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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the September 2008 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.29, No.3.

The Pride and Some of the Glory

by Jeremy Whitlock

Toronto photographer Sandy Nicholson's new book "2nd: The Face of Defeat" (Magenta Publishing for the Arts, 2008) celebrates the unsung second-place finishers in sport and other competitive fare: the respectable "also-rans", the "first losers", the folks that cameras normally ignore once the finish line is crossed by someone else.

Canada can almost be defined as a nation content to be second. It's one of the subtleties that separate us from the Americans (finding and discussing such subtleties also being part of our nature). Their birthright is our holy grail, and the journey to almost get there is, to us, worth entering the race.

When we say "it's an honour just to be nominated" we mean it, and frankly, most of the time we're not entirely sure what we'd do with the top honour if we ever won it anyway. There are a few exceptions, of course. Hockey is one. Our beer is unequalled on this continent. And grumble though we might, we're fairly proud of our universal medicare.

Witness the national pride in our "silver streak" at the Beijing Olympics. Eighteen trips to the podium, fifteen of them for almost winning. We cheered just as much when Mike Brown narrowly missed bronze by 0.09 seconds in the 200-metre breaststroke, as when Simon Whitfield found his extra gear and almost took the marathon.

Whereas the Chinese openly cry when one of their poster athletes misses his or her mark, we raise a glass to the noble effort. According to a Canadian Press/Harris Decima poll almost 80% of us were quite satisfied with our athletes' performance in Beijing.

And why not: it was our second-best Olympics of all time.

For the second-largest country on the planet, with the ninth-largest economy and the thirty-sixth-largest population, any day we're invited to eat at the big people's table is a good day. We earned that right gradually during the 20th century, and at no more remarkable a time than during and directly after World War II.

It was a time of great sacrifice, but also great scientific progress and some rare firsts for Canada, especially in the nuclear field. As the war began the NRC's George Laurence unpretentiously built the world's first graphite pile, and by war's end we were putting together the world's most powerful research reactor.

Our greatest nuclear achievement at this time, however, was a silver medal: second nation to create a sustained nuclear chain reaction (ZEEP), which was also the world's second heavy-water reactor. We ended the war with the world's second-largest nuclear infrastructure and we were pretty darned proud of it.

Then something strange happened.

The war had bootstrapped us to the gold medal podium in nuclear science, and for many years afterward it seemed to be Canada that set the standard. Nuclear physics, metallurgy, chemistry, radiobiology, environmental science, electronics, digital control, plant designů The world beat a path to our door.

Eventually times changed and budgets shrank, but we emerged with a world-leading power reactor that still holds the silver medal for popularity around the world. Moreover, as times continue to change the dream of resource efficiency and fuel-cycle flexibility is arousing new interest in our strange machine (which still holds the gold medal in those areas).

Ironic, because at home we seem to have trouble, at times, deciding whose technology to go forward with. At least that's the official story, and it's downright insulting to Canadians who paid over $6 billion to develop a home-grown industry which competes in the big leagues. That the question is even asked is astounding.

Like our Olympic athletes, the CANDU reactor deserves this country's fullest support in maintaining its competitive edge, and there should be no question about where taxpayers' money will be spent on new machines.

It is our Adam van Koeverden, and a Canadian rarity: something sent into the game to win. This isn't entitlement but earned respect.

In the cut-throat world of reactor sales, it ain't no honour to just be nominated.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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