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Richard Shimooka: Maximizing Canada’s energy future requires returning to our nuclear roots

Commentary

In 1950 four countries were on the cutting edge of nuclear technology development: the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and Canada. While it may be surprising today, Canada’s leading role was the product of sustained government support and a bit of luck. As part of the Allied nations during WWII, the country played a strong role in the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic weapons. This gave Canadian scientists a basic level of expertise with the nascent technology at its inception. After the war, this technical expertise was redirected domestically, leading to Canada building the world’s second nuclear reactor at Chalk River, followed by many more discoveries and technical innovations over the subsequent decades.

Yet Canada’s nuclear heritage has all but been forgotten today by the public: the most tangible vestige is the 19 CANDU reactors that operate across Canada. Although nuclear industries globally have remained relatively flat since the 1980s, Canada’s decline has been precipitous. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a crown corporation and once the jewel of the country’s nuclear industry, has divested itself of its key divisions including the one responsible for the CANDU reactor.

The diminution of Canada’s nuclear industry can be traced to a number of issues. In the aftermath of the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl accidents, regulatory oversight greatly increased the capital costs of building nuclear reactors. This, along with the lack of government loans or other incentives, made atomic energy unprofitable compared to other energy sources. Those alternatives, such as hydroelectric in British Columbia and Quebec, as well as oil and gas elsewhere, largely satiated the country’s energy needs from the 1980s to the 2010s.

However, worries around climate change and greenhouse gases have made fossil fuel approaches less than attractive. And while hydropower remains a viable alternative source, its potential growth remains fairly flat. The challenges encountered by Site-C Dam in British Columbia and the James Bay River project in Quebec suggest that it will not meaningfully shift the energy dynamics of the country in the future. 

Furthermore, renewables face real limitations to the scale at which they can meet any developed state’s energy demands.A recent MIT Technology Review article pointed out that real-world evidence from a number of locales suggests that solar energy power likely cannot provide more than 25 percent of a given energy grid’s total energy mix; any more and it becomes less practical and profitable for companies to incorporate. The difficulty of attempting an energy transition without nuclear has become particularly apparent in Germany, which has been required to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants—one of the most CO2-intensive energy sources—to replace the generating capacity lost when it shut down its nuclear power plants.

Realistically, our energy future requires a mix of energy sources. Nuclear is one of the most straightforward approaches Western economies can adopt. Nuclear power provides the flexibility and reliability to complement renewables, which can address their greatest weakness: transience due to climatic conditions. Nuclear can reliably serve as a baseload to meet demand when those other generator sources are unavailable. A 2020 International Energy Agency report found that nuclear had among the lowest expected costs across all low-carbon technologies, including wind and solar.

It would be foolish to ignore some of the challenges that face nuclear power as a source. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima meltdowns inflicted grievous damage to the Industry’s reputation, which persists today in many Western countries. A recent Angus Reid poll suggested that while three out of five Canadians want more nuclear development, only 2/5ths of them would welcome the construction of a nuclear plant within 50 km of their home. One could interpret the findings as Canadians being supportive of nuclear power but remaining concerned about its safety.

In some way, the nuclear industry is fighting a battle with its ghosts, not its present reality. The disasters of the ’70s and ’80s spurred the development of new technologies and reactor designs. Those incidents occurred largely at plants or facilities whose creation date back to the inception of the nuclear power industry. For example, the Fukushima-Daichi power plant that melted down during the 2011 tsunami employed a boiling water reactor design that dated back to the early 1960s —one of the first large-scale designs. In that era, the industry’s focus was more on the viability of nuclear power and developing increasingly powerful and efficient reactors. Since the 1980s, safety has become an overriding focus.

The newest generations of large reactors are built with wide safety margins and passive safety features that allow reactors to operate in a safe mode for days without outside assistance. Critical failure points, such as exposed power systems required for cooling the reactors used at Fukushima, have been engineered out.

Perhaps the most exciting advances are in the field of Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs. These reactors are much smaller than existing designs and have the potential to revolutionize power generation in remote communities across Canada. Currently, most of these communities are reliant on diesel power, which is not only carbon intensive but also exposes residents to harmful aerial pollution and requires challenging refuelling operations during narrow seasonal windows. Renewables are not realistic alternatives in these areas given their harsh climactic conditions. The quality of life improvements that SMRs could bring can’t be overstated.Other applications include use as a heating source for major industrial processes, such as in the oil sands or in refining critical minerals such as nickel, a key material for advanced batteries. The U.S. has just authorized the construction of the first such SMRs for Dow Chemical and will certainly pursue more in the future.

The final issue is the handling of nuclear waste, which has vexed the field since its inception. The reality is that the industry itself has become better at reducing the waste produced by fission—reducing the potential risks of a large release in the unlikely case of a failure—and has developed several storage solutions to store everything that cannot be reprocessed. A number of underground geological repositories are in the process of being constructed, with the first opening in Finland last year. Canada has similar plans to construct a repository in Ontario’s Canadian Shield, one of the most stable and oldest geological formations in the world. Once operational, the site will house all of the country’s nuclear waste for at least the next half-century. While the technical challenges are certainly surmountable, developing local support for their construction, especially among First Nations communities, is by no means assured. It speaks to the broader difficulties nuclear energy encounters to gain acceptance.

All of this seems like heady stuff, yet no matter what course Canada’s energy transition takes over the next three decades, the effects will be dramatic on all aspects of Canadians’ lives. The use of nuclear power has the potential to provide the most straightforward, sustainable, and economically beneficial approach. Parts of government have responded. Last week it was announced that the world’s first micro modular reactor (MMR), a type that would be ideal to sustain remote communities, will be built at Chalk River. A good first step. 

However, tepid support by the federal government will not be sufficient to push Canada back into the forefront of this field. Rather, it will strangle the little life that remains in this field. 

The nuclear field remains heavily regulated, perhaps overly so, in part as a hangover of the disasters of the 1970s and ’80s. The most recently constructed nuclear plant in the United States, Votgle 3, required roughly 15 years to navigate the regulatory approvals process and construct the reactor (though several parts required redesign). Chalk River MMR’s project is anticipated to require a decade from the start of the approval process to its completion. While the latter may be acceptable for a prototype, if later examples face similar timelines it will ensure the technology will remain unprofitable. 

A new approach is required that reflects the reality of nuclear technologies today. For example, unlike traditional reactors that are multibillion-dollar bespoke investments, SMRs resemble mass-produced industrial units that should require less regulation after a specific design is approved.   

Streamlining the approvals process should be a focus of federal governments. With strong existing demand, the right mix of government support in terms of funding and regulations will ensure nuclear power’s future in Canada may well look as bright as its past. 

Christopher Dummitt: The harm reduction consensus is cracking

Commentary

The experts seem absolutely certain of one thing: that the Alberta government is clueless.

The Globe & Mail recently released a story that claimed that the government of Alberta was planning to “broaden the circumstances under which people with severe drug addictions could be placed into treatment without their consent.” Yesterday’s campaign announcement from the United Conservative Party confirmed this reporting and outlined the party’s plan, if re-elected, to grant families, legal guardians, and police the “last-resort” right to refer addicts to treatment in cases where they are considered a harm to themselves and others and are likely to keep reoffending.The UCP addictions plan also promises a “recovery-oriented system of care” and includes increased funding for addiction treatment centres and mental wellness centres.

The idea isn’t new. Even British Columbia’s NDP premier David Eby recently mused about adopting a similar approach. The epidemic of drug overdoses and the problem of mass homelessness with its ties to addiction and mental illness is pushing governments of all stripes to think about what can be done.

Yet the uniformity of the expert and media response is striking. 

To enforce treatment is many things, we are told, and none of them are good. Forcing someone into treatment is apparently just like torture. That’s according to Euan Thomson, the head of a harm reduction organization. “They’re put into severe withdrawal by going into these [treatment programs],” Thomson argues, “so it really is like torture.” 

Or it’s seen as a violation of basic civil rights. Lorian Hardcastle, a law professor at the University of Calgary has argued that enforced treatment is “a violation of your rights to…life, liberty and security of the person”. For what it’s worth, this is the same professor Hardcastle who is on the record arguing that vaccine mandates don’t violate Charter rights even though they too were a form of mandated medical treatment.

All the experts upset at the Alberta plan share a similar harm reduction approach. Harm reduction is ostensibly meant to reduce the personal health and social costs of addiction. It aims not to stigmatize addicts (even my use of the term “addict” might offend proponents). Most importantly it is not even about getting drug users to necessarily stop using drugs—certainly not if they don’t personally want to stop using. These experts claim that their approach is supported by the best scientific evidence and that it genuinely minimizes drug overdoses or, as advocates increasingly insist on calling them, drug “poisonings.” 

Should we then just trust the experts? 

If it hasn’t worked yet—if our streets and downtowns are filled with tents and needles, with drug users walking out into traffic as if a busy street is no different from a soccer field, and if the numbers of those using drugs and suffering overdoses is not in fact diminishing—should we just sit back and assume that this cadre of experts will be right eventually? Perhaps we just haven’t given it enough time yet? Or maybe things will improve if we move forward with “safe supply”—that is, turning the government into a legal pusher of hard drugs? 

This might all be fine if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve lived through several years of realizing just how politicized the field of public health expertise actually is. Gathering in large groups would spread COVID-19, we were told—unless you were gathering in a Black Lives Matter protest in which case, it’s all good. We should “follow the science”—unless, that is, the science showed that it would be fine to keep schools open because kids weren’t at serious risk from COVID-19.

In other words, the uniformity of expertise might be less worrisome if we could trust that experts valued truth ahead of politics. But that’s not the case. Instead, what we have is a group of experts who seem to be the intellectual equivalents of Henry Ford’s Model T: you can have all the expertise you want, as long as it’s a shade of harm-reduction. 

We know just how ideologically insulated our sources of so-called expertise have become. As a colleague and I showed in our report for the Macdonald Laurier Institute last year, our universities have become intellectual silos that vastly overrepresent left-wing viewpoints. Those with alternate perspectives self-censor at alarmingly high rates. 

This matters for public policy. People with different political orientations think differently about morality. Progressives have a generally rosy view of human nature based on an idea of the innate perfectibility of humans. They also increasingly focus on the virtue of victimhood above almost all other moral concerns. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out, progressives tend to be clueless about other kinds of moral matrices, often interpreting different moral choices as either being stupid or evil.

When we shape public policy it helps to test progressive solutions against other options, especially those based on more cautious views which assume the weakness of the individual, the darkness that we all contain inside ourselves, and the fact that we sometimes need to be saved from ourselves.  

The intellectual debate about addiction also needs to account for the social costs of rampant public drug use and addiction. It needs to think about the social costs of children being raised in cities where it’s normal to have drug users openly out-of-their minds on downtown streets—or where the public library is a way station for men and women who haven’t showered in weeks and who leer at patrons. 

The behaviour of individuals around us shapes what we see as acceptable. To the extent that harm reduction works—by de-stigmatizing drug use—this is itself a social problem. There is a danger of a cascading descent into social degradation where the terrible choices that addicts make become normalized and not stigmatized. As progressives seem to acknowledge in other areas—most dramatically in dealing with racism—stigma is socially useful. It indicates social disapproval. Would harm reduction activists suggest the same approach for hate crimes, suggesting we need to create reading rooms for racists stuffed with copies of Mein Kampf and old VHS tapes of Birth of a Nation? After all, if you follow their logic, we need to listen to the addicts and not violate their Charter rights.

Clearly, this approach wouldn’t be appropriate in the case of hate crimes and we ought to listen to those who see similar problems adopting the same approach with drugs.

Where is the Canadian version of Michael Shellenberger who has brought such dynamic debate to the United States? In his book San Fransicko, he exposed how a so-called progressive approach to urban problems had contributed to the explosion of homelessness and drug overdoses in San Francisco, hurting the people the advocates claim to want to help. 

Canadian federalism allows us to test various public policies in different jurisdictions. It’s one of the benefits, amidst the many drawbacks, of federalism. We ought to be keen to allow provinces to test out decidedly different approaches to the addiction crisis. 

Harm reduction advocates emerging out of the homogenous cookie-cutter world of academia offer one solution. It’s for all intents and purposes been the only one on offer in much of our public policy debates on these issues. But other approaches are possible. After ceding a decade-long monopoly on this debate to progressives and their preferred policy prescriptions, conservatives in Alberta are offering a coherent strategy and alternative framework to address these issues—one that other like-minded national and provincial leaders searching for solutions can build upon.

I offer no prediction on whether the Alberta approach will work. Experts who make predictions are wrong as often as they are right. But it certainly seems like a bright spot on the Canadian horizon to see governments testing out starkly contrasting policies.