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A version of the following article appeared in the Hill Times

The Commons Report: The coming nuclear winter and all that political jazz
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 nuclear nightmares.

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 the biosphere.

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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