Author Tags: Education, Environment, Politics
A co-founder of the Students for a Democratic University (SDU), Jim Harding was a central figure in the unrest and activism that made the new Simon Fraser University campus newsworthy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While receiving his diploma, Harding once surprised the crusty SFU chancellor Gordon Shrum by kissing his shoes. Harding was not interviewed for Hugh Johnston's period history, Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (D&M 2005).
Harding is Adjunct Professor of Justice Studies, past Director of Prairie Justice Research Consortium, and past Director and Professor of the School of Human Justice at the University of Regina. He is also past Professor of Environmental Studies, University of Waterloo, and past Professor of Psychology at Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Harding, Jim. Social Justice and Social Policy (Wilfrid Laurier, 1995).
Harding, Jim. After Iraq: War, Imperialism and Democracy (Fernwood, 2004).
Harding, Jim. Student Radicalism & National Liberation: Essays from the New Left Revolt in Canada, 1964-74 (Fort Qu'Appelle: Crows Nest Publishing, 2006).
Canada's Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global System (Fernwood 2008).
[BCBW 2008] "Education" "Politics" "Environment"
Letter to the Editor (2006)
Higher educational industrial waste
A friend has forwarded Michael M’Gonigle’s review of Hugh Johnston’s book Radical Campus, from your Spring 2006 issue. She thought I’d be interested in the photo of me holding a megaphone speaking to a SFU student rally. I’d be more satisfied to have been interviewed for Johnston’s book.
M’Gonigle comments that Radical Campus is more a biography of SFU than an analysis of the larger context. Without the context the institutional record will inevitably remain superficial. Johnston arguing that support for the pursuit of everyday democracy in the university was undermined by our bottom-up militancy, as M’Goningle reports, simply doesn’t adequately grapple with the roots of the unfolding crisis and conflict.
Those interested in some unedited words from the evolution of SFU’s activism and the larger context might be interested in my Student Radicalism and National Liberation: Essays on the “New Left” Revolt in Canada – 1964-74 (2006). These essays show the role of the anti-war and community organizing movements as precursors to the student movement, and how our activism opposing the continentalist “higher education industry” (M’Gonigle’s good phrase) helped spawn the Canadian nationalist consciousness.
It is long overdue for the student radicalism of the ’60s to be seen as a moment in the evolution of a new politics, based on an extra-parliamentary civil society search for alternatives to corporate capitalism, which is only beginning to gain historical momentum. I believe that M’Gonigle may be right that the war on Iraq is setting the stage for a renewed student movement which again makes the “radical connections.”
Jim Harding now lives in Saskatchewan. His other books are After Iraq: War, Imperialism and Democracy (Fernwood, 2004) and Social Justice and Social Policy (Wilfrid Laurier, 1995).
ONTARIO: At the Centre of Canada’s Unsustainable Nuclear System
A submission to the Ontario Citizen’s Inquiry on Uranium Mining
By Jim Harding, Ph.D.
I have just travelled through southern Ontario to learn more about its place in Canada’s nuclear fuel system. I found that Ontario has big footprints from all parts of the nuclear fuel system: from uranium mining in Elliot Lake, to uranium refining in Blind River, to uranium conversion in Port Hope, to many Candu nuclear power plants strung along the Great Lakes. And I also found that Ontario has a central place in the history of nuclear weapons.
1. From The Ottawa Valley to the Great Lakes
In my first trip in January 2008 I was in the Ottawa Valley region, including West Quebec, speaking at public meetings in Ottawa, Wakefield, Carleton and Perth. At the time an impressive alliance was growing between Algonquin First Nations and Settlers to win an Ontario moratorium on uranium exploration in the Mississippi watershed. There are now 15 municipalities including Canada’s capital city supporting such a moratorium. There is also a growing number of environmental, church and NGO organizations calling for a fundamental review of Ontario’s Mining Act, which allows mining companies like Frontenac the right to trespass without permission on unceded Aboriginal land, and private land without subsurface rights.
Seven First Nations leaders are now in Ontario jails for contempt of court because they placed the protection of land and water and their acknowledged Aboriginal rights above Ontario’s 100 year-old Mining Act. Because they are protecting the common watershed, and upholding the Charter of Rights and international law, they are acting for all Canadians.
My second trip to Ontario in late March and early April 2008 started at the YMCA’s national conference centre at Lake Couchiching, near Barrie, at a national meeting of Canada’s Physicians for Global Survival (PGS), where I presented on the environmental health hazards of the nuclear fuel system. The intense process of the doctors was invigorating, as they looked at both the health implications of climate change and the expansion of the nuclear system, including proliferation, and came to a two-track action plan to promote and protect public health. This was medical diagnosis and treatment at its collective best.
I then witnessed first hand the environmental health consequences of the nuclear fuel system at Port Hope, the longest acting site of uranium processing on the planet. I witnessed the harbour where radioactive material was dumped from the 1930s on and children continued to play for decades. Understandably, there is a deep undercurrent of stress, even fear, about how 75 years of uranium contamination has affected worker and public health. The citizens health group has undertaken its own preliminary study of radioactive body burden, and independent analyses of official health data, and though the federal government continues to deny any excess cancers, it is to start a partial removal of radioactive soil in 2009.
I then travelled to Kingston where retired Algonquin Chief and law Professor Bob Lovelace was sentenced to 6 months in jail for opposing uranium exploration at Sharbot Lake. Because of Kingston’s important place in founding the country, it was a good place to reflect on what Canada’s nuclear politics says about the health of the “Canadian project”. It is telling that Ontario is making First Nations leaders into political prisoners for protesting unsustainable and dangerous energy policies. First Nations’ female speakers reminded us “we are all sitting in the medicine wheel and that it is now a human medicine wheel.”
I then travelled to Hamilton and later to Kitchener-Waterloo, where I talked to a variety of groups, including high school, church, peace, university and physician groups, about the history of the nuclear fuel cycle in Canada. In these presentations I discussed why nuclear energy is not a fix for climate change; how Canadian uranium is still in the nuclear, including depleted uranium (DU), weapons stream; and how the economics of the nuclear industry just don’t “add up” once a careful, full carbon cycle analysis and cost-comparison is done with energy efficiency and the renewables.
On these two trips, I quickly realized how complex the nuclear situation is in Ontario compared to my home province, Saskatchewan. Some of the Ottawa Valley people trying to stop uranium exploration in their back yards were just becoming aware that Elliot Lake was one of Canada’s two main sources for uranium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. I realized that it was not only radioactive contaminants, but also an unsettling history of secrecy and collusion, that was buried in Port Hope. And I came to better grasp how Ontario people had come to feel so dependent upon electricity generated at the Bruce, Pickering or Darlington Candu plants.
Feeling dependent, whether in the addictions sense or in terms of nuclear power, never encourages deeper understanding. To start to fathom Ontario’s mindsets and dilemmas I was challenged to do a lot of “deconstructing”. Though my trip began with conversations about environmental health it soon grew into one on the Canadian history of nuclear complicity and the challenges to alter Canadian energy policy. I now want to share this journey with you.
2.The Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Environmental Health
Ontario people quickly became more non-nuclear as they learned that radon gas, the second highest world-wide cause of lung cancer, becomes more bio-available with uranium exploration; and as they learned of the legacy of contamination from radioactive tailings left at Ontario’s uranium mine and processing sites. And there are positive signs that medical groups in Canada are ready to join with the important Indigenous and Settler coalition in the interests of both environmental and human health.
Public Health Hazards of Uranium Mining:
PGS members at Counchiching returning from a recent meeting in India of sister organization Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), brought news of a just-released study on the public health risks to people living near India’s uranium mines. The health of Indian villagers living in 2118 households near uranium milling plants and mine tailings was compared to that of those living in 1904 household 30-35 KM away. Those living nearby the uranium mines had statistically significantly higher levels of congenital deformation and deaths from these, more primary sterility levels, and more cancers as cause of death, and, perhaps most significant, lower life expectancy.
The ideology of energy-driven economic growth, which the nuclear industry wholeheartedly endorses, argues that economic development opportunities provided to disadvantaged local people by uranium mining will assist them in improving their lives. This has been the thrust of Cameco’s promotions within Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan. The health of uranium mineworkers everywhere, known for decades to have higher lung cancer rates, is somehow traded off for the improved wellbeing of others – or so the implicit ideo-logic goes. But public health never gets directly studied. When it does get studied, as in the recent Indian research, the ideology of progress through contamination is shown to be a complete sham. Not only do miners but also local residents suffer from radiation-induced illnesses, but they also live shorter lives than in villages that are considered poorer. As the researchers say, “The health of indigenous people around uranium mining areas is more vulnerable in spite of the fact that their economic and educational status is better…”
The profile of illnesses is similar to that found among people living near uranium mines at Shiprock, New Mexico, and they seem very similar to reports from Navajo and Lakota communities near US uranium mines. And just why has no such study of public health among those living near uranium mines been done in Canada? The national nuclear program is a symbol of national pride in Canada as it is in India. But this pride seems to permanently blind proponents to the environmental health costs and proliferation risks that come with this dangerous technology. It seems clear that an independent medical group will have to initiate the public health studies here, as was done in India.
The desperate situation in Port Hope confirms this. High radon gas levels were finally revealed to the public in 1975. A health study was to be done in 1979, and again in 1997, but one has never occurred. Finally in 2007 the Port Hope Community Health Concerns Committee (PHCHCC) asked the Uranium Medical Research Centre to assist in a pilot study, the results of which show that both ex-workers and residents have man-made uranium isotopes in their bodies.
Challenging Nuclear Collusion:
In the middle ages, those who arrested people and those who charged and tried them, were pretty much the same in-group, and it has taken centuries of democratic struggle to create some semblance of due process and rule of law. The interrelations between federal agencies that are to protect public and environmental health from the nuclear industry and those meant to regulate the nuclear industry are so intertwined that they can be considered more feudal than democratic. The path to a sustainable society will require renewed activities for deepening democracy.
The collusion we see among the state-funded and regulated nuclear industry may explain why we have no public health studies of uranium mining or uranium processing. They probably explain why our radiation standards have remained far below those of the US and other countries, in spite of evidence of the increased risk that existing legal limits present to Canadian workers and the public at large. And this collusion likely explains why the AECL, CNA and other nuclear promoters have been so silent about the rash of studies showing greater incidence and death from leukemia among children living nearby nuclear facilities in England, France and Germany. Canadians are not going to have a different biological response to “low” level radiation than people in India, or these European countries.
The historical influence of the nuclear industry on the Canadian state means that environmental health has been sacrificed for military alliances and energy-driven economic growth. It is because of the uranium bull market, and a shortfall of uranium fuel for existing nuclear power plants, that there is even exploration for low-grade uranium in the Ontario’s Mississippi watershed. This, in turn, is partly because Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake mine, which was expected to supply 17% of the world uranium market, has flooded. Ontario Premier McGuinty apparently didn’t know that Saskatchewan still has lots of high-grade uranium reserves, but exporting most uranium to the US and France leaves a short-fall for Ontario’s Candu plants. This is similar to what occurs with the export of all heavy oil from AB’s tar sands to the US, which leaves eastern Canada having to import oil from OPEC countries. It’s clearly time to change directions and work for a made-in-Canada energy policy that puts sustainability at the top of the list.
3. Canadian Uranium in the Nuclear Weapons Stream
The nuclear collusion that leaves Canadians in the dark about environmental health has a darker origin. We like to think of ourselves as supporters of multilateralism and even as global peacemakers. Though the Harper government’s branch-plant foreign/military policy makes this more difficult each day, this self-image also flies in the face of our central role in the production of nuclear weapons.
Launching the Nuclear Nightmare:
The Port Hope, Ontario plant previously used to refine radium was reopened to process uranium from Port Radium in the NWT and the Belgium Congo to go to the U.S. for the Manhattan Project in 1943. Canada thus remains complicit in the first use of thermo-nuclear weapons on humans: the long, thin uranium bomb called Little Boy dropped on the Japanese civilians of Hiroshima, and the squat plutonium bomb called Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki. In both cases the civilians were unaware that they had been picked for these first tests of atomic weaponry.
Later, British scientists separated plutonium from the NRX reactor, which started operating near Ottawa at Chalk River in 1946. This plutonium was likely used in Britain’s first atomic test at the Monte Bello Islands, and the nuclear technology helped the UK develop its nuclear arsenal. Chalk River was also the site of the pilot work done for Britain’s Windscale reprocessing plant. The NRU reactor built at Chalk River in 1957 produced plutonium that was sold to the US nuclear weapons’ programme to help defray Chalk River R& D costs.
No matter how we try to rationalize it, Canada helped launch and sustain the nuclear nightmare. But Canada’s nuclear elite has worked hard to keep this all a secret. In Saskatchewan we only realized in the late 1970s that 25 years before Eldorado Nuclear started producing uranium from Uranium City mines which went through Port Hope to the US for their nuclear weapons. I don’t think it has yet sunk in that up until the late 1960s we were one of the U.S.’s major nuclear-weapons front-ends. Most people in Ontario likely still don’t know that uranium mines at Elliot Lake, Bancroft and other locations were also the front-ends for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Canada’s schizoid identity regarding peace and war in the nuclear age is reflected in two of our most famous political leaders. The same Lester Pearson who received the Noble Peace Prize for his work during the Suez crisis, and went on to be a pioneer of UN peacekeeping, was the Member of Parliament for Elliot Lake when it shipped uranium to the US for its weapons program. Tommy Douglas, the father of Medicare who went on as a Member of Parliament to oppose nuclear-armed bomarc missiles on Canadian soil, was Premier of Saskatchewan when uranium was secretly shipped from the Uranium City mines to the US weapons program.
Though news coverage of the regulatory fiasco over medical isotopes produced at Chalk River has begun to lift the veil, much of this history remains buried. From its start-up in 1957, AECL’s NRU reactor used natural uranium as fuel and sold the plutonium to the U.S. military. In 1964 the NRU was converted to use weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel, and the irradiated fuel rods were returned to the Savannah River military facility to be reprocessed to extract the remaining HEU for the U.S. military. In 1974 an AECL-donated reactor was used to produce plutonium for India’s first nuclear weapon. In 1991 the NRU was again converted, this time to use less enriched uranium, after the US Schumer Amendment called for an end to exports of weapons-useable materials. However the NRU, and both over-cost Maple reactors being built to replace it, still use uranium enriched just below the 20% cut-off point needed for weapons. And both designs continue to use HEU as Targets to produce the medical isotope Molydenum-99, after which weapons-grade HEU continues to accumulate.
After the NPT:
For many who know something of this history, the “weapons’ connection” ended when Canada signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. No so. The expansion of uranium mining in Northern Saskatchewan and its continuation in Northern Ontario into the 1980s is still widely thought to be about the “peaceful atom” providing another source of energy after the “energy crisis” of the mid-1970s. There remains a lot of confusion about this period. This was actually an economic, not energy, crisis brought on by rising oil prices after the formation of OPEC by oil-producing developing countries. Not only was nuclear-generated electricity not able to replace the vast majority of uses of oil, since very little electricity is produced with oil, but nuclear energy proved to not be the most cost-effective way to meet the growing demand for electricity. (Demand-side reduction, co-generation, natural gas and now wind are all least-cost options.) As such, nuclear power did not actually expand that much in the post-OPEC world. Global capacity, predicted by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) to be 1,000 Gigawatts (GW) by 1990, turned out to be a quarter of that, or 260 GW. And even with the so-called “nuclear renaissance”, in October 2007 the IAEA only projected from 447 to 679 GW as the total global nuclear capacity by 2030.
Prior to the 1988 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) guaranteeing security of Canadian energy supply for the US, the U.S. had already shut down its domestic uranium industry, and by the early1980s Saskatchewan’s new mines became the U.S.’s nuclear front-end. Though the demand for nuclear power plants did not skyrocket (e.g. more than 100 planned US nuclear plants were cancelled) the U.S. under Reagan continued to stockpile imported uranium. When we realized how depleted uranium (DU) is diverted from the enrichment process into the military it became clear that Canadian uranium was still going into the U.S. weapons stream.
With 58 reactors providing 70% of France’s electricity, and the country still active in nuclear weapons’ testing, France also targeted Saskatchewan’s high-grade uranium deposits. Even though France was not yet a signatory to the NPT, and its military-industrial nuclear system was fully integrated, Canada and Saskatchewan approved the export of uranium to France. Cogema of Areva, France is still second only to the largely US-share owned Cameco in global uranium production, primarily out of Saskatchewan.
Saskatchewan and Ontario history is intimately interlocked regarding nuclear weapons both before and after the NPT. The NDP government-supported attempt to build a uranium refinery near the Mennonite town of Warman, near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 1980 met with such opposition that the federal government withdrew the proposal and built the new refinery in its more tested nuclear hinterland, Ontario. After Saskatchewan’s mammoth Cluff and Key Lake mines opened in the early 1980s, the uranium went to the new Blind River plant for refining, and then on to Port Hope where it was converted for use in the Candu and U.S. Light Water Reactors (LWR). Some uranium was converted into uranium dioxide (U02), which was then made into fuel bundles for the Candu. Most was converted into uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which was then exported to the lucrative US market for enriching as fuel for their LWR. The enrichment process involves concentrating the fissionable U235 to about 5%, but this only involves about 10% of the volume of the imported uranium. The rest, mostly U238, is called DU. This is only a waste product in terms of the requirements of the LWR. It’s not a waste product to the US military who can still get plutonium out of the U238, just as was done with the original natural uranium-using Chalk River design. Also, by the 1990s the US Pentagon “defence” contractors were producing shells and coating weapons with DU, something that was envisaged along with other radiological weapons back in the Manhattan Project. These toxic and radioactive DU weapons have been used in the four most recent US-NATO war zones.
This was all done under the cover of the NPT and “peaceful atom”. It is ironic but telling that the US company, that wants to buy the $400 million dollar taxpayer subsidized company that built the “Canada Arm” for peaceful exploration of space, is the largest producer of DU weapons. We now know that since Canada signed the NPT that Port Hope has been directly involved in DU weapons research and production. Proof exists that this was done at least until 1992 in collaboration with the Royal Military College and U.S. Aerojet. The Port Hope citizen’s health study found DU and isotopes from enriched uranium and spent fuel in the bodies of past workers and residents of Port Hope. Neither Cameco nor, before that, Eldorado was licensed to process these uranium isotopes.
The Ontario story about the environmental health effects of the nuclear fuel system is thus intertwined with past and continuing complicity with nuclear and uranium weapons. When we realize that carcinogenic alpha-emitting uranium aerosols left from DU weapons used in Iraq and elsewhere are likely the main cause of increasing childhood cancers in the region, we will also have to face up to the realization that those responsible are going to be seen as war criminals, if not now, by future generations. The amorality will likely be as incomprehensible to future generations are past genocidal actions to us. So we must begin to honestly and in conscience connect the dots along the nuclear fuel system, and Ontario is clearly where this is most likely to happen.
4. Softening Ontario’s Energy System
Standing in the way of admitting our complicity in the development of nuclear weapons and warfare is a perceived dependence on nuclear-generated electricity. What is the potential for lifting the veils on this collective denial?
The McGuinty government has somehow become convinced it needs more nuclear power to meet future electrical demand in Ontario. Pressure to close down coal plants due to their role in creating GHGs, and unhealthy air quality that contributes to lung ailments such as asthma, has contributed to this decision. This may seem quite reasonable until you look at the assumptions, timelines and motives.
Studying Electrical History:
A short history of Ontario Hydro’s electrical supply and demand is very revealing. From 1958-2002 demand for electricity grew an average of 4% a year, which in real terms meant electrical consumption went from 28,000 to 145,000 GW.hours. This massive growth shows how averages can be misleading. But it is also misleading to only look at electrical energy production. More important is what is called electrical productivity, which measures the benefits you get from the use of electricity.
In this regards there are three periods. From 1958-1973 electrical energy productivity actually declined - which means growth in electrical consumption was higher than overall economic growth. However, between 1973-1983, energy productivity started to level out at the rate of economic growth (2.4 % for both). After 1993 we see electrical energy productivity improving - which means growth in electrical consumption was lower than overall economic growth.
There was a different story on the supply side. Over this period (1958-2002) Ontario Hydro went from producing most electricity from hydro to adding in coal and then nuclear power plants. There were some efforts at conservation in the 1980s, though the potential of renewable energy was not on its radar screen.
Expensive nuclear promotions and ongoing nuclear subsidies in the post-OPEC era impaired the ability to understand the actual supply-side economics. Though most people in Ontario probably think they are dependent on the Candu for their electrical security, this is simplistic and largely untrue. In 1993, nuclear power’s contribution to Ontario’s electrical supply reached an all-time high of 55%, just after the most recent plant started up at Darlington. But its contribution immediately began to decline due to mounting performance and safety issues with the prematurely aging Candu reactors. Eight large nuclear plants were shut down for expensive repairs in the mid-1990s, some of which never returned to service. The absolute output of the nuclear plants nosedived and its relative contribution to the total supply dropped even faster as the Ontario economy began the transition to a more efficient and productive electricity system. By 2003, nuclear’s share of Ontario electrical supply had dropped to 41%; but if we count the growth of electrical productivity as a new source of “supply”, nuclear’s share dropped to only 30%.
In fact, it is the improvement in electrical efficiency and productivity, this new source of “supply”, that has been principally responsible for averting a crisis in electrical supply over the last 15 years. Without this there would have been demand for another 50,000 GW.hours of electricity during this period. The amount of electricity saved by energy productivity or efficiency was equal to that produced by all Ontario dams, or all its coal plants. It was just behind that produced by all Candu plants (26% compared to 30%), and three times the decline in the output from nuclear plants during this period.
If people in Ontario think that their electrical system depends upon the expansion of nuclear power they are in for a big surprise, and perhaps a big shock. The scenario that Premier McGuinty is painting is more political than technological. It has new nuclear plants coming on stream to replace the coal plants that are to be shut down to reduce smog and GHGs. Closing these coal plants has now been pushed back to 2014. But even this is unrealistic. Even if new nuclear plants was the way to replace the GHGs from coal, which it is not, new nuclear plants are only scheduled to come on stream by 2018. Based on past experience it’s more realistic that they would not be ready until 2022. To speed up the process the Harper government is supporting the AECL’s call for pre-licensing, and has disciplined the CNSC to accept its role as a co-promoter of nuclear energy. However, the AECL has no track record for its proposed new design, which uses regular water as its coolant and uses slightly enriched uranium (SEU), and could use reactor spent-fuel from LWRs, as fuel.
As such, it is unlikely that the AECL will be cost-competitive with foreign nuclear companies such as France’s Areva, which is more established with this design. With 80% of Canadians wanting Canada to own and control its own nuclear industry, expanding nuclear power in Ontario is likely to turn into a broader battle over foreign ownership and Canada’s own energy security. AECL may be destined to become a Candu repair service, hopefully as part of a nuclear phase-out along the lines being followed successfully in Germany.
Then, there’s the nasty fact that only a few of Ontario’s aging Candus have been refurbished, and at great over-expenditure (no surprise here). Yet all of Ontario’s Candus are approaching the time of reckoning (within 9 years) where they will need this costly rebuild. If the track record of refurbishing is anything like that of the original Candu, the reliability of electrical production will not be anything like the nuclear promoters have promised.
Base and Peak Loads:
When challenged about its decision to expand nuclear the McGuinty government reflexively says it needs nuclear power to provide reliable base load capacity, which is likely intended to reassure both industry and homeowners, but mostly voters. To unravel these semantics we need to distinguish between base-load and peak-load. The former is the steady capacity, which goes day and night, whereas the peak-load capacity is what is ramped up and down to meet high demand periods. And as Solomon says “any plant can be a base load plant…but no nuclear plants can be a peaking plant.” He notes that, “No jurisdiction…starts up nuclear reactors to meet peak needs because doing so would be dangerous as well as costly.” So in that sense nuclear can only provide base load. But as Solomon also points out, “Base load plants, before the arrival of nuclear power, were typically low-cost, low-performance stations.” “With the advent of nuclear reactors, base-load plants became high-cost, low-performance nuclear stations – the utilities had no other use for them.”
What this means is that nuclear plants don’t lower costs, as base-load plants have historically done. Meanwhile, while costing more, nuclear power actually lowers the reliability of electrical generation. Ontario’s Candus are notorious for their downtime: between 1998-2004, 8 Candu reactors were totally out of service. It was primarily the reduction in demand for electricity and, secondarily, the cheaper coal-fired plants that provided crucial backup, and avoided blackouts and electrical rationing. In view of nuclear’s low-reliability it seems a rip-off that Ontario Power Generation and Bruce Power get higher prices for base-load nuclear power than is received for the much more flexible and reliable coal plants. To help legitimize (and hide) the high costs of nuclear plants these are paid through a separate levy to the ratepayer.
So, Ontario counting on nuclear expansion to save it from an electrical shortfall is naïve, costly and risky. McGuinty’s government is also caught between the unrealistic nature of his electrical energy “plan” (expensive nukes) and the growing vulnerability of the AECL. Even though Harper is out-spending all past federal Liberal governments on bailouts and handouts to the AECL that may not save it. And so nuclear expansion in Ontario could mean turning the nuclear sector over to the French or US nuclear industry.
We know the foreign nuclear industry is watching in the wings. Areva has already offered to buy out AECL to create room for it to expand into Ontario, and is engaged in strong-armed promotions to build one of its reactors near the town of Whitecourt, AB. (The AECL, backed by Bruce Power including Cameco is also proposing a nuclear reactor complex near Peace River, AB.) Areva and US nuclear giants, GE and Westinghouse, have also been asked to bid on Ontario’s nuclear future. And they aren’t just motivated by subsidies and profits. This is also about consolidating the nuclear fuel system within Canada as a hinterland of these nuclear powers. Both France and the US depend completely on Canada (i.e. Saskatchewan) for uranium fuel, and they’d “love” to have a uranium hinterland that would help them solve their problem of accumulating reactor spent-fuel. This scenario certainly applies to the US, which is running into ecological and engineering problems with its nuclear waste experience at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The AECL and Cameco are on record since the early 1990s as supporting Canada taking back nuclear wastes from countries that import our uranium. This is the scheme that Gorge Bush adopted in 2005 as his Global Nuclear Energy Plan (GNEP), for which the Harper government has shown definite support.
Ontario’s planned nuclear expansion may yet trigger a new round of energy politics in Canada. Most Canadians (80%) don’t believe nuclear energy should expand without a solution to the nuclear waste problem. While the nuclear industry has been engaged in a “public acceptance” program, after 60 years there is still no answer to the nuclear waste problem. It is unlikely that many Canadians will support us taking back other countries’ nuclear wastes.
I realize that politically McGuinty only has to convince the Ontario electorate that he has a plan to ensure electrical security, for he will not be Premier from 2014-2022 if (when) the supply and demand curves fail to meet. Hopefully, his government or his successor will be prepared to update their learning curve.
Starting at the Beginning: Reduce:
A better understanding of the revolution occurring in conservation and sustainable energy could change everything. It would be far more realistic for the McGuinty government to intentionally embrace what history has already revealed as the great potential of electrical productivity, than to stubbornly persist with the fallacious “nuclear story”. A fetish for nuclear power increasing electrical supply ignores the potential for demand side management (DSM). The McGuinty government’s electrical growth strategy will very likely not be able to increase capacity to provide the additional 60,000 to 100,000 GW.hours of electricity required over the coming decade. What is needed is an aggressive non-nuclear DSM strategy.
Torrie estimates that 7-9 % out of the 21% of Ontario energy that is in the electrical sector is used for space and water heating. This use of electricity, irrational from a physics and energy efficiency perspective, grew when Ontario Hydro encouraged the population to “live better electrically.” Ontario Hydro needed more sales from electrical consumption as a means to manage the huge debt load resulting from its overcapacity, and related ignorance or denial of the potential of energy efficiency and renewables. This shows how profitable market mechanisms and the political economic power of the nuclear elite drove energy policy.
If this electricity was replaced with thermal (solar) heat or natural gas , then as much as one-third of Ontario’s demand for electricity could be reduced. If you also expand the use of waste heat for electrical co-generation, and phase in wind and solar electricity, the demand and supply curves will be much more likely to meet while still phasing out coal. The short-term benefits of the costly refurbishing of the remaining Candu plants will prove unattractive within this scenario, and a responsible nuclear phase-out can continue.
The need to shift from the present hard energy path to a soft energy path confronted us in the mid-1970s after the OPEC oil crisis. It was ignored with the help of delusional thinking and deceptive promotions from the highly subsidized nuclear industry. This helped make the climate change crisis even greater for today’s generations. With the growing climate change challenge, the need for such a shift in thinking and energy strategy is back, staring us in the face, but so far the Ontario government has bought the old-world view hook line and sinker. If the transition isn’t seriously started this time round, it will be left for our future kin; except the timelines for reducing GHGs will be much more urgent then and climate change thresholds may have been passed. It is therefore imperative that we get it right this time around.
Even though nuclear energy somewhat reduces GHGs compared to coal it can’t make up for the fossil fuels it uses for two decades. GHGs can be reduced much more quickly and cheaply by conservation, including electrical productivity, along with co-generation and the renewables. Yet if more public funds are squandered on nuclear, and the electrical market is unfairly protected for nuclear power to expand in, to appear to make it more cost-effective, then the resources and room for innovation to seriously move towards the soft energy path will be compromised. This is sort of like chopping off one foot to replace the other one when it is broken.
To make the required shift in thinking and technology to seriously tackle climate change, while being realistic about energy demand and supply, Ontarians will have to mobilize from the bottom-up. The alliance to protect the Mississippi watershed from uranium exploration and mining, and the grass-roots citizen science which is exposing the environmental health threats from the whole nuclear fuel system, from Elliot Lake to Port Hope, are all helping push Ontario towards a sustainable future. The conversion toward electrical and other energy productivity also needs to be advanced within regional economic development/ ecological preservation networks and coalitions built upon growing watershed awareness, and even from recycling infrastructures. But it is now also vital to rethink “politics”, which means continuing to work for a more democratic voting system and doing the other groundwork required for the political realignment that can bring the “Green” perspective into the places of political power.
Respectfully submitted, Jim Harding, Ph.D.* April 13, 2008