Section 12: Nuclear Issues
Because of energy requirements, both countries have extended the licenses of
nuclear reactors beyond their original design lifetime. This could create problems
of structural stability as well as renew ongoing concerns about nuclear waste
handling, and add to the more recent security concerns. On the other hand, increases
in the number of fossil fuel plants to replace lost nuclear power can increase
emissions of airborne hazardous substances.
In its 1997 report to the Commission, the then Nuclear Task Force noted that beginning in 2003, and continuing for the next several years, numerous nuclear reactors at nuclear power plants were scheduled for decommissioning. These reactors were reaching the end of their 40 year design life as well as the time limit on their operating licenses.1 Since 2000, this situation has changed considerably -- with a new emphasis on energy self-sufficiency, utilities have requested that the nuclear licensing authorities in both countries extend licensing periods.
A "fast track" review process had been established in the United States by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to address the extended licensing issue. Atomic Energy of Canada is using a process that authorizes license extension one to two years at a time.
Radiation ages metals and causes metallurgical fatigue. Members of the public have raised the issue that extending the operating license of a reactor beyond its original design lifetime could lead to safety problems from reactor structural stability. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's studies show that many of the aging mechanisms that cause radiation damage to metals take place within the original license period for the reactor, and they have stated that it does not expect additional metal aging to be a problem in reactors granted license extensions.2
All environmental requirements for nuclear reactor facilities call for sufficient on-site storage for high-level wastes, primarily fuel rods.3 At virtually all nuclear power plants, spent fuel rods continue to accumulate in storage facilities originally intended to be only temporary. The on-going actions by the U.S. government to develop storage facilities in Nevada may mitigate this situation. Under the license renewal guidelines, the on-site storage problem is exempted from consideration in license applications. However, the possibility of radioactive waste discharges to the Great Lakes from breaching of the sites must be considered in the application for license renewal and extension. The issue of security at nuclear power plants has also been raised.
Despite the above very real concerns, nuclear power can eliminate the need for fossil fuel generation and the increase in airborne contaminants that would result. For example, in the United States from 1990-1995, "21 states achieved a 16.4% increase in nuclear generation" and "avoided 480,000 tons (non-metric) of sulfur dioxide emissions." In 1998, "nuclear power plants avoided 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide."4 If instead of nuclear-generated energy in the Great Lakes, coal/fossil fuels had been the alternative for energy production, the amount of green house gases emitted would have seriously exacerbated air quality degradation.