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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the August 2000 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.21, No.2.   Artwork courtesy of Lorne Whitlock.


by Jeremy Whitlock

The nuclear landscape is shifting in Canada. In days of yore, when Research and Development meant two different things, nobody was sure of the future but most suspected it was going to be bright. Rarely was a new CANDU unit not under construction somewhere in the country. Three or four maple leaves routinely adorned the "Top Ten" lists, plastered with pride on every office and corridor wall in the industry.

That's not to say that anti-nukes had it tough either, for it was also the Golden Era of Public Inquiries. The afterglow of the Sixties faded just in time for many to dust themselves off, hang an "Intervenor" sign around their necks, and line up at the trough. Intervenor status also delivered public credibility on a platter, just a hair above an appearance on CBC's "The Nature of Things".

Nuclear power, it seemed, was Science's gift to humanity. The quintessential windfall from government research, it created gobs of clean electricity at cost, buoyed by a public infrastructure that no private enterprise could support. It was large, remote, complex, eerie, and in many ways seemed to befit its crown-corporation mantle.

Yet even in those heady days, as we now know, trouble was brewing. Our reactors were run like colonial outposts, with as much regard from above as France and Britain accorded their own North American colonies three centuries ago. Then, as now, decay was inevitable. In recent years we hung our heads as eight reactors closed simultaneously for repairs. We winced helplessly as strutting Americans ran our largest nuclear utility. We took down the "Top Ten" lists and replaced them with Dilbert cartoons.

And in our darkest hour, as so often happens, a storm blew in from a different quarter that changed everything. Deregulation of the electricity market was sweeping the continent.

For a while Ontario's fleet of 20 publicly-owned reactors were bulwarks against the tide. Open competition could never infiltrate Canada's industrial heartland while Ontario Hydro was enthroned, and Ontario Hydro could never be broken without fragmenting its nuclear bloc at the same time. Eventually, and inevitably, the hammer came down with a vengeance on Ontario Hydro, and rumours circulated shortly afterwards that the Bruce reactors were for sale.

Bruce for sale?

One might as well suggest the Queen join a rap band. Surely power for the people would forever flow from the people's reactors? What attraction could nuclear power, love-child of physics and philanthropy, possibly have for the private sector?

As it turns out, quite a lot. This summer an 18-year lease agreement was announced with British Energy, purveyors of fine pollution-free electricity in the U.K. The eight Bruce reactors (some good, some bad, some ugly) are to become the cornerstone of major North American expansion, nuclear and non-nuclear, for the upstart company.

Despite initial bewilderment (can electricity be flogged any cheaper than at-cost?), it has to be recognized that the auctioning off of Canada's once proud flagship nuclear plant was really only a matter of time. Commercialization is a mark of nuclear power's coming of age, and more importantly nuclear power's coming into the Age of Decentralization.

Much deionized water has passed under the man-bridge. The men and women who first wrested nuclear technology off the pages of textbooks and onto the country's electrical grid have passed out of the industry, and those who knew them are retiring. Soon nuclear engineers will be hired who weren't born when Pickering Unit 2 blew its G16 pressure tube on August 1, 1983.

In many areas of nuclear R&D the torch will have to be passed across a yawning chasm - the legacy of years of attrition in the workforce. Exacerbating the age gap is this country's collapsing infrastructure for nuclear education: Fewer and fewer capable hands are coming forth to receive the torch, and the industry, sadly, appears to be doing little about this mushrooming problem.

"Youth, future, nuclear" was the theme embraced by hundreds of bushy-tailed nuclear newcomers, gathering from 32 countries in Bratislava this past Spring. A noteworthy outcome of the first annual "International Youth Nuclear Congress" was a well-publicized gaffe symbolizing the gulf between Old and New. Russian Minatom boss Yevgeny Adamov largely mortified his "dear young colleagues" when he exhorted them to proudly work on nuclear weapons if so asked. The Congress subsequently rejected this notion.

If Canada's nuclear industry has matured, so has its regulator. The Atomic Energy Control Board, an entity that started life supplying the budget for Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, has gained strength and sovereignty over the years. To commemorate a recent legislative refurbishment that equalizes its bite with its bark, the AECB gets to change its name: long live the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Never again to have its acronym confused in the public mind with AECL, the CNSC stands with autonomous pride next to the CNS, the CNA, and hopefully soon the CNF. It's all very clear now, thanks.

There is cause for concern as Canada tumbles headlong into this brave new world of nuclear realism. True, we are blessed with one of the world's premiere machines, but entrepreneurs care little about lifetime cost and even less about technical elegance. Capital investment, five-year horizons, public judgement - this is where the enterprise stands or falls, and this is why pollution-belching gas turbines will remain popular despite escalating fuel prices. Canada has a strategy for meeting this challenge with the atom, but we're a bit tardy off the mark.

We also have trouble removing our head from the sand, in a world where Energy Probe is mainstream and the national broadcaster shamelessly flaunts its anti-nuclear bias. Scoffing at the lies and deceptions will lose us the day. It is time for the industry to put public affairs and education on an equal business footing with our product.

Perhaps our friends at British Energy will show us the way.

Discussion welcome.

©2000 Jeremy Whitlock

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