A version of the following article appeared in the Hill Times
The Commons Report: The coming nuclear winter and all that political
If there was ever a time to reconsider nuclear, it is now, global
climate change is upon us
By Elizabeth May
September 26, 2005
The term "nuclear winter" remains the unimaginable threat
of a cold planet in the wake of a full-scale nuclear war. We heard
it a lot in the Cold War years, and to a significant extent, that
threat has receded. The potential of nuclear holocaust will never
really disappear so long as nuclear arsenals exist. Nuclear weapons
must continue to be dismantled. New threats of terrorists with so-called
"dirty bombs" and stolen plutonium form the stuff of current
I am using the term here in a different sense. All signs suggest
this winter could be dominated by a major nuclear debate. Ontario
Premier Dalton McGuinty has announced that he would consider building
new nuclear reactors should it be recommended by the Ontario Power
Authority's December report. Meanwhile, Premier Bernard Lord of
New Brunswick pledged to find provincial funds for the $1.4-billion
re-tubing of Point Lepreau, even after the sensible decision of
the federal government to reject the province's pleas for hundreds
of millions. New Brunswick is counting on the taxpayer through a
back door: the pledge of guaranteed and fixed costs from the Crown
corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL). AECL is notorious
for cost overruns such as building Pickering which ballooned from
$5-billion to over $14-billion.
The nuclear industry has a terrible reputation, Chernobyl and Three
Mile Island. Public resistance to nuclear power in the wake of those
near catastrophic accidents led to a de facto decision that new
nuclear reactors would never again be built in North America. The
last reactor ordered was in 1978. It has been a long drought for
the nuclear pitchmen. Only with interest free loans of billions
of tax payer dollars have CANDUs been build over seas.
That was then and this is now. The nuclear industry is trying for
a come-back in North America. It is counting on two things. First,
that the few decades separating us from the last major nuclear accidents
will have dimmed the public memory. Second, it is counting on the
threat of devastating climatic disruption due to reliance on fossil
fuels to make nuclear the "lesser of two evils." Some
prominent voices in the environmental movement have been moved by
the latter argument to decide to accept, and even promote, nuclear
power. Sir James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, has
joined the pro-nuke camp. As have others.
If there was ever a time to reconsider nuclear, it is now. Global
climate change is upon us. Burning fossil fuels is most certainly
a clear and present danger. It is primarily a security threat, as
the impact of severe weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina,
makes clear. Regardless of whether that hurricane was super-charged
by climate change or not (and on this point there is a legitimate
scientific dispute), there is no question that the trend of increasing
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has and will increasingly threaten
lives and property. From the melting permafrost in the Arctic, to
rising sea levels in low-lying states, to persistent droughts, retreating
glaciers and devastating flooding, climate change impacts are real
and represent a threat to the environment, but also to the fabric
of human societies. The burning of fossil fuels has already led
to what is, over human time frames, an irreversible climate warming
trend. The worst case scenarios for climate change are too dreadful
to contemplate. In fact, the worst case scenarios for climate change
are likely the only thing that could rival the worst case scenarios
for nuclear power for devastating impact.
Meanwhile, the chances of a catastrophic nuclear accident, unlike
the chances of climate change, remain remote. The nuclear operation
has always represented an infinitesimal risk of a nearly incalculable
catastrophe with the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the
permanent loss of huge territory. The routine operation of reactors
is not "clean" as advertised, but very, very dirty with
tons of radioactive waste in mining, and the long term (on the order
of 100,000 year) challenge of isolating the spent nuclear fuel from
That Sir James Lovelock decided to bet on nuclear as a viable alternative
reflects his own clear-eyed vision of where the world is headed
if we do not break our addiction to fossil fuels. It also suggests
that he has not examined the economics or sound energy planning,
for it is on these reefs that the nuclear ship founders.
One must assume that in meeting the threat of climate change, society
wants to achieve the maximum amount of carbon reduction for every
dollar spent. One also assumes that we want energy options that
deliver sooner than later. It would also be a benefit if the dollars
invested met multiple energy demands. By all these tests, nuclear
is simply the worst choice.
As Ontario's Energy Minister Dwight Duncan stated (in a speech
to the Empire Club on May 5, 2005), "[t]he first 40 years in
Ontario's nuclear experiment has had significant cost over-runs,
inefficiencies and breakdowns that we cannot and should not ignore."
Ontario needs to find the power to replace the energy created by
the coal plants slated for shut down. Ontario wants to avoid brown-outs
next summer. Any new nuclear plant could not possibly be on line
in less than a decade. Moreover, the so-called "new nuclear"
remains a prototype, not even yet existing on the drawing board.
As well, nuclear energy only displaces electricity--the most inefficient
way of conveying energy.
In any free market competition, nuclear power will lose. It will
lose compared to wind power, geothermal, district energy and it
loses in a spectacular way when compared to investments in energy
productivity. Worse yet, a decision to go with new nuclear energy
will misdirect precious resources. Every dollar spent on nuclear
is a dollar that cannot be invested in the proven winners that reduce
carbon, particularly the improvements in energy productivity that
will make Canada's economy more competitive.
In the coming nuclear winter, let's demand an open and fair public
debate. Let's put the nuclear industry to some economic tests and
not allow it to use the very real threat of climate change to spook
us back into a costly boondoggle.
Elizabeth May is executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
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