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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the December 2012 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.33, No.4.

Miscommunication is Everything

by Jeremy Whitlock

        What we've got here is a failure to communicate.

                               - "Cool Hand Luke" (1967).

A lot has been said, including in this space, about the communication woes of nuclear power - or nuclear anything. There's a good reason for that: We seem to have a handle on the technology, but apparently lack any clue about getting it publicly accepted.

In this 50th anniversary year of nuclear power in Canada, this is an embarrassment. The pioneers who broke ground at Rolphton, Ontario thought they were the tip of an unfathomable iceberg of possibilities for this country. Fifty years later, the concept of building a new reactor in Canada is just as unusual - perhaps even more so - as it was in the 1950s.

In fact, the real surprise is that nuclear power is alive at all in Canada. It leads a somewhat Keith Richards existence - by all accounts deserving to be dead but somehow still around.

Its promise has never diminished, and has, if anything, increased. But it has had trouble living up to this potential: By now Canada's north should be strewn with ultra-safe mini-reactors now decades into their operation. Instead the optimists among us think that we may, just may, have a chance to explore such initiatives in the coming years - if only we could get the technology publicly accepted.

If only we could get the technology publicly accepted - ay, there's the rub.

Some would see this as an impossible task, given the strength of the anti-nuclear meme. Others say that all we need to do is convince folks of the safety (and benefits) of radiation, and support will follow.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle - the public is reachable, but it's going to take a massive amount of work. Memes are tough to beat, and this meme is one of the toughest of them all. Its roots are in the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima, fertilized with cold-war radiation scares of the 50s and 60s, and super-boosted by Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

And it's a lonely battle - the world's fossil interests have much to lose if nuclear technology attains its logical place in global energy supply. They also have everything to gain in shoring up the renewable energy meme - for one thing because it's a proxy for fossil fuels: Every wind turbine connected to the grid is another reason for more gas turbines as dispatchable backup supply.

So why bother at all? How can one even begin to fight a meme that makes the world forget about 20,000 deaths from a tsunami? Or one that makes an entire field of medical diagnostic science, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging, remove part of its name?

Quite simply, and without apology for the cliché: because it's worth it. This is also why the technology has survived with Keith Richards-like defiance over the years. There is nothing equally sustainable to replace it.

The good news is that it can be done, but it ain't going to be easy. The answer is communication - a lot of it.

In 1998 when the federal Environmental Review panel studying AECL's deep geologic disposal plan for used nuclear fuel concluded that "safety must be viewed from two complementary perspectives: technical and social", the earth could be felt to shatter.

The wisdom of dragging public opinion into the hallowed halls of safety analysis will be debated for years - but the Panel shed light on an inescapable, and perhaps inconvenient, truth: nobody is safe until he/she feels safe. The finding sent a brand new agency, the NWMO, into the village halls around this country for three years, leading to a plan for nuclear used fuel that is envied around the world for its public inclusion.

What's needed here is much more than municipal stakeholder engagement, much more than lessons on radiation safety, even much more than reopening our nuclear sites to public tours (all of which are good ideas). The longevity and power of the anti-nuclear meme demands a long-term and comprehensive approach, starting with our education system at its earliest grades, where tomorrow's voters first learn how the world works. We need to be in all schools on a regular basis, and in every community - and the communication needs to work both ways, because as every parent knows (and as the NWMO demonstrated so effectively): listening is half of good communication.

This is as important as developing a new fuel cycle, or a higher temperature coolant. Perhaps, more important. Because without the public in the equation, we ain't gonna get no satisfaction.

Discussion welcome.

©2013 Jeremy Whitlock

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