Positive Energy

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Nuclear Energy Debate

The discussion of nuclear energy in Canada is complicated by everyone's strongly held views. The distrust, fear, and dislike that people have for the nuclear energy industry is pretty clear. I was a member of this distrusting constituency until I took a closer look. After a couple of years of investigation I now believe that the nuclear energy industry can provide important benefits to Canada and the world. The impression that this industry is dangerous and harmful is just not borne out by the cold hard facts. Even so, this negative impression persists on a global basis. So the interesting question here is how can an idea that is detrimental to our interests and not supported by the available information persist so vigorously?

Public thinking about this topic begins with nuclear fission weapons. All over the world people fear the use of these weapons. At the same time governments are acquiring them for their deterrence value. The military secrecy and disinformation campaigns associated with these political initiatives makes everyone doubtful and suspicious. The discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are two distinct debates, but they are linked in the public mind. This is particularly important for the Canadian CANDU reactor which is non-militaristic. If we separate the discussion into two debates - military weapons and public energy - the energy topic becomes a lot easier to deal with.

A book that treats the whole range of issues as one area of concern is:

"No Immediate Danger?"
by Dr. Rosalie Bertell
ISBN 0-88961-092-4

You may be able to find this book here:

Alibris

Another factor that makes this debate difficult is our approach to ethics, corporations, money, and information. We use corporations to direct large scale operations such as uranium mining and electricity production. These corporations are entitled to the degree of privacy thought necessary for competition. However, in other industries we have recently seen these rules manipulated by dishonest individuals for private gain. This has really poisoned the whole discussion. So now, if you are employed by a firm and have something good to say about it everyone discounts your comments out of hand. If you are not employed by a firm and have something good to say about it everyone assumes you are secretly on the take. And if you are not employed by a firm and have lots to say that is negative everyone assumes that it is true based on these bad experiences elsewhere. It may turn out that humans do not have the moral stamina and intellectual sharpness needed to run a technologically based society. I must admit that it is worrying to see the degree to which science and rational thought are being displaced by fundamentalist dogma around the world. If it does turn out the humans cannot manage technology then the confusion that persists in the nuclear energy debate will be one of the high profile indicators of this failing.

I take the position that Canadians are honest enough and smart enough to engineer solutions which benefit the public. This includes pressure groups, independent investigations, government authorized regulators, shareholder class action suits, and every other kind of oversight to keep the industry on track and working for the public good. Such vigilance is needed to keep people aware of the thoroughness and quality needed for long term public benefit. However, if these counter forces get off track, leading to the reduction or end of the nuclear energy industry, then we all lose.

A web article that describes one person's ethical position concerning nuclear energy is:

The Ethics of Nuclear Energy

Previous debates about nuclear energy in Canada have involved people with very strongly held views, often in situations that created tension and led to shouting instead of talking. The pro-nuclear experts listed their unassailable conclusions, based on mountains of complicated facts, convincing everyone that everything was fine. Then we found out later that everything was not fine, and people felt cheated and duped. The problem here is that we are dealing with new things, and our understanding changes daily. Expert assessment that is correct today based on what we know today has to be modified tomorrow. This learning process has not always been academic and benign - there are examples such as Port Radium where a very high cancer rate has been associated with the handling of radium ore. But I would argue that the lessons are being learned. With today's radiation detectors, robotic equipment, waste handling procedures, and public scrutiny we are in a position to run a nuclear energy industry safely and efficiently. There will still be improvements, but the safety record in our nuclear industry can be exemplary, especially when compared with the alternatives such as coal mining and oil extraction.

The background information about Port Radium is listed here:

Impacts of Uranium Mining at Port Radium, NWT, Canada

The learning that is taking place affects more than our understanding of nuclear reactions. Mining, the process of getting the uranium out of the ground, is difficult. The way in which it is being done is improving, but often as a result of extreme pressure from interveners rather than a result of leadership from the corporations involved. Firebrands, such as Maisie Shiell, have been instrumental in establishing the proper handling of ore processing tailings.

Maisie Shiell

Issues with mine tailings are not restricted to uranium mining. In general mining is a messy business and the track record of our mining corporations has not always been admirable, as documented at:

Mining Watch Canada

So it seems that we cannot be complacent about the nuclear energy industry, or any other corporation based industry, when it comes to the handling of dangerous materials and where short cuts may yield a short term advantage. One can take the position that we have to shut down all mining because of this, or one can take the position that we have to be involved in the situation to minimize the problems. I support the second approach. In particular, given the alternatives of coal or uranium, the choice seems clear. Uranium requires fewer mines, causes less environmental destruction, leads to fewer miner deaths, and does not dump any carbon dioxide into the air. So we have to learn how to mine it safely, we have to improve our approach as we go, and we have to realize that our involvement in criticizing the industry is an act meant to improve the industry, not eliminate it.

The nuclear energy debate is continuing. People are dug into their set positions, yelling at each other across the barriers. The persistence of this "meme", this idea that nuclear energy is detrimental, is an intriguing phenomena. I have given my view here about why this is so. Others have also written about this. A good discussion can be found at:

When Memes Collide

and

The Impotence of Being Earnest

However, things are not static. One by one people are sizing up all the costs and benefits, looking at the alternatives, and coming to the correct conclusion. This is difficult for some because it entails the reversal of opinions that have been staunchly defended for a long time. One of the significant leaders who has signaled that a change is necessary is James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis. An outline of his position can be seen at:

Nuclear power is the only green solution

Conclusion:

I believe that nuclear energy can be produced in Canada in a manner that greatly benefits the public. By promoting this idea I am not claiming that the nuclear industry is without fault. There are problems, there is a need for public scrutiny, and things can be improved both economically and technically. However, if Canadians decide to bypass the benefits of nuclear energy because of these problems then I am convinced that this will be a big mistake. We will pay dearly in terms of jobs and economic position, in terms of the environment related to global warming, and in terms of rational objectivity by allowing the irrational to determine our future.

1 Comments:

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