The Truth about Nuclear Energy: Is it Really Green?

As temperatures rise and the impacts of climate change continue to alter our relationship with the environment around us, governments and industry tout nuclear power as a “zero-emission” energy source. But as we already know — when it comes to supplying energy and resources for the lifestyle of consumption that has become the norm — the cost on the environment is never net-zero. 

With around 15% of Canada’s electricity already coming from nuclear, can we trust the chorus of government statements claiming that nuclear energy is green?

Unlike with coal or natural gas, nuclear power generates electricity without producing significant greenhouse gas emissions. However, evaluating the lifecycle of nuclear energy production — including the ultimate disposal waste from spent fuel and contaminated reactor decommissioning debris — is a critical part of evaluating the environmental impact and sustainability of nuclear energy. 

This nuclear lifecycle is one that does not align with Kebaowek First Nation’s stewardship practices — but is now something they have had to consider in their environmental management of all life on their territory thanks to three nuclear reactors built by the Government of Canada right on the edge of the Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) without the consent of Algonquin peoples. 

Now, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), a company contracted by the federal government to operate its nuclear reactor sites, wants to permanently dispose of over 1 million metric tonnes of historical, present, and future nuclear waste at the Chalk River Laboratories reactor site next to the Kichi Sibi. 

So, how long must this radioactive waste be isolated from people and the environment to eliminate its risk? And, what are the chances of it leaking into the environment?

 To see how nuclear energy is not as green as it sounds, let’s look at the whole process, right from the mining of Uranium, to the degradation of a nuclear waste disposal facility and the release of its contents into the environment.

Step 1: Uranium Mining 

It’s no secret that anywhere a mine goes — environmental disaster typically follows. Through the methods of open-pit mining, underground mining, and in-situ leach mining, uranium ore is extracted from the earth. 

Each method  involves a variety of environmental risks. For each ton of ore processed in open-pit mines, 40 tonnes of waste is produced. There is an unreasonably high personal risk for workers in underground mining for fatal accidents and lung cancer. The risk of water contamination in in-situ leaching is high. All of this would be bad enough without mentioning highly toxic tailing ponds, which release enormous amounts of toxins into the air and water. 

We’re just one step into the lifecycle of nuclear energy, and so far, it’s not sounding so “green”. 

Step 2: Generation

Nuclear reactors are used to put the uranium through a process called fission — producing heat that is used to generate electricity — great, right? 

Well, not really. A nuclear reactor will split atoms to produce heat, usually between 100 to 800 degrees Celsius. Water in the reactor produces steam, which is used to turn a turbine and produce electricity. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that between 1,514 and 2,725 litres of water is used per megawatt hour of electricity from a nuclear reactor; this equates to billions of litres of water per year, which all needs to be filtered.

Another byproduct of nuclear fission is the accumulation of various radioactive isotopes  in spent fuel. But what happens to all that accumulated nuclear waste?

Step 3: Storage

After use, the spent fuel is highly radioactive and thermally hot. It requires immediate underwater storage to cool down and shield against radiation. Initially, spent fuel is kept in on-site pools within the nuclear power plant. Over time, the fuel is transferred to dry cask storage — robust containers designed to store radioactive materials above ground. However, this is considered an interim solution. Currently, there is no place in Canada to permanently dispose of the waste from a nuclear reactor or the contaminated debris that will result from decommissioning a reactor. 

Step 4: Disposal?

Is permanent disposal of nuclear waste possible?

The challenge here is that nuclear waste has long-lived radioactivity and represents a long-lived threat to the environment. Many radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste remain hazardous for thousands upon thousands of years — well beyond modern technologies’ ability to store it safely. CNL’s proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility that Kebaowek is opposing is only designed to “last 550 years, a period far shorter than the half-life of the radioactive material it could contain.” 

Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area Researcher, Ole Hendrickson said “This is not just hospital mops and gloves and shoe covers. This is radioactive waste from the past 80 years of working with nuclear power and the kinds of waste that resulted cannot be left in an above-ground mound. The kind of waste that comes from 80 years of nuclear research is not appropriate for above-ground disposal.”

Chief Lance Haymond of Kebaowek knows that even a bit of radioactive waste could contaminate the drinking water for millions of people living downriver on the Kichi Sibi from the Chalk River facility.

Ensuring containment and isolation of nuclear waste for extended periods is a daunting task. Accidental release or leakage of nuclear waste could contaminate soil, water, and air, posing serious health risks to ecosystems and humans. No existing disposal method is universally accepted as foolproof, but countries other than Canada have developed far more robust facilities than what is proposed at Chalk River. 

Step X: Human Error

Human error is a risky factor at every stage of the nuclear energy lifecycle, from mining, to reactor operation, to waste disposal. History bears witness to devastating nuclear incidents caused by human mistakes. We’ve all heard of catastrophic events like Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi — which were the result of human error, design flaws (human error), and inadequate safety protocols (also human error). These were profoundly man-made disasters that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. Even in routine operations, such as transportation and storage of nuclear waste, human errors can lead to spills or accidents that jeopardise environmental safety. The nuclear activities occurring next to the Kichi Sibi are every bit as vulnerable to the risks that human error produces. 

Accidents that have led to widespread radioactive contamination and long-lasting environmental impacts serve as stark evidence that nuclear energy isn’t the green energy source we’re often told it is. 

What can we do about it?

Well, the Kebaowek Nation knows that radioactive waste already exists and we have to do something with it. Their first call to action is to divert the waste storage at CNL away from the shores of the Kichi Sibi, which provides drinking water to millions of people downriver. 

Support Kebaowek’s legal challenge now and say no to the unnecessary risk posed by a nuclear waste facility on the shores of a sacred and critical river. 


The National Diet of Japan, The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, 2012

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