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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the November 2002 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.23, No.4.   Artwork by Lorne Whitlock.

Buddy Can You Spare a Paradigm?

by Jeremy Whitlock

If only nuclear power weren't a million times better than other technologies: If it were only a "few" times more energy efficient. If it could kill only ten times less people than fossil fuels. If it could emit at least a tonne or two of air pollution.

Maybe then the public would be more accepting.

As it stands, nuclear's greatest PR challenge is its failure to conform. Imagine a revolutionary new food a million times more nutritious than conventional products. Social inertia would kill it in the starting blocks.

The masses have difficulty buying into something they can't label. Right wing entrepreneurs and free-marketeers balk at nuclear's history of state involvement. Leftists grumble at the elite they perceive to be in control. Environmentalists eye with suspicion anything big. Economists eye with suspicion anything big and requiring a loan. Politicians eye with suspicion anything big, requiring a loan and seeking their opinion.

Scientists, accustomed to calling a spade a spade, generally have little problem with success. They tend to regard nuclear power as the best thing since sliced wood, but they're largely ignored unless an asteroid is heading for earth, or one of them wants to genetically modify something.

Natural gas knows how to play the game: Be proud that you're half as dirty as coal! Who cares that you're a dwindling resource? You're natural! You're the same technology millions of people have in their basements!

So we have politicians bending over backwards to kiss this blarney stone: Two 800 MW gas plants get approved in Mississauga and Brampton with next to no environmental review, nor public demand for one. The Public Utilities Board in New Brunswick decides that surplus electricity from a refurbished Pt. Lepreau would be an economic risk, while ignoring gas price uncertainty in the same time period. The federal government deletes all mention of "nuclear" from its Kyoto strategy.

Overseas, beleaguered British Energy shells out 100 million pounds a year in climate change ransom that has nothing to do with its nuclear generation. Kyoto negotiators decide it's okay to sell a gas plant to a developing country for CO2 credits, but not a reactor.

Meanwhile, uber-antinuke group Energy Probe, guerrilla marketing arm of the natural gas industry, has been playing the game with skill for two decades. They care not so much about the environment as they do about pushing their vision of free markets, localized government, and mass privatization. EP does this by portraying the concerned environmentalist. In the beginning they sang the praises of solar and wind with the rest of the choir – claiming, for one thing, that the 401 through Toronto should be roofed with solar cells.

In the early-80s they led the fight against nuclear expansion while unabashedly accepting funds from the natural gas and oil industry ("I don't think there's a conflict", says an EP spokesman).

They embraced all the flavours of the week as they came up, and, except for an embarrassing run at the Nuclear Liability Act in the mid-90s, generally kept themselves smelling pretty.

And recurring throughout, like a Bach fugue, was their agenda of capitalism, privatization, and the fuel of choice, natural gas. Understated at first, the true colours now emerge to full fanfare, in step with the times. The new millennium finds Energy Probe with a wide audience and a cultivated media insider network to help reach it: More exposure than ever, and – as an enterprise profiting from public opinion – more conflict of interest as well.

The traditional trappings have all but disappeared: solar and wind are passé, it turns out, due to their required subsidization. (EP's distaste for public money does not run so deep, however, as to prevent their own suckling on the teat: charitable tax status, intervener funding, support from government agencies and ministries such as the CBC and HRDC.)

Should nuclear advocates be bitter? Of course not. Snake oil salesmen are as old as commerce itself. When the price of natural gas shoots through the roof, as it surely must, and when the climate change paradigm embraces non-combustion energy technology, as it surely must, all will be well.

But neutrons will never be warm and fuzzy.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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