Intervenor: Vol 23. No 3 July - September 1998

Canada's Nuclear Arrogance

From the sorry start in the 1930s, Canada provided the uranium that fueled the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That uranium was mined near the so-called "Village of Widows" in Canada's North West Territories, now a tragic testimonial to the men, mostly Native, who worked the mines--and died of cancer. The attempt to find a "peaceful use" for this destructive technology created the many tentacles of Canada's nuclear power programme in the five "nuclear provinces", Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

These five provinces were so described at public hearings held during 1996-97; part of the process seeking a disposal solution for high level nuclear waste. No solution was found, on either a technical or social basis, despite more than 15 years of effort and millions of dollars spent. But spending millions, indeed billions, of mostly taxpayer dollars, is a defining feature of Canada's nuclear industry.

In Ontario alone, Ontario Hydro (which is, by its own admission, technically bankrupt) wants to spend $22 billion over the next decade on a so-called "nuclear asset optimization plan", also called a "nuclear recovery plan". The need to "recover" follows last year's independent review that found Hydro's reactors so poorly managed that seven had to be shut down so the utility could address safety and management issues at the remaining 12 reactors. This new $22 billion would be in addition to the $30 billion debt already racked up by the nuclear division--staggering amounts of money that have repeatedly and negatively affected Ontario's internationally established credit rating. These figures do not include the $19 billion that Ontario Hydro currently estimates it will cost to decommission its 20 reactors and manage nuclear fuel waste.

The arrogance of Ontario Hydro's "nuclear cult" (to borrow Hydro Chairman Bill Farlinger's own words) is matched at the federal level by Canada's crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), and by Prime Minister Chrétien himself. An unabashed pusher of CANDU technology abroad, Chrétien is unconcerned with details. Selling to dictatorial regimes with well-established records of human rights abuse? Can do. Loaning $1.5 billion to build a reactor in earthquake-prone Turkey? Can do. Floating a risky $1.5 billion loan to China? Can do-just ignore the explicit warnings of the Finance Department. Obeying Canada's own Environmental Assessment laws? Can do--just change the law (in secret) so that it no longer applies to new reactors abroad.

The nuclear industry can also rely on the federal Nuclear Liability Act for protection from the real world. Under this law, the industry's liability in the event of a nuclear accident is limited to a paltry $75 million. Suppliers of materials used in nuclear plants are wholly exempt from any liability. With Canadian law providing this extraordinary protection, the industry receives a massive hidden subsidy by not having to pay anything like the kind of insurance that would be necessary to pay for the costs of a nuclear accident. With our CANDU exports, Canada also exports this legal concept by encouraging CANDU importing countries to pass similar legislation.

Since 1952, Canada has subsidized the nuclear industry to the tune of $15 billion. AECL gets $100 million every year. And yes, undoubtedly, Canada's CANDU reactor technology is fuelling a new arms race. India and Pakistan have already flexed that muscle. Turkey is in the wings and happy to receive Mr. Chrétien's benevolence.

Uranium is toxic from the minute we take it from the earth and throughout the nuclear chain. "High level waste" is relatively small in quantity but will be toxic for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. Volumes increase enormously with "low level wastes": tailings left at Ontario's Elliot Lake mine alone would extend hip-deep across the trans-Canada highway from sea to sea. Despite these toxic, undisposable leavings, the nuclear industry wraps itself in a green mantle and offers itself as the solution to greenhouse gas-induced climate change.

Just as arrogant is the attempt to cast a new international trade in plutonium as a "swords-to-ploughshares" venture whereby Canada would relieve the Cold War rivals of some of their most toxic nuclear weapon wastes. The Canadian government and AECL are negotiating with the United States and Russia to import and use up to 100 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium to fuel Canada's aging reactors. After its use in Canadian reactors (assuming formidable cost and technical barriers can be overcome) the spent fuel will be even more radioactive than the imported plutonium thus adding the leavings of superpower weapons production to Canada's unresolved nuclear waste disposal problem. It will also mean highly risky transportation of plutonium--a highly carcinogenic substance when inhaled--across vast distances, such as the present proposed route from New Mexico to the Chalk River facility near Ottawa. Far from being a peaceful solution, the initiative shows little promise of discouraging nuclear proliferation. Rather, leading scientists argue that reactor-grade plutonium can be used much like weapon-grade plutonium to build nuclear weapons with minor design modifications. The federal environmental assessment process has not been invoked for this proposal and public input to government policy will not commence, if at all, until a decision to go ahead is made.

Back in Ontario, the "nuclear asset optimization plan" is supported by the Harris government; the same government that prides itself on its "fiscal responsibility". If we spent only half of that $22 billion on energy conservation and renewables and the other half on a rational plan and strategy to begin to pay for the much larger cost of nuclear phase-out and decommissioning, we could employ a whole lot of people by, essentially, putting the nuclear industry to work in putting itself safely out of business. Now that would be a "nuclear recovery plan" worthy of the name and an energy policy worthy of support.

CELA is a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Phase-out, a national campaign with over 300 member organizations across Canada. Through our membership in CNP, the view of Canada's involvement in nuclear issues is inevitably through an international lens.
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Kathleen Cooper is a researcher at CELA

For more information:
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
cp 236, Station Snowdon,
Montreal QC, H3X 3T4
phone/fax: (514) 489 5118
internet: ccnr.org 

CANDU
(Sung to the tune of "I've Got the Horse Right Here" from Guys and Dolls)
Written by Alison Acker of the Victoria Raging Grannies and Gordon Edwards, president, CCNR;

1. If you're a wannabe
At starting World War Three
But you don't have nuclear Technology
CAN-DU, CAN-DU
It's the very best way for you,
We'll give you the money too!
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

2. You need uranium To get plutonium
And we've a lot to sell in Saskatchewan,
CAN-DU, CAN-DU
We'll give you the fuel too,
So you can do what you want to do!
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

3. With the plutonium You make an Atom Bomb
And join the club like India and Pakistan
CAN-DU, CAN-DU
Get Superpower status too,
With tritium from our CANDU
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

4. But if you detonate We won't cooperate …
We'll put you in a sad and sorry state
CAN-DU, CAN-DU
You'll feel so bad and blue,
Cause we won't talk to you
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

5. But just you wait a while You'll see us start to smile
And soon you're back in our CANDU owner's file
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

You're one of the family too,
And we're all mighty proud of you
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

6. For we do not oppose The atom bombs of those
Who will protect us from our fearsome foes
CAN-DU, CAND-DU
The Americans have their bombs too
And NATO thinks they're neat toys too
CAN-DU, CAN-DU

 

7. So what the heck if we Sell CANDUs overseas
We've got to share the technology if you please,
CAN-DU, CAN-DU
What's another bomb or two,
You gotta give the devil his due
CAN-DU, CAN-DU