REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
Right now it is dawn in Toronto, midday in Paris and night in Buenos Aires.
While in Helsinki the summer sun never sets. All these cities play a part in the nuclear renaissance, a sudden renewed interest in atomic power. Dateline has traveled far and wide to find out what the experts think about the most controversial solution to the energy crisis.
JACQUES DEBARRIER, (Translation): I’d like to remind you that nuclear power plants don’t produce carbon dioxide which contributes to global warming. So I think it is an industry that is safe and reliable.
FRANK GREENING, NUCLEAR SCIENTIST: We are going against nature. We are building something that nature will fight back.
France leads the world in nuclear power. 80% of its electricity comes from 58 reactors which are spread across the nation and there are more on the way. Construction yards like this one are where the world's next generation of nuclear power plants are being built and yet this facility, the largest in the world was almost shut down a few years ago because new plants weren't being ordered. Today, crews work around the clock and there are plans for expansion to try and keep up with the surging international interest in nuclear power.
This factory in eastern France belongs to the international nuclear construction giant, Areva. They claim that the world now needs nuclear more than ever.
BERTRAND BARRE, AREVA CHIEF SCIENTIFIC ADVISOR: I think that conscience of the threat of global warming is probably the biggest single factor but at the same time you have the problem of oil prices escalating very quickly, gas prices just following suit and the very problem of security of supply which has become more and more obvious with even in Iraq, in Iran. After all, 70% of the oil is in the Middle East.
France says that it has the cheapest electricity in Europe, thanks to nuclear. It even exports its surplus energy and at home, nuclear has widespread public support.
MAN, (Translation): Nuclear power doesn’t worry you?
WOMAN (Translation): No, nuclear power doesn’t worry me at all.
MAN 2 (Translation): Here everything is monitored so there are no particular risks.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): Sure, sometimes when we think about it, we are a bit worried. But we have learned to live with it, we have never had major problems.
Currently nuclear supplies 16% of the world's electricity and France wants to see that global share grow dramatically.
BERTRAND BARRE: In the next 50 years, as you say, I think nuclear can have an impact by supplying something like 25 to 30% of the total electricity.
DAVE MARTIN, GREENPEACE CANADA: The smarter elements in the nuclear industry play their cards fairly safely. They argue that nuclear is an important part of the mix, it can be part of the solution to climate change. I would argue that's not true, for a number of reasons. But the big one is cost.
The $3.5 billion price tag of a nuclear facility is part of what has kept the atomic industry at a near standstill. But in 2002, Finland asked the French company Areva Technologies to build the first nuclear reactor in the west in two decades. This is the construction site for the world's newest nuclear reactor being built in Finland of the. The successor failure of this project is seen as being a litmus test of whether a nuclear renaissance is even possible and it hasn’t been easy going. The project is 19 months behind schedule and by some estimations almost a billion Euro over budget.
Finland has operated four nuclear power stations since the late 1970s and they have been some of the most trouble-free reactors anywhere. Now, three decades later, Finland said it needed to expand its nuclear program to meet its commitments under the Kyoto protocol.
JORMA AURELA, FINLANDS MINISTRY OF TRADE AND INDUSTRY: It means we have to keep our releases on that level, what we had in 1990 and without this nuclear unit, what we are constructing now, it would be very – would have been very difficult.
This reactor is called the European pressurised reactor and the first of its kind in the world. To date, less than halfway through construction, 1500 mistakes have been found. The industry calls this teething.
BERTRAND BARRE: We are somehow teething OVER Kyoto. The delay is not OK and it is just to prove we spend too much time without building new plants, that we have somehow to re-learn, but certainly to get back into the process of managing a big project.
DAVID MARTIN: Nuclear power is a very complex, expensive technology. It's been called an unforgiving technology and for very good reason. When you have a high degree of complexity combined with a very high capital cost, that's a very risky technology.
The catastrophic accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the 1980’s brought the growth in the industry to a standstill. By the end of 1986, virtually all orders for new reactors had dried up and scientists set about trying to design a reactor that couldn't melt down. The solution the industry came up with is known as a core catcher, a pool that sits under the reactor and theoretically contains and cools radioactive material in the event of a run away reaction. The European pressurised reactor being built in Finland is the first to include a core catcher.
BERTRAND BARRE: Were it to happen, it would not result in massive radioactivity being released into the environment. Somehow, if you have a big melt down, it is out but everything is inside and we are not in Chernobyl.
JORMA AURELA: So I would say in principle, this is the safest plant in the world.
DAVID MARTIN: These reactors can over heat, can get out of control and they can melt down. Admittedly there is a small probability of that combination of accidents leading to a melt down scenario. Low probability, but let's face it, the consequence, it is possible and the consequence of such an accident would be huge.
HEIDI HAUTALA, FINNISH GREEN PARTY: I feel slightly uncomfortable that the finished model is presented as a kind of a model for all the other nations as well.
Heidi Hautala is a leading voice in the Finnish Green Party. The Green's left their coalition government in protest over the decision to commission the new reactor.
HEIDI HAUTALA: If the world really went for nuclear in order to combat climate change, one would need to build many many nuclear power stations every year, all around the world and that would create problems that would really make visible the dark side of the nuclear energy, which is not clean, it's not secure.
This is what the inside of a small nuclear reactor looks like. In order for nuclear energy to provide 25% of the world's electricity by the year 2050, a new reactor would have to be built every week for 40 years.
BERTRAND BARRE: I know it appears a lot, but there again, look at the past. In France, which is a medium sized country, we have built 58 nuclear power plants over 15 years. Six plants per year only for France, it's not such a big deal. It's not possible today but here again, 50 years from now, we have a lot of time to rebuild infrastructures, to get in gear.
Doctor Monique Sene is a French physician respected by both sides of the debate, despite criticising nuclear power for 30 years. I met her at her home outside of Paris.
DR MONIQUE SENE, PHYSICIAN, (Translation): I f they are going to build 800 reactors as planned, on our planet, we want to know where they want to build them. And we want to know how they will be monitored. People will have to be trained, populations will have to be trained. I think it is totally unrealistic.
While France and Finland are seen as models for a nuclear future, other countries have not had the same success. Canada is a country that has had a rocky nuclear history. The reactor that powers Toronto is located closer to a major urban centre than any other reactor in the world. Originally commissioned for $3.5 billion Canadian dollars it was plagued by constant faults and delays and the cost eventually soared to more than 14 billion.
FRANK GREENING: It was cost upon cost. Each one of these has to be inspected at this elbow.
Frank Greening has is a nuclear scientist who has become a whistleblower. He says after nearly 30 years he was pushed out of the nuclear industry because he found so many problems with Ontario’s reactors.
FRANK GREENING: They shipped us a sample down to the lab and asked us “What do you make of this black dust”. It came in a petrie dish and we checked it with a geiger counter. We took the lid off, the geiger counter went off scale and we went “What's going on here?”. After doing careful analysis, we realised it's carbon 14. If you get it on your hands, it's eradiating your hands. Our real concern was people were breathing this in. They had to stop work and rethink how they were going to control this carbon 14 dust because it got over everything. We had to develop decontamination techniques to remove it.
When you say got over everything, it even got outside the reactor?
FRANK GREENING: Yes, it did, it was found in people’s offices and even in their homes.
More than any facilities in the world, Canadian built reactors have been prone to major breakdowns. Today, two of the 8 reactors at Pickering are still shut down for repairs while another two have been shut down permanently. Once a reactor begins operation they become extraordinarily expensive to fix.
FRANK GREENING: The cost of nuclear, they just sort of pile up. Compared to coal, if you get a problem in a coal-fired station you can replace a boiler tube in an afternoon. A guy can walk in there and take the Tube out and put a new one in. You cannot do that in a nuclear reactor. Everything is radioactive. A guy has to go in, right up to the reactor face where the fields, the radiation fields might be 500 miliar per hour. He might get his year's radiation dose in 10 hours.
By law a technician can only be exposed to a certain amount of radiation each year. After that, even if the limit is reached in a single day, they can no longer work in a radioactive zone.
FRANK GREENING: I think it is absurd to be putting people into that environment, dosing them up, just to collect data that you know in two years you have to collect it again. This is the situation they have got themselves into with these reactors.
How would you illustrate Ontario’s nuclear history, has it been a successful history.
KEVIN FLYNN, MINISTRY OF ENERGY, ONTARIO: I think it has been tremendously successful, it started in the early 1960s and has been providing a safe and reliable power up until 2007. I can't imagine what Ontario's source of power had been had it not been for the nuclear reactor.
Ontario is about to begin building a new generation of nuclear reactors. At the ministry of energy in Ontario, I asked about the problems encountered with the current fleet.
REPORTER: Does that history concern you when you look at moving forward?
KEVIN FLYNN: I think you have to be concerned with any technology. In my hone life I have worked with oil refineries, hydroelectric commissions. You have to be on your toes all the time. Technology is always advancing. Sometimes you learn from the installation of something.
FRANK GREENING: I have often thought that these reactors might suddenly have some catastrophic problem and people would say my God, the feeder pipe has thinned and wasn't there a guy around here who was saying that? But it hasn't happened. So only time will tell.
All nuclear reactors emit a low but constant level of radiation, either through steam or dumped cooling water. Critics say that when the nuclear industries were starting in both France and Canada, requests for comprehensive studies about the effects of radiation on communities near the reactors weren't taken seriously.
DR MONIQUE SENE, (Translation): In our appeal we insisted that much more study was required to deal with the problems of nuclear waste and radiation. In our appeal we underlined the questions that remained unanswered.
DAVID MARTIN: The simple fact is the industry is afraid of, I think, any possible risk of impacts, health impacts or environmental impacts in anyway, shape or form being brought to light. They are just afraid of it.
This is spent nuclear fuel. It must be cooled in water for 50 years before it can be buried. In this one room, 30 years worth of spent fuel from Finland's reactors is being stored. There have always been serious concerns about how to store nuclear waste but Finland has now met this challenge head-on. A tunnel leading 500m down into Finland's bedrock will become the first long term storage facility for high level waste in the world.
Finland's spent nuclear fuel will eventually be buried in giant copper canisters like this one. Each one can hold literally tonnes of spent uranium. The hope is the sturdy construction will be able to maintain its integrity through just about any scenario for literally thousands and thousands of years.
Even Finland's anti-nuclear Green Party believes this will work. In fact they are concerned about it working too well.
HEIDI HAUTALA: Finland and Sweden might become, sort of, interesting sites for nuclear waste to be brought from other countries. That's not what people wanted, that's not what they opted for.
DR MONIQUE SENE, (Translation): You know, they reassure us that nuclear waste can be safely stored deep underground, in rock as well as clay. That is simply not true. It may work for 50, 100 or 150 years, the fact is the containers will start decaying, they can’t last forever. But no one knows for how long they will remain safe. 100? 150 years? From then on, it all depends on how the planet will evolve.
Earlier this year, Dateline traveled to Argentina where we discovered that security in storage facilities is not always water tight. While I was filming in one of Argentina's nuclear research facilities, I was shown weapons grade uranium sitting in a small storage pool.
MAN: This is 90%, the concentration of uranium.
Incredibly, there was no-one there to guard it. It only takes a few kilograms of material to make a bomb. This is where much of the world's uranium comes from. The McArthur river uranium mine in Saskatchewan, Canada is one of the largest single uranium reserves in the world. The future for uranium producers, both here and in Australia seems bright. Prices have soared more than 1,000% in just a few years. But uranium, the mineral that fuels the nuclear process, is running out.
JORMA AURELA: If we would continue like we have now in the world, I mean that we have something like a little less than 500 plants and so it means that the resources in the world, they would cover it quite easily for 200 years or something like that.
But with many new reactors in the pipeline, critics put the world supply at more like 50 years of economically recoverable uranium. The nuclear industry says that the current technology in reactors makes poor use of the uranium and it's possible to get a lot more from the ore.
BERTRAND BARRE: At the end when we move the spent fuel from the coal you have used less than 1% of the content of the uranium ore. That's very wasteful. But the good news is the 99% remaining is still somewhere.
This animation demonstrates how uranium fuel rods can be broken up and then difficult solved in acid in order to be recycled and then reused. Unfortunately this process prowess more waste that can be used to make weapons and dumps higher levels of chemical pollution, which is why most countries have chosen to use nuclear fuel only once. But for all its complications, nuclear remains an attractive option for many. Even for the operators of the infamous Three Mile Island facility.
In the Areva plant in France I found parts which will be used to rebuild the reactor that melted down 20 years ago. It's due to come back online in 2009.
REPORTER: Do you believe that nuclear power can make a substantial contribution to fighting global climate change?
FRANK GREENING: Yes, I do. It has to be the right nuclear technology and it has to be proven and it has to be reliable and it has to be economic.
HEIDI HAUTALA: At best nuclear can only provide a fraction, maybe 20% of the electricity need of the world. And we still need to cover 80% with other means.
Renewable technologies are gaining real ground as sources of alternative energy. But to date, world wide, they have received only a fraction of the investment needed to make them a real contender.
DR MONIQUE SENE, (Translation): If we really want a solution…they have been talking about doing it for years, but nothing has been done. As early as 1974, people in France have said why not develop, simultaneously with nuclear power, all the other sources of energy we have in France, such as solar, biomass, and other sources already available. But it was not done.
DAVID MARTIN: I think that nuclear power is the one thing that will stand in the way of a truly meaningful and permanent solution to global warming. If we invest in nuclear, we won't invest in the real solutions.
BERTRAND BARRE: We can meet a challenge but we must implement all the possible ways to meet this challenge and nuclear is just part of the story. If we follow this path, we will not be able to do the challenge. We are not the saviour, but if we are worried about this, I doubt you will be saved.
Feature Reporter: The nuclear renaissance
LAURENT HAUBEN (France)
SARAH GILBERT (Argentina)
ILPO SALONEN (Finland)
Translations / Subtitling