This week, as Japan struggled with the aftereffects of a catastrophic earthquake, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his deep concern – for his own job. Harper told a Vancouver audience that the Japanese disaster underlines the fragility of the “economic recovery”. In such dangerous times the PM sees a need to avoid “unnecessary political games”- read, exposing Conservative scandals – and “an opportunistic election”.
In another statement this week, Harper announced that he had consulted experts, and was assured that Canada is in no danger from a catastrophic nuclear accident. This is comforting to know, given that the Pickering plant has just sprung one of its sporadic leaks and is dribbling water (very slightly radioactive water, we’re assured) into Lake Ontario. It’s also good to be reassured in light of Wednesday’s earthquake along the Quebec-Ontario border.
It would have been more enlightening, though, if he’d explained what’s changed since the Select Committee on Hydro Affairs released its 1980 report to the Ontario government, in response to the Three Mile Island accident.
Here’s some of what that report had to say about the Candu reactor:
“It is not right to say that a catastrophic accident is impossible … The worst possible accident could involve the spread of radioactive poisons over large areas, killing thousands immediately, killing others through increasing susceptibility to cancer, risking genetic defects that could affect future generations, and possibly contaminating, for further habitation, large land areas.”
In 1997, and again in 2001, a Candu reactor at Point Lepreau, Quebec, suffered feeder-pipe failures. According to a study conducted by industry watchdog Energy Probe, if there were ever an incident in which two of these failures occurred at one time, it could lead to a catastrophic “loss of coolant accident,” something like the one we’re seeing in Fukushima. It’s true that in all the decades the Candu has been in operation there has never been a catastrophic accident. Up until last week, the same could be said of Japan.
In the 30 years since that damning report on the Candu, not only have nuclear plants proliferated in central Canada, hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built close to generation stations. The thousands of deaths predicted back then might well be millions if a large enough LOCA were to occur today. Perhaps most foolish of all, the vast majority of those homes are built with 2X4 walls – that is to say with the least allowable amount of insulation.
Since well before the Three Mile Island accident, we’ve known that we were squandering energy. Our cars have been too big and too inefficient, our houses too big and too poorly insulated, our commitment to innovative generation systems too weak. This has permitted fossil fuel and nuclear power producers to set up a false dichotomy: Choose one or the other because you can’t get by without massive overconsumption.
As the global warming crisis looms ever larger, nuclear industry apologists love to point out that nuclear plants use next to no fossil fuels and therefore, they suggest, offer a “clean alternative” to oil, coal, or gas-powered electrical generation. Somehow this assertion has been allowed to pass for truth, despite the rather obvious contradiction in describing plutonium, the most lethal substance on earth, as clean.
The cost of the failures of the last 30 years is incalculable. Had we made the move toward energy efficiency that we so obviously needed to make in the 1970s, where would we be today? Would the Arctic sea ice be under threat? Would island nations be disappearing into the rising ocean? Would we have needed to pepper the world with nuclear power plants?
But we didn’t act then. We sped ahead, building giant cars and leaky buildings, inventing more and greater energy-consuming toys, and always choosing to spend our enormous human capacity for innovation on new ways to produce energy, regardless of the consequences. When the whole unsustainable system threatened to crumble around us in the 2008 recession, we squandered billions of dollars to prop it up, making no serious effort to tie spending to sustainability.
We can’t keep it up forever. The 1970s would have been a good time to change, as would 2008, but since we failed then, now would be the next best choice. Even if we do start right away, though, we’ll still have all that poorly built housing stock sucking up electricity, all those poorly designed cars sucking back oil.
We are in a difficult and dangerous situation and, for the foreseeable future, unless we change direction and start taking some giant steps, we will find ourselves in much the same position as the Harper government – clutching at any strategy to keep ourselves in power.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.