A Little Dose of Reality

Opinion is one thing, but facts are facts. Ontario Hydro's mismanagement of its nuclear fleet says nothing of the efficiency, economics, nor safety of the technology itself. In 1993 the firm of Ernst & Young reported that the people of Canada had invest ed some five billion dollars in nuclear research and development, over the four decades since the creation of the crown corporation AECL. What has been the return on this investment? The same report lists the following:

  • Between the years 1965 and 1989, domestic nuclear power saved approximately $17 billion in foreign exchange. This saving continues currently at a rate of about $1 billion per year.

  • Between the years 1962 and 1994, the nuclear industry contributed at least $34 billion to the Canadian Gross National Product.

  • The nuclear industry currently employs 26,000 people directly, and a further 10,000 indirectly.

  • The value of nuclear electricity produced in 1994 alone was $4 billion, almost equalling the federal R&D investment listed above.

  • The trade surplus for the Canadian nuclear industry was $500 million in 1991. The nuclear industry is one of only two Canadian high-tech industries (the other being the aerospace industry) showing an annual trade surplus.

I submit that nuclear power in Canada has long since "made back its buck".

The statement has also been made that "we don't understand the full fuel cycle". This is as common a misconception as the one about Plutonium being the "most dangerous substance on earth". It usually means that the person making the statement hasn't rea d enough about the subject. To wit, Canada is a world-leader in fuel-cycle research, including spent-fuel disposal. A technology for the final burial of spent-fuel in Canada is undergoing a lengthy Environmental Review process, and is one of the most ca refully scrutinized environmental plans ever proposed.

The basic proposal is to emplace ceramic spent fuel (highly resistant to dissolution) within containers that won't leak for thousands of years, a kilometre down in granite rock that hasn't moved in three billion years, amongst ground-water movement measur ed in the hundreds of thousands of years. In comparison, fossil-fuelled plants typically dispose of their waste products in the lungs of the general population.

This leads to my final point, which is: choice. Nothing written here implies that nuclear power is perfect, but when thousands of megawatts must be produced, how will society choose to do it? Anyone who counters that "thousands of megawatts" need not be produced is not living in the real world. We live in a highly industrialized society, which, globally, is becoming more industrialized at an exponential rate. Countries like China deserve the same standard of living that we do, but to get there they need energy, and lots of it. They burn fossil fuels. They dam rivers. They build nuclear reactors. These are the options -- each with its costs, its risks, and its environmental burden. Of the three, the best in terms of both pollution and land impact, is clearly nuclear power (although power grids usually operate best with a healthy mix of supply options).

In Canada, we have the same choice. Surely, we will burn more fossil fuels, and that can be done a lot more cleanly than before. Surely, we will dam more rivers, but that option has dwindled to near zero in the industrial heart of the country. Just as surely, we will need nuclear power. That basic truth is unaffected by all the self-congratulatory rhetoric arising from the anti-nuclear cottage industry in Ontario, and neither is it affected by the Ontario Hydro report itself.

More information on the Canadian nuclear industry can be found in my website, The Canadian Nuclear FAQ, at http://www.nuclearfaq.ca.

Jeremy Whitlock