The dreaded ‘N’ word

What do you know about Sweden? Ikea, Volvo, Abba, the Swedish chef perhaps?

How about nuclear reactors?

Last week, in a bold move that puts other Kyoto signatories to shame, Sweden pledged to become fossil fuel-free within the next fifteen years. That’s zero fossil fuel emissions by the year 2020.

According to the Swedish government, this is part of an effort to halt climate change and combat rising oil prices. Sweden will replace all fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like wind power and biofuels.

With a total population just slightly larger than that of New York City, Sweden has an easier task ahead of them than, say, India. But the challenge is there nonetheless.

Like most countries, Sweden’s electricity consumption has risen dramatically over the past several decades, and it has one of the world’s highest individual levels of consumption: approximately 18,000 kWh per person.

How then will they achieve this fossil fuel-free feat?

Sure the Swedes gave the requisite face time to emerging fuel cell, solar and turbine technologies, but they’ve also recognized that an ambitious plan requires compromise.

Sweden has dared to utter the ‘N’ word to make its goal a reality: Nuclear.

They will not build any new energy generating facilities, but they will make the most of the ones currently in use.

Sweden, which has been making electricity using nuclear technology since 1964, currently provides for roughly half of its energy needs through nuclear reactors.

The country has ten nuclear power reactors: seven boiling water reactors (BWRs), and three of the more efficient pressurized water reactors (PWRs).

Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, came out in favour of the oft-maligned nuclear power plant at last December’s UN conference on climate change in Montreal. “Given a choice between nuclear on the one hand and coal, oil and natural gas on the other, nuclear energy is by far the best option, as it emits neither CO2 nor any other air pollutants,” he said.

Despite rousing endorsements like these, 1950s-style ‘duck and cover’ notions still pervade popular perceptions of nuclear technology. This makes hailing it as an environmentally friendly and safe option tricky. It also presents a paradox for many environmentalists who’ve grown accustomed to demonizing fission. Concerns about nuclear waste spills, radiation and explosions are based on fear rather than facts.

Nuclear reactors do not explode. Nuclear waste cannot easily be converted into a bomb, and contamination from nuclear waste occurs rarely.

In Sweden, spent fuel from reactors is stored in underground rock caverns for a 40 year period. It is then packed in copper and stainless steel canisters and placed within bentonite clay in a granite repository 500 metres below the surface.

While this process may seem cumbersome, it is a sustainable management strategy and does not detract from the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power generation.

Still, large energy consumers like the United States are not hurrying to increase their nuclear energy output.

With Condi, Dubya and the IAEA doing the non-proliferation two-step with Iran, the ‘nucular’ option remains problematic.

Despite the fact that the US has 103 nuclear reactors, President Bush remained guarded when mentioning it as part of his ‘Advanced Energy Initiative’ in his recent State of the Union address.

Instead, as a way to keep the hands of ‘evildoers’ out of the pocketbooks of Americans, President Bush could be heard singing the praises of switchgrass. That is to say, biofuels derived from vegetation in response to what he terms “America’s addiction to foreign oil.” A kind of Methadone treatment for SUV junkies, but hardly a cure for the addiction to ‘dirty fuels’ as a whole.

Canada would stand to gain modestly from increased ethanol production. But as the primary extractor of uranium – providing 29% of the world’s total or about 12 000 tonnes per year- our economic stake in nuclear power generation is considerably larger.

Nuclear power is not perfect, but it is currently our best option to reduce air pollutants and slow global warming.

We should applaud Sweden’s move and embrace a more enlightened approach to atomic energy in our own country and abroad, before we suffocate from unnecessary pollution bred of ignorance.

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