Industry declares a nuclear renaissance. Will the public be convinced?

In a busy Ottawa hotel recently, the nuclear industry celebrated what it sees as the dawning of a new era.

The mood was jubilant at the Canadian Nuclear Association’s annual conference in February as leaders proclaimed a nuclear renaissance that promises growth and stability in a low-carbon world.

The industry has grounds for such optimism as Ottawa and an increasing number of provinces support its promise of zero emissions and a long Canadian nuclear power tradition. With this encouragement, the industry is seeking to expand, promising the power foundation needed to achieve Canada’s climate targets and energy security.

But there is at least one problem still haunting industry players. Can they convince a public anxious about an emergent atomic age, nuclear weapons proliferation, past and looming nuclear catastrophes and the industry’s radioactive waste problem?

Outside the hotel, a dozen demonstrators gathered in freezing temperatures to rail against plans to build a nuclear waste facility within a kilometre of the Ottawa River. The Nuclear Safety Commission approved a near-surface disposal facility there earlier this year. Already, three lawsuits against the project are underway, citing failure to respect Indigenous rights and duties to consult and historically poor waste management. Any expansion of reactors, big or small, will almost certainly meet the same resistance.

An illustration from a North American Young Generation in Nuclear children’s book. Photo from the NAYGN website

The industry knows the ghosts of its past remain present. The conference booths illustrate efforts to allay public trepidation. Ontario Power Generation, operators of the Pickering and Darling nuclear facilities, is running a new ad campaign presenting nuclear as a summer blockbuster, arguing, “It’s time to flip the script on nuclear power — the clean energy source the world needs.”

At another table, the North American Young Generation in Nuclear, an organization of young nuclear professionals, promotes children’s books to accustom school-age children to a world with safe nuclear power. In the most recent book, Passing Gas: How Clean Energy Makes the World Less Smelly, nuclear power is given a central role in the energy transition.

John Arthur Gorman, president of the Canadian Nuclear Association, is upfront about his industry’s reputational challenges. “We have to stop this technology tribalism-type mentality,” he told Canada’s National Observer. “We have to work together to find the right combination in each place.”

John Arthur Gorman’s “nuclear renaissance” argument hinges on this other existential threat: climate change. #Climate #Nuclear #Industry #CanadianNuclearAssociation

Some will be swayed by Gorman’s argument as the existential threat of climate change eclipses that of nuclear destruction. However, Susan O’Donnell, an anti-nuclear activist and member of the Coalition for Responsible Energy Development in New Brunswick, won’t be among them.

She argues the atomic era is over. It’s too expensive, slow to build and produces waste that is more dangerous than any other form of pollution.

“Nuclear is holding us back,” she says. “These dinosaurs are holding us back.”

Nuclear in popular culture and around the world

Nuclear in popular culture remains radioactive. Movies and television shows like Chernobyl, Oppenheimer and The Simpsons highlight a double-edged danger to nuclear power — war and accidents.

In Japan, the role of nuclear continues to haunt the country since bombs were dropped in the Second World War. The Godzilla movie is now an allegory for nuclear weapons, and the monster remains at the forefront of the Japanese imagination.

The fear of nuclear re-emerged in 2011 when a massive earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, creating a Level 7 nuclear event, the worst rating for a disaster.

Fukushima had a chilling effect elsewhere, too. Germany committed to decommission its remaining nuclear reactors following the disaster. At the same time, new coal mines were opened in the country to increase energy shortfalls spurred by the Russia-Ukraine war, which led to significant climate protests.

John Arthur Gorman in the middle of an interview in his suite at the Canadian Nuclear Association Conference in February. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer

The 21st century’s atomic age

Gorman, who is hosting industry members at the nuclear association’s conference in Ottawa, sits in a large executive suite overlooking the capital city skyline as he conducts interviews and prepares for public speaking.

Gorman has two decades of experience in solar and spent seven years at the helm of the Canadian Solar Industries Association before moving into the nuclear space. He argues a clean electricity system needs a reliable foundation to operate around the clock in all weather and seasons — what he calls a “baseload” — that can backstop sun or wind power through all conditions.

While Gorman plays up the reliability of nuclear power, opponents highlight the risks and argue it’s better to go big on stable and clean energy sources like geothermal, interconnected energy grids and energy storage.

O’Donnell points out batteries are becoming more efficient and electric vehicles can be fitted with bidirectional batteries that store power for the grid, which helps backstop the intermittent power provided by wind and solar.

“There’s all kinds of things on the horizon that are just starting to be developed,” she said.

Gorman believes activists view nuclear technology through a lens of misinformation and stigmas deeply embedded in popular culture. He looks to the 1979 film, The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda as a reporter who stumbles into a nuclear accident while doing a puff piece on Los Angeles’ energy grid. The film is a cautionary tale about corporate malpractice that leads to a nuclear accident.

It premiered to the chagrin of some nuclear experts, who argued fears were overblown. They pointed to safeguards and America’s record on nuclear, which was accident-free at the time.

Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed)

Then, just 12 days later, in March 1979, the largest nuclear accident in American history occurred at Three Mile Island. The partial nuclear meltdown, eventually contained 10 years later, helped energize anti-nuclear activism and effectively halted nuclear’s historic expansion in the country.

Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who studies nuclear weapons and nuclearity, thinks overconfident industries erode trust by refusing to acknowledge the chance of accidents. Three Mile Island was a prime example, he said.

“Never ever say that an accident is impossible because it will happen and you will look really bad,” he said.

After the incident, the anti-nuclear proliferation movement created conditions for fear and misunderstanding about nuclear power by conflating bombs with energy generation, Gorman said.

Those worries are not unfounded and remain present.

Canada’s National Observer reported last fall that nuclear scientists were sounding the alarm on new small modular reactors in New Brunswick, which could lead to nuclear proliferation by reprocessing used nuclear fuel.

Pfeiffer notes India generated its first atomic weapon in 1974 using plutonium obtained from a nuclear reactor supplied by Canada.

Representatives of the nuclear industry in Canada enjoy nibblies at the conference in February. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer

No free lunch

Nuclear proliferation was the 20th century’s extinction threat. Although it remains present, another extinction concern — climate collapse spurred by carbon emissions that mark the fossil age — is showing itself through deadly heat domes, droughts, floods and worsening wildfires.

Gorman’s “nuclear renaissance” argument hinges on this other existential threat: climate change.

In the latter decades of the 20th century, people did not care where their energy came from, he noted. But times have changed, and the climate crisis has governments scrambling to meet climate targets by finding non-emitting electricity sources to replace greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil.

Pfeiffer considers himself a “nuclear agnostic.” He grew up with a healthy fear of industrial accidents while living in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley where explosions happen “not infrequently.” He has memories of videos shot close to his grade school that show families picking debris from their roofs after a petrochemical plant explosion.

He recognizes the likelihood of nuclear accidents will increase if there is a massively expanded nuclear industry. On the other hand, he has seen and smelled the danger of the fossil age.

“We got to do something about greenhouse gases ASAP,” he said.

The nuclear industry recognizes this and is striving to paint itself as a green climate solution that can offer a consistent “baseload” energy similar to gas or coal power plants without the planet-boiling carbon.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson reinforces that message at the conference, stating the reputation of nuclear power is changing. Even the International Energy Agency now recognizes nuclear as clean energy, he said.

But both Pfeiffer and O’Donnell see problems ahead for nuclear power generation in a warming world. Bodies of water that atomic power plants rely on to cool their plants are warming, causing temporary shutdowns in France over the last two years.

Still, Pfeiffer notes there are environmental and social justice risks associated with massively expanding renewables and points to the devastation caused by mining rare earth minerals.

“There is no free lunch, the law of thermodynamics,” Pfeiffer said, pointing to the benefits and risks of expanding any energy source.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced millions in funding for Indigenous groups to advance critical mineral projects. Photo by Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer

Governments and private finance changing tunes

Yet, all signs are pointing toward some nuclear expansion in Canada in the near future. Last month, Nova Scotia lifted its nuclear energy ban, following the advice of its clean electricity solutions task force’s report.

It was another vote of confidence for nuclear expansion in Canada. Gorman is pleased and says Canada will lead the way by bringing the world’s first small modular reactors (SMRs) online.

Provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan with high-carbon energy sources are eyeing SMRs as part of their decarbonization efforts.

Saskatchewan will decide the fate of SMRs by 2029, Dustin Duncan, the minister responsible for SaskPower, told Canada’s National Observer in an interview.

It seems likely that nuclear power will be accepted. Saskatchewan, the world’s second-largest producer of uranium, is sometimes dubbed “the Saudi Arabia of uranium.” Duncan said polls show people in the province are the most nuclear-ready populace in the country, with 74 per cent approving of nuclear power.

Still, no small nuclear reactors have been produced, so far. And O’Donnell isn’t convinced SMRs will succeed. Along with other nuclear waste and proliferation concerns, she notes the failed experiments with SMR technology, particularly with New Brunswick-based Moltex.

Darlington’s SMRs in Ontario have a better chance, she said, due to a nearly $1-billion loan from the Infrastructure Bank of Canada and more proven technology.

John Arthur Gorman (left) and Jigar Shah, director of the loan programs office in the U.S. Department of Energy, in conversation at the nuclear industry conference in Ottawa in February. Photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer

The nuclear waste problem, the nuclear waste solution

The problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste is another hurdle the industry must overcome before nuclear energy can be expanded. Gorman believes nuclear does not have a waste problem, but a “waste solution.”

“It sounds kind of trite or corny, but I think that’s how the industry looks at it, and I think other industries should look at how nuclear treats all of its waste streams,” he said.

At a panel for SMRs, Olivier Gregoire, a licensing manager for Moltex, the company developing an SMR fuelled by plutonium, told the audience he believes the industry is being unfairly criticized for its “nuclear waste problem.”

“Nobody claims that there could be a waste problem with solar energy,” he said. “But there is some toxic heavy material in solar panels that will remain toxic forever.”

Gorman shares this sentiment. His time in the solar industry exposed him to the reality that there isn’t a solution for decommissioning solar fields and recycling solar panels, which he says is a concern given their 20-year lifespan. Wind turbines have similar issues, he said.

“We desperately need a solution for those things,” Gorman said. He thinks renewables “need to take lessons from nuclear in terms of what we do really well — being accountable and knowing where every particle of waste is, prepaying it, storing and managing it properly.”

Protesters gathered across from the Westin in downtown Ottawa to decry the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s decision to grant a licence to construct a radioactive waste disposal facility in Deep River, Ont. Photo submitted by Lynn Jones

Still, concerns linger over facilities for long-term storage given the knowledge that a large-scale nuclear disaster can render an area unlivable. Chernobyl, for example, will not be habitable for another 20,000 years.

Those fears that live in the collective memories of society make nuclear a hard sell.

For example, in New Mexico, Pfeiffer points to nuclear’s thorny past of uranium mining exploitation of Indigenous nations. He tells a history of Navajo miners receiving less pay without personal protective equipment and the bomb tests on Navajo homelands.

In Canada, where no consultation or consent occurred to develop the early nuclear industry, the Algonquin nation has also never been consulted with or consented to the Chalk River nuclear research facility, now also the site of Canada’s first near-surface nuclear waste disposal facility.

Outside the conference, the protesters continued demonstrating against the Ontario waste facility. It’s a reminder that Indigenous groups are demanding a far greater say on nuclear waste facilities built on their territories because they fear for their homelands, waters and ancestral food systems.

“The long-term concerns [for nuclear] are the land that gets permanently uninhabitable,” O’Donnell said.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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