Both the PC leader Blaine Higgs and the LIberal leader Kevin Vickers have made nuclear power an election issue. Both claim that nuclear power is the best option to help us face the challenge of the climate crisis and to make the necessary transition to decarbonized energy production.
Do they have a clear vision? Or are their claims a form of naive scientism, forgetting what we have learned so far about the development and challenges of nuclear energy?
Here are 10 short lessons:
1. The limits of the planet were well-identified by the Club of Rome in the 1970 Meadows Report – Limits to Growth/Halte a la croissance and presented at the first World Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972: avoiding ecological peril means remaining within the planetary limits, an approach rejected by the economic system that advocates growth without limits. Today, given the climatic and ecological emergency, we need to return to the planetary limits which have been exceeded since then and continue to be exceeded today.
2. Nuclear power is promoted as a source of unlimited energy to support an energy-intensive approach to growth without end or restraint. This approach is clearly unsustainable, which explains why environmentalists in the past and today reject nuclear power.
3. Nuclear power is a threat to the sustainment of life on earth according to US Admiral Hyman Rickover, who led the development of nuclear submarines and is known as the father of strategic deterrence. Before the US Congress, which honoured him in 1982, he surprised members by stating that atomic energy represents regression, because it creates the radiation that nature has tried to destroy to make life possible on the planet and in the entire life system. He went so far as to declare that nuclear power is an absolute evil in both military and civil applications and that it is more important to control this horrible force than to use it.
4. Making a comparison with renewable energy sources, proponents of complex nuclear energy technology as a solution argue, on the basis of specious statistics, that the nuclear energy sector has less use of natural resources and fewer geographical areas of development.
Their objective is to drown us with figures by suggesting that the so-called abundant resources of fissionable materials (uranium and thorium) would have little impact on the increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) while neglecting the enormous impact of the entire costly nuclear energy cycle itself (mining, industrial processing of minerals, development/ construction/ refurbishment/ dismantling of power stations and temporary/permanent storage sites for very long-term radioactive waste, the extent and consequences of which are not really measured).
5. On the subject of costs: should we continue to accept an energy system whose costs too often reach three times the estimated initial cost by the end of the projects (the x3 rule) when there has been a marked reduction in the costs of the renewable energy sources of the future, making them highly competitive, to the dismay of the fossil fuel and nuclear industries which have dominated a bygone era some people would like to see return?
6. The real impacts of nuclear accidents (Chalk River in Canada in 1952, Three Mile Island in the US in 1978, Chernobyl in Russia in 1986, Fukushima in Japan in 2011, next date unknown, but it cannot be ruled out) can be minimized by referring to the easily countable deaths in coal mines rather than the current hidden deaths of nuclear energy. The fact is that diseases from exposure to radioactive contamination are slow to be recognized because they occur later and less visibly.
7. It should be remembered that nuclear energy, derived from the atomic energy used in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is the screen behind which the race continues toward more devastating and threatening nuclear weapons for our common future. We are still facing the imposed objective of continuing a nuclear arms race which does not contribute to the improvement of living conditions on a planet whose vulnerability is now recognized.
8. What then: should we adopt the precautionary principle and the associated human reflexivity that goes with it, including the ability to judge and choose together intelligently, or is there an alternative approach that ensures a sustainable, green and viable transition? Asking the question also recognizes the need for a collective search for a reasoned approach.
9. In essence, we have reached this point: more and more citizens are standing up to demand that we move from words to deeds (Citizens’ Pacts, school strikes, legal actions, disinvestment in fossil fuels and sectors at risk) to develop concrete solutions to our common climate, environmental and existential challenge on a unique planet on which we depend.
10. There may be another cosmic destination for the Star Trek fans in the future, but at present the vision of unlimited nuclear power is a science fiction, even a reductive technological utopia. Instead we must collectively and democratically nourish a reflexive thinking on our planet in order to ensure the future of the world.
Ronald Babin retired this year as professor of environmental sociology at the Université de Moncton. He is the author of L’Option nucleaire. Developpement et contestation de l’energie nucléaire au Canada et au Quebec (Montreal. Boreal. 1984) and The Nuclear Power Game (Montreal, Black Rose Books, 1986). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org