SUISSE news Summer 2017
Environment / Green Tech | Energy | Switzerland-Canada Comparisons
Today, nuclear energy is still an indispensable source of energy in both Canada and Switzerland. But the use of nuclear power has always been a controversial issue. For some, nuclear energy is recognised as one of the cleanest forms of energy. For others, nuclear power is involving risks due to the danger of radiation leaks and the problems of storing and transporting nuclear waste. What does the future hold for nuclear power in Canada and in Switzerland?
Today, 19 nuclear reactors in five plants are in commercial operation, producing 17% of Canada's electricity. All but one of these reactors are located in Ontario. All nuclear power reactors were developed and built in Canada. In total, 33 Canadian reactors have been built, 12 of which have been exported to six countries. The nuclear power industry employs 21,000 directly, 10,000 as contractors and another 40,000 indirectly. Although the Canadian nuclear sector is well-positioned around the world, it has experienced stagnation in recent years. A major problem is that Canada builds heavy-water reactors, while most of the world’s nuclear power plants use light-water reactors.
The decision to invest in nuclear power rests with the Canadian provinces. Currently, there are some refurbishment projects underway. But proposals to build new nuclear reactors have been deferred or abandoned. Two reactors were planned in Ontario and one each in New Brunswick and in Alberta.
The problem of nuclear waste disposal is still not resolved in Canada. Until a permanent disposal repository for used nuclear fuel is built, nuclear power plant operators store the waste at their plant sites. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization was tasked with finding and constructing a suitable underground storage facility to permanently store high level waste. However, this organization has still not found such a location and aims at the year 2035 for a final solution.
In the study Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy (2016) different scenarios are described in which nuclear energy is assumed to be maintained at today’s levels with the addition of expected refurbishments. But no new capacity is added out to 2050. One scenario, however, includes a significant increase in nuclear power between now and 2050. This would call for advanced reactor types, using for instance thorium-based fuels rather than uranium.
In another prospective study (Canada’s Energy Future 2016: Energy Supply and Demand Projections to 2040) no new nuclear units are anticipated. The annual nuclear energy generation is expected to decline from now to 2040 by around 20%.
Switzerland has five nuclear reactors generating 38% of the total electricity production. One reactor (Mühleberg) will be closed by end of 2019.
In June 2011 the Swiss parliament decided not to replace any reactors, and hence to phase out nuclear power by 2034 on the basis of a 50-year operating lifetime for the newest unit. In November 2016 a referendum initiated by the Green party proposed that nuclear plants be closed after a maximum of 45 years in operation. This would have led to the closure of three of the five reactors in 2017 and the other two in 2024 and 2029. Despite a major anti-nuclear campaign, the referendum was rejected by a majority of 54%.
The problem is that Switzerland has no national policy in place yet regarding the disposal of used fuel. A feasibility study on nuclear waste disposal shows that used fuel elements could be safely disposed of in Switzerland. But the identification of final site options is still pending. The evaluation process is focussed on three regions. A decision by the government is expected by 2027. Two smaller interim storage sites for nuclear waste have been operating since 1993.
With the decision not to build new nuclear power plants, the question arises what can adequately replace nuclear energy in Switzerland. The most obvious options are to increase the electricity imports from other European countries and to further invest into renewable energy sources. This second option, however, has some limitations: For hydroelectric energy it is difficult to find suitable sites for new facilities. Solar energy suffers from lacking land areas to install more or larger solar parks, and wind energy is not sufficiently efficient in Switzerland to provide a relevant contribution to fill the energy gap. If the above options cannot fully replace nuclear energy, there are proposals to build some gas-fired plants, which would however substantially increase the carbon dioxide emission. The last hope is that nuclear reactors with advanced technology become a reality in the next 30 years, and that they receive the necessary public support to reactivate plans for new nuclear power plants.
On Sunday, May 21, 2017, Swiss voters agreed on a new energy law that aims to promote renewable energy, ban new nuclear power plants and reduce the energy consumption. Moreover, the law is intended to make Switzerland less dependent on energy imports.
Nuclear energy in Canada and in Switzerland: