In 1993, sociologist Michael Clow, accompanied by editor Susan Machum, published a book-length study analyzing Canadian newspapers’ coverage of nuclear power during the 1970s and 1980s. Their findings — supported by extensive forays into the archives of Ontario and New Brunswick’s English language newspapers — were striking.
“The nuclear establishment wants a complete monopoly over all nuclear power discussions,” Clow wrote.
In fact, according to Clow, 46.6 percent of stories published in the Daily Gleaner that discussed nuclear power between 1974 and 1983 were written using sources gathered from officials in the nuclear industry. A further 19.9 percent of sources were gathered from pro-nuclear figures in government.
In total, 76.3 percent of the Daily Gleaner’s coverage of nuclear power was positive, reflecting extensive media bias.
Presciently written, Clow’s analysis is as applicable today as it was in the early 1990s. Beginning in 2008, the Canadian nuclear industry — embodied by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a Crown corporation that aims to ‘drive nuclear opportunity in Canada’ — began a desperate revitalization program aimed at manufacturing a “nuclear renaissance” in the country.
Between 2002 and 2009, the AECL promised the federal government that it would invent a new generation of the CANDU reactor — the ACR-1000 — in exchange for nearly half a billion dollars in taxpayer-provided subsidies.
As of today, not a single ACR-1000 has been built anywhere in the world.
Beginning in 2018, a similar gamble was made, with the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of New Brunswick teaming up to invest a total of $86 million into untried small modular reactors (SMRs).
Partly inspired by Clow’s work, I took to Meltwater—a database that compiles news stories and editorials—to crunch the numbers on SMRs. I sourced my data from the province’s mainstream English language newspapers: the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, the Daily Gleaner in Fredericton, and the Times & Transcript in Moncton.
Between June 2018 and June 2022, these three papers had published a total of 230 stories that included one of the following keywords: small modular reactors, small modular reactor, SMRs, SMR, small modular nuclear reactors, small modular nuclear reactor, SMNRs, and SMNR. Of these stories, 25 were either duplicates or redundant inclusions, bringing the total down to 205 stories.
I worked through these stories, manually coding each of them and identifying every published source. I labeled each source as either “favourable,” “neutral,” or “critical” of SMRs.
The data speaks for itself.
|Table 1.1: Share of sources published in SMR coverage in the Telegraph-Journal, the Daily Gleaner and the Times & Transcript, June 1, 2018 – June 1, 2022, by policy actor|
|Total (#)||Total coverage (%)|
|Government and political actors||127||33.78|
|Policy institute / non-profit||29||7.71|
|Table 1.2: Percentage of sources published in SMR coverage in the Telegraph-Journal, the Daily Gleaner and the Times & Transcript, June 1, 2018 – June 1, 2022, by level of approval|
|Favourable coverage (%)||Neutral coverage (%)||Critical coverage (%)|
|Government and political actors||84.25||3.15||12.60|
|Civilian and unaffiliated||39.22||25.50||35.29|
|Policy institute / non-profit||34.48||3.45||62.07|
|Table 1.3: Total sources published in SMR coverage in the Telegraph-Journal, the Daily Gleaner and the Times & Transcript, June 1, 2018 – June 1, 2022, by level of approval|
|Count (#)||Percentage (%)|
Overwhelmingly, the province’s journalists contacted representatives tied directly to the nuclear industry (33.77 percent of sources) and pro-nuclear officials in government (33.78 percent of sources) to write their stories. Not a single source drawn from the nuclear industry provided a critical perspective on the technology, and only 12.6 percent of government officials provided critical perspectives on SMRs. Most critical perspectives published by political actors—the large majority of which came from figures outside of government—were provided by either Green Party candidate Ann McAllister or Green Party Leader David Coon.
A damning 99.3 percent of sources drawn from the nuclear industry and a further 84.25 percent of sources drawn from the government treated SMRs favourably.
Moreover, in total, 76.59 percent of published sources treated SMRs favourably, while only 16.76 percent of published sources treated SMRs critically.
Importantly, industry and government perspectives were not representative of the views held by academics, policy institutes and non-profits, and unaffiliated citizens. Among academics, perspectives were split on SMRs: 37.04 percent of sources favoured the technology, while 40.74 percent of sources were critical of it. Among policy institutes and non-profits, 34.48 percent of sources treated SMRs favourably, while a majority (62.07 percent of sources) treated them critically.
Perhaps most importantly, regular New Brunswickers were nearly entirely divided on the topic of SMRs: 39.22 percent of sources gathered from citizens treated the technology favourably, while 35.29 percent of published sources gathered from citizens treated the technology critically.
The province’s English-language newspapers are providing lopsided and biased coverage on nuclear energy and small modular reactors. In recent years, newspapers like the Telegraph-Journal and Daily Gleaner have acted as pulpits for the pro-nuclear perspectives of big business and their lackeys in government.
It seems that little has changed since the 1970s. To once more quote Michael Clow, his words hauntingly applicable to New Brunswick’s present situation, “[journalists] wanted to believe the nuclear industry was booming, that it was the answer to our energy needs and that nothing could go wrong. They were so committed to its success they were willing to ignore contrary evidence.”
Indeed, it seems that writers currently stationed at New Brunswick’s mainstream English-language newspapers are following in their predecessors’ footsteps, publishing information aimed at revitalizing a dying industry and drumming up support for an untried and risky nuclear technology.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism.