Read Part 1 here.
Considerable research evidence exists that the prototype nuclear power reactors currently in development in Canada, including the two proposed for New Brunswick, do not belong in a climate action plan. In addition, the two New Brunswick reactors will create new forms of radioactive waste that raise considerable environmental problems.
This raises an obvious question: why are the federal and provincial government proposing to hand over vast amounts of public funds to private companies to develop them?
In a webinar presentation earlier this year during his visit to New Brunswick, the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility Gordon Edwards described how the push for prototype nuclear reactor development is coming from the nuclear industry. “If they can, the nuclear industry will convince governments to pour public money into this for whatever reason, by misrepresenting its advantages and minimizing or even ignoring its disadvantages.”
The federal government is “politically in hot water,” Edwards continued. “They can’t stop the petroleum industry. They bought a pipeline. They are not cutting down on greenhouse gasses like they said they were going to; they are going to be adding to it. So politically, it makes sense for the government to say, ‘since we can’t do a damn thing about actually fighting climate change, let’s just say we’re putting all our money behind nuclear reactors and they are going to solve the problem.'”
Gordon Edwards’ analysis of data from the World Nuclear Association shows that from 1996 to 2019, the number of nuclear reactors increased by only four units across the globe, from 438 to 442. In the same time period, nuclear’s contribution to global electricity production plummeted from 17% to 10%. Nuclear reactor promoters are “barely keeping themselves alive,” said Edwards, and have realized for quite a while that “they are in trouble.”
The federal government created the nuclear industry in Canada and has funded it since the late 1940s. For more than 70 years Canada has been spending vast sums of public money to keep the industry alive.
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a Crown corporation with a mandate to promote and support nuclear science and technology and manage nuclear waste, has received more than $800 million in federal funding in each of the last three years. Most of the public funds are turned over to a private-sector entity, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, whose majority partner is SNC Lavalin.
One description of the nuclear industry in Canada is that it can be understood as a kind of Ponzi scheme. In 2018, AECL’s annual report listed an estimated $15.9 billion undiscounted waste and decommissioning liability.
The industry needs new nuclear reactors as a replacement revenue stream. New reactors require billions in capital investment. However, no banks or private investors are willing to finance them without government guarantees due to their poor return on investment. Public funding is the only option to keep the industry alive and to pay off its liabilities, and more public money is always required, or the entire scheme will collapse.
However this current drive to build more nuclear power ends, taxpayers in New Brunswick and across Canada will most certainly end up with the bill.
The nuclear industry lobby has many open doors on Parliament Hill. In the two years between September 2018 and September 2020, energy sector lobbyists were very busy in Ottawa. A search for monthly reports of lobbying activity in the Registry of Lobbyists using keywords for the energy industry found that “oil” was the most common (350 reports) during this period, followed by “gas” (192 reports) and then “nuclear” (116 reports). Far behind nuclear were “solar” (58 reports) and “wind” (27 reports).
In New Brunswick, the nuclear industry does not need to lobby the government because it is already working for the government. The NB Power Vice-President Nuclear is both the highest paid public servant in the province and a board member of the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA), the nuclear industry’s lobby organization active on Parliament Hill.
In other cases, a revolving door shuttles senior government personnel involved in nuclear energy files to the CNA lobby. In one recent example, the former parliamentary secretary to the federal minister of natural resources responsible for nuclear policy is now a consultant for the CNA.
Former senior AECL executives and other federal and provincial government employees are now establishing and managing various start-up nuclear companies, actively seeking public funding for their nuclear projects. And according to the Throne Speech, the money will be available.
It seems the question of why governments are funding prototype nuclear reactors can be partly answered with the familiar catchphrase: “follow the money.”
Susan O’Donnell is a researcher and primary investigator of the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
An earlier version of this article was published in Rabble.