Windpower and Nuclear Power Compete for Our Energy Future
Perspective needed in the off-shore wind turbine debate
This Article Is the First in a Series of Three Articles on Wind, Nuclear and Solar Power
By Eric Stark
The issue of off-shore wind turbines in Lake Ontario is likely to resurrect itself in the coming weeks. One aspect of the debate centred on the question “Is there enough wind to make it economical?” To determine this conclusively, Toronto Hydro erected an anemometer, a wind measuring device, about a kilometer off shore from East Point Park in Scarborough. After nearly two years of data collection, the device was removed on August 27 of last year. Commenting on early results, Toronto Hydro spokesperson Tanya Bruckmueller-Wilson was quoted in the Toronto Observer of September 29 as saying: “The expectations were that the wind speeds would be 7.5 metres per second and the initial results are slightly higher than that.” She concluded that those speeds would be sufficient for wind power generation. As of this writing the data is still being analyzed by researchers at York University, and the results of that analysis are expected sometime early this year.
If the initial indications prove correct, the project would then need an environmental assessment and the support of the local community. Up to now, the project has had considerable opposition from many residents and groups opposed to wind-turbines in general. Environmental concerns were used by opponents to persuade the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) board of directors to call for a moratorium on the construction of wind turbines in the lake off Toronto’s shoreline in September 2010. Shortly thereafter the Liberal government of Ontario gave into the pressure and put the moratorium into effect across the province. When I spoke with Joyce McLean, Director of Strategic Issues at Toronto Hydro on Feb 19 of this year, she indicated that there are no plans on the drawing board and no plans to proceed with the project as long as the provincial moratorium remains in place.
But how valid are the environmental concerns which led to the moratorium and how do they compare with those of the other major sources we rely on for our electrical energy in Ontario? Many observers see worry about lakeside property values and the fear that “industrial activity” as some would call it, would detract from the peace and serenity of the lake, as being the chief reason for opposition to the project.
In 1995 I had the quixotic notion to run for the Green party in the provincial election of that year in the riding of Scarborough Southwest. One of the issues in that election was a proposed dredging operation 1.5 km off the shoreline of the Toronto Beaches and Scarborough Bluffs. Of course I opposed this for environmental reasons, many of which are similar to the ones now raised by the anti-offshore wind turbine lobby – agitation of sediments that could affect the quality of our drinking water, disturbance of fish habitat, and erosion along the shoreline of the Bluffs. In addition to these concerns, the proposed off-shore wind turbines may pose a hazard to migrating birds and bats. But the context of the debate on wind turbines is quite different. There are reasonable alternatives for obtaining sand for concrete and construction. What are the alternatives for generating electricity and how do they compare financially and environmentally? Currently we have four main options – fossil fuels, nuclear power, solar power and renewables.
Recently, the Liberal government has received intense criticism because it chose to cancel and relocate natural gas power plants in Oakville and Mississauga due to local concerns over air quality. Opponents, including our environmental columnist, say it was to win seats in the 2011 provincial election. No doubt residents of any other urban area in Ontario would not have welcomed a natural gas plant in their neighbourhood either, even though these plants are much cleaner than coal fired plants. And even when they are located far from populous neighborhoods, there are still environmental concerns with these projects. For example, many farmers, local politicians and environmentalists have mounted strong opposition to a proposed natural gas power plant in the ecologically sensitive Holland Marsh area.
Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, says “Together, we can let him [then premier Dalton McGuinty] know that it’s time to stop the Holland Marsh Peaker Plant; a plant that serves no public policy benefit and puts provincially-designated protected countryside, the Oakridges watershed, the provincially-designated significant Ansnorveldt Wetlands Complex and the muck soil of the Holland Marsh at risk.”
And that is only looking at local concerns. The global concerns relating to coal, oil and natural gas are much greater. One has only to look at the history of ecological destruction due to fossil fuel extraction and transport, from tanker spills like the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska, oil well blowouts such as the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and pipeline ruptures like the one that polluted the Kalamazoo river in Michigan where Enbridge personnel in their handling of the spill were described as acting like “Keystone cops” by U.S. regulatory officials. And now this same company, Enbridge is looking at transporting this same highly corrosive bitumen slurry through Toronto pipelines en route to eastern ports. Would we want this mixture of bitumen with volatile and toxic petrochemicals leaking into the Rouge River? As well there is the threat of water table contamination from “fracking” – a process of fracturing bedrock deep under the earth’s surface to extract pockets of natural gas. Surely the concern posted by Toronto anti-wind turbine activists, that a blade might fall off a wind turbine, and lubricating fluid might leak into the lake, while a worthy concern, pales in comparison. And as the current and potential damage caused by climate change becomes more and more evident every year, consensus is building on the need for a rapid phase-out of carbon emitting fossil fuels.
These concerns bring us to the currently only viable alternative to renewables – nuclear energy. In a recent protest that blocked the rail line near the GE uranium processing facility in Toronto, John Jacobs from the Serpent River First Nation reserve near Elliot Lake was quoted in metronews.ca on February 3. “I’m here because uranium, it really affected my reserve back home. It did a lot of damage to our river. We can’t use the river no more. We can’t fish in it. We can’t drink the water.” Indeed nuclear power has high environmental costs all along the fuel chain – from the mine to the various processing facilities, to the power plants themselves, and finally to the disposal sites for spent material which remains highly radioactive for thousands of years.
Let’s look at the health effects of living close to a nuclear power plant. A report by Reinhold Thiel to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War or IPPNW World Congress in August 2010 concludes: “The closer a child lives to a nuclear power plant, the higher risk it has of developing cancer, particularly leukaemia.” He bases this conclusion on a German study known as the ‘KiKK’ study (Childhood Cancer near Nuclear Power Plants) which he categorizes as “the most accurate and intense investigation on this issue worldwide.” Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment summarized it this way in an article published on July 10, 2010 in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health: “The KiKK study found a 120% increase in leukemias risk and a 60% increase in all cancers among children under five years old living within 5km of all German nuclear power plants…. The web publication of the KiKK study resulted in a public outcry and media debate in Germany but not elsewhere.”
Not everyone accepts this reason as definitive, in contrast to these interpretations, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission provides the following explanation on their mythbuster web page: “These studies have found groups, or “clusters,” of childhood leukemia near nuclear facilities, but clusters have also been found in areas where there are no nuclear facilities. These studies have not been able to relate the clusters to the dose of radiation emitted by the facilities. Since childhood leukaemia is thought to be caused by several factors, other factors may have been responsible for the observed results.”
One wonders why we haven’t heard more commentary on this issue in the mainstream media in North America. Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, a lecturer in Environmental Health at OISE/UT has significant concerns on tritium emissions from nuclear facilities in Ontario. In an article on the Prevent Cancer Now website she comments: “In my view, education and action regarding radioactive releases in our drinking water and air relating to radiation are often neglected in public discourse. Tritium is a known radioactive carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen (that is, it crosses the placental barrier to cause harm). It is routinely discharged from CANDU reactors into the drinking water.”
So how do these health concerns compare with those of wind turbines? We frequently hear anecdotal reports in the media which are cited by anti-wind crusaders about the noise and vibration issues that cause headaches, dizziness and loss of sleep for those living in close proximity to the turbines. But, as reported in the Law Times of Oct. 8 2012, Dr. Arlene King, chief medical officer of health for Ontario, testifying in a 2012 court case, based on her study of 2010 concluded: “The scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct health effects, although some people may find it annoying.” Needless to say this conclusion did not satisfy the opponents of wind turbines. Calls were made for Dr. King’s resignation (http://www.na-paw.org/pr-121207.php). And soon thereafter, Health Canada launched a 1.8 million dollar study to examine the issue again. It is being conducted by a team of over 25 experts in various fields such as acoustics, health assessment, and medicine including four international advisors, and will be completed by the end of next year, as reported in metronews on Feb. 11, 2013. It would certainly appear that Health Canada is taking the concerns over wind turbines very seriously. One wonders though why they have not launched a similarly intensive investigation into the effects of radioactive leakage at Canadian nuclear power plants which is known to cause cancer. In any case the off-shore wind turbines in Lake Ontario will not be in close enough proximity to lakeside residents for wind turbine noise to be of concern, and in general, appropriate setbacks should address the issue.
Now, let’s look at the design of Ontario’s CANDU reactors. According to a submission to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) in 2005 by nuclear scientist F. R. Greening:
“The innovative features of the CANDU design … are implemented through systems involving great engineering complexity. For example, a Pickering ‘A’ reactor has over 2 km of specialized zirconium pressure tubing and over 7 km of feeder piping. Each reactor has 1,560 water and gas connections to the reactor core. Every one of these 1,560 connections has to be leak tight. If D20 leaks from the reactor core it must be recovered and upgraded because it is very expensive to manufacture and contains radioactive tritium as a hazardous contaminant.
These features of the CANDU reactor design … have proven to be the source of unreliability and poor performance … that require an inordinate amount of skilled manpower to operate, inspect and repair. Many components are difficult to access, or are located in areas of high radiation fields….”
Dr. Greening concludes:
“Thus, looking at the status of CANDU in the year 2005, we see many of the 22 domestic Units in need of major refurbishments or already abandoned as beyond repair … CANDU was destined to run into difficulties due to the complexity of its design. Corrosion is a well-known concern for all nuclear plant, but when it occurs in essentially inaccessible pipe work, such as the annulus gas system, it presents a problem that is next to impossible to fix … it is time to declare the CANDU experiment over, and move on to something simpler, something proven, something better.”
Nevertheless, our current government is committed to spending (or should we say wasting?) billions of taxpayer/ratepayer dollars in an effort to keep these reactors alive. Does that make sense?
Eric Stark is a systems analyst who has lived in Scarborough for over 20 years. He is affiliated with the Green Party of Scarborough Southwest. However, the views expressed in this article are strictly his own.