The nuclear industry is unlike any other. Private investors did not create it; the government did. And yet, despite fifty years of massive government support, it still can't stand on its own two feet.
Nuclear power currently provides less energy in Canada than firewood or "hog fuel" in British Columbia. Nevertheless, it receives about twice as much each year in federal R&D subsidies than all other energy options combined -- including coal, oil, natural gas, conservation and renewables.
Independent studies in Canada and elsewhere have concluded that nuclear power is an expensive and quite ineffective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Investments in energy efficiency are not only cheaper and faster, but they typically displace about seven times as much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions (per dollar invested) than nuclear power does.
In any event, the subsidies that have gone to the nuclear industry for the last fifteen years have done nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The reason for this is elementary: there have been no nuclear power reactors ordered in North America since 1978. And there is very little chance that any reactors will be ordered by any North American utility in the foreseeable future.
Ontario Hydro, with a debt of over $30 billion -- almost all of it due to its nuclear power program -- is facing severe financial difficulties. Its older nuclear reactors are steadily declining in performance, while requiring exorbitantly expensive repairs to maintain them in an acceptably safe operating condition. Rather than pay the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to replace the pressure tubes in each of the four Bruce A reactors, Ontario Hydro has announced the premature closure of each of these four reactors. The first of them will be shut down in 1995.
Hydro Québec has made it clear that it will not invest in nuclear power in the foreseeable future. There are two nuclear reactors in Québec. The Gentilly-1 reactor, owned by AECL, was a technical and financial fiasco which only operated for 180 days without producing a single useful kilowatt-hour of electricity. The Gentilly-2 reactor, owned by Hydro Québec, currently produces the most expensive base-load electricity in the province.
Prospects for overseas sales are not much brighter. Few countries have the billions of dollars needed to build a nuclear power reactor, and -- once built -- few have the resources to maintain them in a safe operating condition.
AECL recently warned the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that India's CANDU reactors could be in danger of suffering a serious reactor accident caused by deterioration of the pressure tubes. However, retubing the reactors would require hundreds of millions of dollars each, and require each reactor to be shut down for at least two years. This India is not prepared to do.
It is a fair question to ask: if Canada cannot afford to maintain its own reactors in a safe and economic operating state, how can we expect other, less affluent countries, to do so?
The Canadian government should no longer be showering the nuclear industry with non-productive subsidies. These extra funds allow the industry to indulge in fruitless costly efforts to develop new products, as well as in lavish marketing and advertizing campaigns, all designed to create a demand where there is no market.
If the government wishes to provide subsidies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that is another matter. In such an event, let the nuclear advocates join the line and compete on a level playing field with other options such as energy conservation, solar heating, wind power, renewable fuels, etc.
Nuclear advocates are quick to point out the environmental problems associated with other energy technologies (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions) while all but ignoring the environmental and geopolitical issues raised by nuclear technology, such as: the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the continued production of high level radioactive wastes which will remain extraordinarily toxic for millions of years, the rising levels of tritium in the Great Lakes, the hundreds of millions of tons of radioactive waste left over from uranium mining, the ever-present risk of a catastrophic reactor accident caused by human error, technical failure, or act of malice, etc.
It is time to tell the Canadian nuclear industry that the free ride is over. For half a century, it has been treated more favourably than any other industry in history. But it can not go on forever. We must address other priorities: reducing the deficit, fighting unemployment and poverty, building an energy-efficient and sustainable society.
-- October 1994, Montréal
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