Steam pressure blew the 1000-ton steel- and cement-filled biologic shield off the top of the reactor, destroying the roof of the reactor building along the way and exposing the hot core to the atmosphere.”

It’s been 26 years since the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and even the most technical descriptions still easily conjure images of glowing radioactive waste and abandoned homes.

Chernobyl has become a ghost town, and the best we can do now is to build a shield – both figurative and literal – over one of our greatest human mistakes. Engineers are currently working to add a second layer to the concrete dome which envelopes the reactor at the center of the 32-km “exclusion zone” – a patch of earth written off and left to fend for itself.

Since 1986, enthusiasm for nuclear power has waned, with supporters even casting a wary eye toward the entombed city of Chernobyl. The 2011 Fukushima disaster seemed to confirm the worst of our fears about the inherent safety of this technology. Even Germany – the archetypal green state – has announced plans to move forward without nuclear energy. France has also pledged to reduce its nuclear reliance.    

Canadian branches of respected environmental organizations Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have come out against nuclear energy, advocating for a nuclear phase-out that would see Canada’s output decline to zero without renewal and its existing plants slowly dismantled.

In this atmosphere of global antipathy, Canada’s nuclear power industry has begun to die a slow death. The impact will not be nearly as dramatic as the abrupt end at Chernobyl, but it may well be felt for just as far into the future.

Canada currently operates five nuclear plants (three in Ontario, two in Quebec), all of which have successfully used the Canadian-invented CANDU heavy-water reactor through 20 to 30 years of operation. They have a combined capacity of roughly 12.6 GW, more than twice Canada’s current output from wind energy and accounting for roughly 15 per cent of national electricity generation.

With one reactor already down for repairs, Quebec put its second reactor on hold after Fukushima. Hydro-Québec recently announced that this second reactor will be shut down for good later this month, beginning a 50-year, $1.8-billion decommissioning process. Alberta also scrapped plans to build a series of reactors in 2011. Only one potential new nuclear plant, in Ontario, is currently under consideration (although there is some suspicion that Saskatchewan may be building another), and the province’s other reactors are nearing the end of their lifespans. Other provinces, like BC, have explicitly refused to entertain the possibility of nuclear.

There are likely going to be no explosions, no mass evacuations and no national panic, but like a boxer who has taken too many left hooks, Canada’s nuclear industry doesn’t seem to have much fight left in it. Fukushima has finally eroded our ability to squint and look past Chernobyl, no matter how thick the concrete with which we surround its wreckage.

Sensing victory on the horizon, critics such as Adam Kingsmith have gleefully declared, “Fukushima’s disaster has been rather discrediting to [the World Nuclear Association’s] theories of nuclear realism, shattering illusions of nuclear stability constructed by the nuclear industrial lobbies both in Canada, and in the other 29 countries currently operating nuclear power plants.”

With the federal government working against renewable energy on one side and environmentalists working against nuclear power on the other, Canada stands in danger of losing a large chunk of its emission-free energy with no ready means to replace it. It’s depressing to think that we could double our wind power capacity and still be no further ahead. 

Given the current political realities, I don’t think we should replace nuclear. There are no structural impediments to building the requisite number of wind farms, but my feeling is that our time is better spent preserving the nuclear energy that we’ve got.

As much as anything, we need more national debate. A\J readers, where do you stand on the issue of Canada’s nuclear future?

A\J blogger Dan Beare responds: No Slow Death for Nuclear Power.

The Renewable Energy blog showcases weekly posts by Stu Campana on current renewable energy issues. With fascinating projects underway across the country – from community solar power in Milton, Ontario to wind farms in Pictou County, Nova Scotia – Stu will connect these stories through attention to the broader scientific perspective, international political climate, and social variables they involve.

Stu is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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