In the twenty years since I started working at Energy Probe on nuclear energy and environmental issues, some amazing advances have happened and become widely known, with our help:
- The nuclear industry’s promise — to produce reliable, safe, economical power — has proven false. As a result, nuclear utility companies around the world have lost the confidence of their neighbours and their investors, and reactors have become “stranded assets” unable to pay down their mortgages.
- Reactor construction has been replaced by reactor shutdowns and dismantlement, especially in the advanced countries of the world, including Canada. In fact, less nuclear power was generated in 1997, worldwide, than in 1996.
- Faith in the industry’s schemes to bury its nuclear wastes “away forever” has faded among the general public worldwide. Some countries have stopped rushing toward burial. In Canada, a 9-year federal hearing process recently concluded that the industry’s concept is unacceptable, and Canada should stop and think before moving to a specific dump site.
- India and Pakistan’s many nuclear weapons tests — at least some of them using materials from Canada or from Canadian-designed reactors — have educated people around the world to the links between “civilian” Candu reactors and nuclear weapons.
- Scientists have established that the health effects of radiation exposure are proportional to the dose, down to much lower levels than previously demonstrated, and with much greater effects per unit dose. Partly as a result, exposures long considered “acceptable” by the industry and its regulator, the Atomic Energy Control Board, are no longer being accepted by communities near nuclear facilities.
But despite these amazing advances, and despite our efforts, the nuclear industry and its government backers keep going as if they were keeping their promises:
- The Canadian federal government is just as determined to spread nuclear reactors around the world in 1998 as it was in 1978, when I began. Late last year, the government extended the largest export loan in Canadian history — after the federal Export Development Corporation refused to make the loan itself — to enable Jean Chrétien and the Chinese Premier, Li Peng, to conclude a deal on two Candu reactors. The Prime Minister and the government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. have been just as aggressively pursuing reactor sales opportunities in Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, and elsewhere.
- The government continues to deny the link between “civilian” nuclear materials and technology and their military uses. After India tested nuclear weapons almost certainly made with “Maple Leaf” plutonium, and a hydrogen bomb certainly made with tritium from a Candu reactor, the Prime minister excused Canada from all responsibility because 24 years had passed since the first Indian explosion using our plutonium.
- The government has also continued to spend taxpayer funds on the reactor design that has made Ontario Hydro and New Brunswick Power unable to retire their own debts. In fact, the government scrapped AECL’s basic research programs, which were the source of legitimate Canadian pride, rather than cut the reactor program that has caused such financial loss and embarrassment.
- Without any public or parliamentary discussion, the federal government has offered to accept plutonium from Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons for use as Candu reactor fuel — an ill-conceived plan opposed by disarmament experts and environmentalists alike, and supported primarily by the nuclear industry.
In short, some issues have changed remarkably, while others would be familiar to a modern Rip Van Winkle. The unchanging issues are all the more amazing, considering how long it’s been since nuclear power was a popular and promising technology.
Just now, revolutionary changes are sweeping over the electricity industry, in Canada and elsewhere — changes like allowing new generators to compete with the old monopolies, and allowing customers to choose which power they buy. These changes — if properly managed — promise to help usher in a post-nuclear era, with smaller, safer, and greener generation sources, especially renewables and ultra-efficient co-generation. Badly managed, these changes could set back the cause of green power and prolong the age of dirty, unsafe megaprojects.
We are working — with supporters like you, the press, regulators, and government committees — to ensure that these changes benefit customers, the environment, and future generations. With your help, we can create a new electricity system that is fiscally and environmentally sustainable.
Director of Nuclear Research