Published: March 10, 1998
Let’s not miss the nuclear renaissance
Special to Globe and Mail Update
As more and more countries recognize the benefits of clean nuclear energy, a nuclear renaissance is taking shape around the world.
Yet, this new interest in nuclear energy is occurring while international concern over Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons continues to grow and the United Nations Security Council considers its next step.
So, will the further development of a nuclear energy infrastructure lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
The answer is No. Nuclear energy development will not lead to more weapons for a simple reason: Countries no longer need a nuclear reactor to make a nuclear bomb.
Iran is a good case in point. With the likely assistance of the Pakistani weapons promoter A.Q. Khan, Iran appears to have enriched uranium using new centrifuge technology – and done so without a nuclear reactor.
Yet, despite the weak link between peaceful nuclear energy development and weapons proliferation, prominent greens continue to oppose the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source capable of providing safe, cost-effective electrical energy to consumers.
Closer to home, as Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty prepares to release his government’s decision on the province’s future energy mix, it’s time to speak up in favour of nuclear power.
After co-founding Greenpeace and helping lead the organization for 15 years, I left the movement because I could not support the growing tendency to reject consensus politics and sustainable development in favour of continued confrontation and ever-increasing extremism.
In fact, I once opposed nuclear energy, along with my Greenpeace colleagues. But I’ve changed my mind on this subject. Today, I consider myself a sensible environmentalist, promoting policies based on science and logic rather than on emotion and misinformation. I’ve come to realize that nuclear energy is essential to providing a sustainable supply of electricity for domestic, commercial and industrial use.
Unfortunately, environmental activists have become so influenced by their own misinformation that they fail to consider the enormous and clear benefits of harnessing nuclear energy to meet Canada’s goals for clean air and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.
If coal-fired power plants are to be eliminated – and I agree with this policy if alternative sources can be secured – the only feasible solution to replacing such a large loss of energy is through an aggressive program of renewable power and nuclear energy.
Let’s look at Ontario more closely.
Cost-effective wind energy, hydroelectric power and geothermal heat pumps are all part of the solution to Ontario’s energy challenge. Yet, it is completely unrealistic to argue – as some activists do – that we can replace existing nuclear and coal-fired plants, which currently make up 70 per cent of Ontario’s electricity production, with renewables and conservation measures alone.
David Suzuki, for example, repeatedly claims that Ontario has not begun to address the issues of energy efficiency and energy conservation, implying that, if these areas were addressed, there would be no need for new energy production.
But as former energy minister Donna Cansfield has said, Ontario’s economy has grown by 45 per cent in the past decade, while energy consumption has grown by only 6 per cent. If that’s not a measure of energy efficiency, I don’t know what is. Nonetheless, energy consumption has grown and will continue to grow. This consumption growth, combined with the need to replace older plants, means a major effort is necessary to provide new nuclear and renewables capacity.
Prominent international environmentalists such as Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore, former Friends of the Earth leader, all came to realize that nuclear energy represents the only practical means of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions while meeting increasing global energy demand.
Since the establishment of the industry more than 40 years ago, there has never been a serious accident at any Canadian nuclear facility that has caused any external environmental impacts. As I write, 18 nuclear reactors in Canada and 443 worldwide are quietly and safely producing electricity every day.
Besides weapons proliferation, the Chernobyl explosion is often raised as an argument against the further development of nuclear energy. But Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen. This early Russian design had no containment structure, unlike all reactors in the West. It was a bad design with shoddy construction and unprofessional operating procedures. Compare this to Three Mile Island, where safety features averted a catastrophe and radiation was contained inside the plant. Three Mile Island was the only serious nuclear accident in North America and no one was killed or injured. To put Chernobyl in some perspective, the accident stands as the exception that proves the rule that the nuclear energy industry is safe, among the safest industrial sectors in the world.
The fact that nuclear reactors produce waste (used fuel) is often used to oppose them. But used fuel is already being safely stored at hundreds of nuclear power sites around the world. It is simply an issue of secure containment and monitoring. And the used fuel from reactors is not really waste at all. It still contains more than 95 per cent of its potential energy. It is possible to recycle and reuse the used fuel to produce more electricity.
If we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels such as coal, we must choose a cost-effective solution that’s good for the environment and provides a safe, reliable supply of electricity. To achieve this, Ontario must invest in its nuclear energy infrastructure. Combined with investments in renewables such as hydro and geothermal, we can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and continue to meet the province’s energy needs.