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Urgent need to squelch political fallout best explains Jason Kenney's oddly timed nuclear announcement

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Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage and Premier Jason Kenney in Friday's video. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

A Friday in August sure seemed like a peculiar time for a government like Jason Kenney's to announce it had signed onto a multi-province effort to sell natural resources and encourage the development and sale of a new generation of Canadian technology. 

But there was the Alberta premier on Friday, accompanied by Energy Minister Sonya Savage, touting the benefits of building international markets for Alberta's ethical uranium and developing safe new "small modular reactors" to generate "small scale nuclear power."

Despite the inevitable controversy that will result from any project involving development of nuclear power, and the fact that the three-province memorandum of understanding the Kenney government plans to sign is a long-term, rather speculative, project, you'd think this would be the kind of deal the United Conservative Party would normally want to shout from the rooftops. 

So why now?

The political calculation behind the timing of Friday's video announcement is easier to explain than the murky economics of small modular reactors, which we'll look at in a future post.

The explanation, almost certainly, was the political embarrassment wrought by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's disastrous curriculum-review news conference the day before, which started to melt down the instant that curriculum advisory panel chair Angus McBeath stepped up to the microphone and opened his mouth. 

Within hours of LaGrange's Thursday morning gong show, fallout from McBeath's crotchety and at times incoherent ramblings was drifting around the globe like errant radioactive isotopes on the digital winds of social media. 

Thanks in part to the way the former Edmonton Public Schools superintendent reminded viewers of Abe Simpson, the cartoon geezer in so many old-man-yells-at-cloud memes, McBeath's soliloquy on how Alberta schools could one day produce the world's most honest used-car salesmen is sure to become an internet classic with a half life approaching eternity!

Obviously, the premier must have concluded, something had to be done to stop the meltdown before it turned into a political Chernobyl. 

Conveniently, the collaboration memorandum of understanding signed last year by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was readily at hand and provided an opportunity to change the channel. 

Given the previous day's debacle, Kenney must have concluded that if this was going to be done right, he'd better do it himself. 

After all, LaGrange's newser had itself likely been a failed attempt to distract citizens from the fatal potential of her ministry's half-baked plan to reopen Alberta's schools in September without adequate measures in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Well, third time's a charm! At any rate, Kenney's announcement was a better choice for distraction. The creation or sale of any actual SMRs is far in the future, and so the resulting controversy will have to be dealt with by some future government. 

What's more, the people most likely to get riled up right now, environmentalists and the like, are easy to portray as enemies of Alberta. Maybe commissioner Steve Allan can even be persuaded to include a chapter on the topic in the report of his Alberta Inquiry into supposed foreign funding of opponents of more oilsands development. 

As a bonus, the dream of a safe little nuclear reactor that can power the carbon intensive extraction of bitumen from the tarry oilsands of Athabasca is bound to appeal to the UCP's base, if no one else. 

Problem solved, at least for now. 

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video


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