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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the May 2003 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.24, No.2.   Artwork by Lorne Whitlock.

Leaving the Barn Door Open

by Jeremy Whitlock

Our nuclear conferences are rather monochromatic affairs, as most corporate gatherings tend to be. Plenary sessions offer vistas of grey pin-stripe and matching hair. Sombre intonations resonate about past successes, current concerns, future strategies – all with a dour stoicism befitting a Very Serious Business.

Here and there a refreshing glimpse of colour, like the girl in the pink dress in "Schindler's List", indicates the rare presence of a female attendee. The eye is drawn to the novelty. The mind appreciates the creative respite.

There is much to be colourful about in our industry. We desperately need novelty, creativity, fresh approaches – in short, spunk. We are, every war-weary one of us, the custodians of one of the most important inventions of Mankind, and apparently one of the most misunderstood.

Let us do as W.B. Lewis exhorted, at the pinnacle of his elder statesman status, and fight a bad meme with a good meme, for never in the history of this planet has a technology generated as much energy with as little impact on the environment.

And all despite the technology being yet in its infancy. This "Mozart phenomenon" is no quirk, but a classic signature of revolutionary discovery. Another is having no limitations in sight, save self-destruction.

We need to talk to people, not just bureaucrats and politicians. We need to talk to a lot of people, everywhere, all at once and in small groups. We need to engage the beautifully objective and imaginative minds of youth. We need to earn the trust of the caring and concerned.

No clearer a wake-up call is required after Ontario's electricity overseer, the IMO (Independent Electricity Market Operator, www.theIMO.com), released its latest long-term outlook in March. It appears that Canada's industrial heartland needs some 15,000 new megawatts in the next 15 years, including replacement/refurbishment of almost half the province's aging supply.

Unfortunately, the first decade of that forecast looks pretty good for supply; the bottom drops out in the subsequent five years. This is fortunate for the air-conditioners, but very unfortunate for the planners who have already spent 15 years hamstrung by political interference.

It's a classic problem: how do you convince the public to build infrastructure for a 10-year horizon? Ontario Hydro tried to do it in the late-80s and got side-swiped by a recession, with Energy Probe leading the cry of repugnance (TBANG: Too Big and Not Natural Gas). Some of those projects would be coming on-line about now, and instead a few are being reconsidered in 2003.

The IMO wants reliability, and logically suggests more nuclear power. The federal government wants image, and logically pretends nuclear power doesn't exist. Its bright idea for meeting Kyoto targets turns out to be getting Canadians to use less electricity.

Fat chance.

But who cares when you've got (seemingly) 10 years' breathing room? That's another politician's career.

In the U.K. a similar fool's paradise has the Blair government vowing to reduce CO2 production by 60% from1990 levels over the next half-century, while replacing nuclear power's 20% share of national electricity production with renewables.

Or at least that's the war cry for the next five years, at which time they'll have another look at the situation. This "leave the door open" cop-out is the biggest tribute to political ephemerality since an NPD government went berserk in Ontario and short-circuited its electrical utility.

Which brings us to nuclear waste management: our finest example of a necessary technology with too much breathing room. Decades of research, millions of dollars, years of public review, the most appropriate geology in the world - and merrily we punt the topic from immediate view. While our new Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) gives three years' sober second thought to the whole affair, we shut down our Underground Research Lab and bleed away the expertise.

So what's really needed is a Nuclear Waste Creation Organisation. Its three-year mission: to boldly go where no federal government has gone before. Have it out with the public, coast to coast. Lay out the needs, the options, the true costs. Answer all questions mercilessly. Consider all roads forward. Suffer only the facts. No havering, wavering, or favouring. The mandate at the end of the day: how we are really going to make electricity in this country for the next 50 years.

Sounds a bit colourful, perhaps, but there you go.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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