January 20, 2005
The federal government, and three provincial governments, are about to sink billions more dollars into another attempt to salvage the nuclear industry, the country’s least economic energy industry – and its most dangerous.
Last month, New Brunswick discovered that its nuclear reactor at Point Lepreau had cracks in its main steam pipe. Cracks in the same piece of equipment at a reactor in Japan just months before had led to an accident that boiled alive four workers and severely scalded seven others.
The main steam pipe at Point Lepreau, the nuclear authorities had confidently assured us, would never fail. According to their models, any weakness in the pipes would be discovered before the aging became a risk. To add to their confidence, the provincial government had just spent a whopping $70 million on an inspection program designed to identify all aging problems so that they could be fixed in a planned comprehensive renovation. The inspection program didn’t detect the cracked pipe but it did find enough other problems to boost the estimated renovated costs by almost $1 billion, from $500 million to $1.4 billion. Thanks to the cracked piping, that estimate could climb again. The New Brunswick government is now lobbying to have federal taxpayers to support its uneconomic nuclear adventure.
Next door, Hydro Quebec is also seeking provincial government approval to renovate its faltering nuclear reactor. Hydro Quebec’s opening estimate for the total cost is $1.2 billion. If past experience is any guide, that estimate will skyrocket, perhaps to $2 billion or even $3 billion.
Ontario also faces out-of-control costs. The government’s crown-owned reactor operator, Ontario Power Generation, has just announced another huge cost overrun on the Pickering A renovation project, which is now about 400% over budget. That’s just the beginning of the spending. Because Ontario Power Generation is now out of cash, and because the government is committed to refurbishing its other dilapidated reactors, it is offering to pay private nuclear operators to take on the task. Why would the government offer private companies money to run reactors that the government says are economical? Because the private companies know that the reactors are money-losers, and refuse to run them without subsidies..
On top of this, the federal government is planning to open its purse strings wide to support the export of our nuclear reactors. In the past, it justified nuclear exports to poor countries as foreign aid. Now the would-be recipient of our subsidized nuclear exports is the United States. To convince them to take our deeply discounted reactors, our federal crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada, is busy courting foreign executives at federal taxpayer expense.
Ten years ago, it seemed the nuclear industry in Canada was dead. Energy Probe’s anti-nuclear arguments became widely accepted, even by government officials, and the industry began to be phased out. Maurice Strong, an environmentalist who shared our perspective on the need to break up the Hydro monopoly, became the head of Ontario Hydro. He began by cleaning up the bankrupt utility’s misleading books and shutting down reactors. His successor continued the nuclear shutdowns, saying the industry had been run by a “nuclear cult.” The federal government, seeing the writing on the wall, began to cut the nuclear industry’s subsidies.
But the nuclear industry and its lobbyists never stopped their back room dealings. While nuclear controversies faded from the public’s radar screen, the pro-nuclear camp and its supporters in government became emboldened. Now taxpayers are faced with billions in new costs and the environment is faced with a new legacy of nuclear waste and radioactive dangers.
The nuclear threat is back. The nuclear industry must once again be fought and defeated. Together, we defeated it before. Together, we can defeat it again.