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Going Nuclear!

Nuclear power plant in the U.K.

Nuclear power plant in the U.K.

Well,  at least inviting a hard look at nuclear energy as an option.

Batten down the hatches! Hide the good booze! Prepare for the worst! Rafe is going to talk about nuclear, hereinafter called N to preserve the sensibilities of readers!

First a bit of background as to why I would discuss this matter now having done almost nothing on the subject since the early ’80s.

We are facing several crises in Canada just as elsewhere. Fossil fuels are about as welcome as a cow at a christening. The thought of burning a litre of gas or oil, or a sack of coal, brings exclamations of horror, yet 30 years ago coal was the darling of fuels. Remember northeast coal project and the government of which I was a part making that big deal with South Korea? And how those mining and selling it out of the southeast sector gave the government hell for creating a favoured competitor? Which it did. Coal was all the rage as scientists worked on ways to cheaply convert it into gasoline while other scientists worked on making coal clean enough to burn for power.

Those theories would be considered madness now. Or would they, considering that in their stead we have the Alberta tar sands, which make coal and oil smell like lavender perfume by comparison?

When I was a teenager after the war (no, dammit, not that war, World War II!), atomic energy was seen by everyone as the answer to our power problems. I remember a teacher telling us that there was enough energy in a streetcar (yes, we had those then in addition to the coach and four and the surrey with the fringe on top) to power an entire city. Many countries went into N as did the province of Ontario but many others did not — by an amazing coincidence those that didn’t, had no need to.

The blackening of a reputation

Why did N become so pilloried, especially by the left?

Many reasons, not the least of which was the sense of horror when we sat back and evaluated the use of atomic bomb in Japan. We had revisited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and related that to atomic energy. We started to see and read what radiation had done to the survivors and were easily led to the conclusion that if an N power plant blew up, it would be like an atom bomb. I was easily frightened because, you see, I’m one of those who stands back from the photocopy machine because I’m sure it’s going to nuke me!

I’ve not come easily to asking this question. In fact there have been two triggering mechanisms, first Kim Il Campbell selling out our rivers to private interests and second the huge constitutional question that’s emerging. Let’s deal with the latter.

Nuclear and the separatists

The tar sands are the world’s biggest polluter and are seen by the government of Alberta to be its economic salvation taking them back to the balmier days of Peter Lougheed. “Resources” come under provincial jurisdiction, though the taxing authority and export power rests with Ottawa. British Columbia, evidently slobbering to have the pipeline from the tar sands traverse the province and the product shipped from our coast, would, under the present government, stand with Alberta.

Flash your mind back to the late ’70s when the Trudeau government passed the National Energy Plan to take control of power through their power to tax and power over exports. The crisis was a real one. Alberta bumper stickers said “let those eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” No one really took them seriously except Brian Mulroney who got rid of the policy shortly after taking office.

The question we must all consider is what the impact of Alberta in revolt and an aroused separatism in Quebec would be. We must remember that in 1979, though a Quebec separation referendum was to come shortly, there was no Bloc Quebecois and the Liberal party was truly national.

It’s not my purpose to deal with the legitimacy of the NEP nor to get into constitutional nitpicking — we’ll have time for that later — but to say emphatically that Ottawa playing with Alberta’s oil could be dangerous to more than just relations between Ottawa and Edmonton and that the unity of this country will be in issue.

Now, enough politics — let’s look at the merits.

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl

In 1979, the Three Mile Island disaster occurred. It involved failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators, due to inadequate training and ambiguous control room indicators, to recognize the cause of the problem. It’s well to remember, as the bumper sticker of the day proclaimed, “More people were killed in the front seat of Ted Kennedy’s car than died at Three Mile Island.”

But, said opponents, look what might have been! A thought I shared, incidentally.

The Chernobyl disaster in Russia in 1986 made the “antis'” case almost irrefutable. Here an atomic power blew up and sent a nuclear haze across much of Europe. That it was an old plant subject to the economic and safety ineptitude of the Soviet Union was passed over as we all reacted with horror.

It’s wise to look at what damage was done. A 2005 study prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), concluded there were 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed people.” Those aren’t trifling figures and as Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated, health consequences may not show up for decades. But it isn’t Hiroshima either.

The combined effect of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island was to stultify any consideration of N power thereafter.

Not so everywhere and it’s worth noting that in Europe there are now 186 nuclear power plants in production, including 19 in the U.K., and 17 being built.

Questions that need asking

I do not, repeat not, say we should adopt an N power program in B.C., only that we stand back and look at N with a jaundiced eye but still look. We are, under the Campbell Liberals, bound and determined to destroy our rivers. Campbell, nose growing all the time, says we need the power and that’s why our rivers must be sacrificed. His nose stretches because we do not need the power and even if we did, private river projects won’t help because they only produce power when BC Hydro doesn’t need it. But if there’s a valid alternative, shouldn’t we look at it?

There are, as I see it, these concerns to be dealt with, any one of which would negate the arguments for N energy.

1. Is it, under 2009 conditions and knowledge, safe? Even if it’s safe under everyday circumstances, could terrorists use it to create an atom bomb like disaster?

2. How do we dispose of the waste? It’s been this problem that has for many people made the issue a non starter.

3. Is it cost effective? We know that they haven’t been but are the numbers better now?

4. Is it really green, considering what it takes to build and maintain a facility.

We would be damned fools to rush into a pro-nuclear policy but also damned fools not to consider it.


Addendum: A special environment committee including Dr. David Suzuki has urged the Campbell autocracy to re-examine their private power decision.

Says the estimable Dr. Craig Orr from Watershed Watch, B.C. conservation groups are in broad agreement that the government’s strategy is “seriously flawed and needs a major overhaul”.

The Tyee can take a well deserved bow for being the only media outlet that has consistently encouraged debate on this subject.

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