Pushing back on the nuclear path: Part 1

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Nuclear Stations in Canada

Being true to my inner technology geek, I have compulsively followed energy issues for years. Energy discourse is not for everyone, however. I've realized this the socially awkward way by bringing up Ontario's electricity future in casual conversation at house parties.

But with the recent one-year anniversary of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, forecasts abound on the prospects of nuke power surviving yet another devastating public relations catastrophe. However, in all these stories about nuclear meltdowns and the future of nuclear energy, I was struck by a significant gap: where is the Canadian content?

While there is the occasional report in a major outlet discussing Canadian commitment to nuclear, there isn't much reporting on the work of the many opponents of Canada's nuclear industry, nor of the sites of contention.

The intention of this piece is to fill that void by outlining some of the issues as well as some of the key players. First stop, Ontario.

Ontario after Fukushima: Aging reactors and the Green Energy Act

Ontario has 17 nuclear reactors close to the end of their safe operating lives. While Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have pledged to shut down Pickering Nuclear Station in 2020, the Long-Term Energy Plan reveals that every other non-Pickering reactor in the province is to be rebuilt, and two new reactors will be added to the Darlington Nuclear Station.

Clearly, though many environmental organizations give credit to the ground-breaking Green Energy and Economy Act for setting the table for green energy to grow in the province, there has been significant push-back on the nuclear expansion plans.

Angela Bischoff, Outreach Director for Ontario Clean Air Alliance, has been hammering the Liberals on the stunning cost of continuing down the nuclear path.

"The McGuinty government's plan would see more than $80 billion spent on these projects, plus costs of decommissioning old reactors, the storage of radioactive waste, and the risk of accidents. Meanwhile, we're still paying down the $20-billion debt from Ontario's previous nuclear fiascos."

While campaigning extensively on the problematic economics of nuclear, the OCAA has also been promoting a clear message of alternative options to keeping Ontario's lights on.

"The fact is that Ontario's electricity needs can be met at a much lower cost by water power imports from Quebec, energy efficiency, and natural gas-fired combined heat and power. Plus, killing new nuclear projects will free up the grid for made-in-Ontario green energy."

The latter point, the grid battle between nuclear energy and the potential for new renewable electricity supply in Ontario, is a major issue for Greenpeace Canada's Nuclear Analyst, Shawn-Patrick Stensil.

Stensil argues that while other jurisdictions are decisively moving toward renewable options after Fukushima, the Ontario Liberals seem to be trying to save the Canadian nuclear industry from drowning.

"The McGuinty government plans to nuke green energy. While other countries are replacing their existing reactors with green energy post-Fukushima, Ontario is limiting the growth of renewables in order to keep the Canadian nuclear industry alive."

While Stensil objects to the snuffing out of a potentially sustainable energy system, there is also the matter of a fundamentally misleading response to the Fukushima disaster on the part of our safety regulatory agency, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).

Stensil classifies the CNSC's response as a "public relations exercise." He urges that we "talk objectively about reactor risks. Accidents are happening once a decade somewhere in the world. Let's not pretend otherwise and let this inform our energy policies."

Nuclear waste in Ontario after Fukushima

Accidents in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl, and at Fukushima Daiichi have been a significant public relations problem for the nuclear industry. Another black eye has traditionally been the difficulty in finding a workable plan to handle the hazardous radioactive waste produced from the fuel, not to mention the operation and decommissioning of the station.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) inched forward in 2005 when their deep underground waste dump concept was approved by the CNSC. Now, the NWMO is actively searching for communities willing to host permanent radioactive waste storage.

Brennain Lloyd is the Project Coordinator for Northwatch, a Northeastern Ontario alliance that has been working for more than 20 years to prevent Northern communities from becoming dumping grounds for Canada's nuclear industry.

Lloyd notes that the communities targeted by the industry as potential hosting sites all have one common characteristic: They are experiencing very difficult times economically.

"The citing process is a social disaster... A dozen communities have agreed to be studied in exchange for very small amounts of money along the way and the promise of large amounts of money at the end of the day."

While the industry roots out economically ailing communities who would be willing to be a burial ground for existing waste, Lloyd notes that the nuclear industry is working under a duel pressure. On one hand, the Fukushima nuclear disaster brought fresh attention to the challenge of handling waste effectively without releasing dangerous radioactivity. On the other hand, the industry is feeling pressure to find a home for its waste in order to justify its plans for expansion.

"To advance [the nuclear industry's] expansion ambitions they want to be able to say that they've solved their biggest problem, which is nuclear waste. The industry's end goal is to have a community say 'yes' and then say 'look, the problem is solved'."

While campaigners from Greenpeace, OCAA, and Northwatch continue to work to stop the expansion of the nuclear industry in Ontario, organizers in Quebec and New Brunswick are also battling nuclear expansion schemes in their provinces. In part two of Pushing back on the nuclear path, we will take a close look at the issues of expanding Gentilly 2 in Quebec and Point Lepreau in New Brunswick, as well as some of the key players who oppose those projects.

Steve Cornwell is an MA candidate at York University. His interests are in the interactions of social movements, science and technology. Steve has worked on energy issues with Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defense, and Safe and Green Energy Peterborough.

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