Published in the June 2001
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.22, No.2.
AMERICAN BOOTY by Jeremy Whitlock
Alvin Weinberg may be about to go from "dreamer" status to "prophet". Over the past decade, in books, articles, speeches, and interviews, the former ORNL Director and Manhattan Project physicist has quietly foretold the coming of a Second Nuclear Era.
The First Era, so the Gospel of Weinberg goes, saw the birth and rapid commercialization of nuclear technology, decoupled almost entirely from popular culture, ending with the entombment of Chernobyl Unit 4 – and five decades of nuclear industrial paternalism along with it.
So began the Period of Adjustment that has been the last 15 years. The wilderness was wandered, the industry lost fat, and the reactors aged. Even as Global Warming entered the common vernacular, with nuclear power fingered as a cure (as early as 1983's NOVA episode on "The Climate Crisis"), nobody seriously saw a turnaround in sight.
Weinberg did not say how long this adjustment would last, but he did suggest it would end when the public embraced new passively safe reactor designs, built in droves to combat an inevitable energy crunch.
Few doubted this prophesy. Fewer, still, expected Weinberg to see the start of the Second Nuclear Era in his own lifetime. At 86, however, the prophet may be just about to enter the Promised Land with the rest of us.
The trick, it turns out, was not the Earth warming up, but Hell freezing over. Who would have thought that California, Land of Plenty, turbo-generator of the New Economy, would suffer rolling blackouts?
Nothing short of a sex scandal could have caught political attention quite as much. Toss in a Republican government itching to reconstruct national energy policy, an industry and a public both looking for solutions, and you've got the early makings of a Second Nuclear Era.
Of course the tide didn't turn overnight. The last five years have seen environmental bureaucrats around the world slowly building a consensus that nuclear power, former pariah, belongs on the table in Kyoto strategy planning.
Over the same period, hard-nosed financiers watched keenly as nuclear plants became hot commodities on the "previously-owned" market. Spot prices rose 1600 per cent, from Three Mile Island's 29 $/kW in July 1998, to Nine Mile Point's 480 $/kW announced in December 2000. One-third of American nuclear power plants have applied for life extensions. New designs (including that sexy newcomer, the PBMR) are about to be brought before the U.S. regulator.
Then, suddenly, the silicon heart of America skipped a beat, and Vice President Cheney got his signal to rally the charge on prime time television. Nuclear's back Jack, and dontchya look back no more.
As we know, nothing affects Canadian policy quite like American policy, and it wasn't long before Ontario Premier Mike Harris and OPG President Ron Osborne were openly talking about new CANDU reactors in Ontario. The industry did a double-take in May as Premier Harris labelled nuclear power "the number one green energy alternative", "practical, cost-effective", and "the safest, greenest electricity available", while Ron Osborne declared nuclear power to be an "inevitable source of the province's future energy supply".
Provincial energy supply is one thing; the most lucrative commodity market in the Western hemisphere is another. That's what electricity supply is evolving into, and that's certainly what British Energy has in mind as it assumes operation of the Bruce cash cows on Lake Huron.
Meanwhile, it would seem that Canada's traditional anti-nuclear sector has become disenfranchised in the nuclear renaissance. Content to stick with the Seventies' "No-Nukes" credo throughout the harvest years of the Eighties (when it didn't matter), and the tide-turning years of the Nineties (when it started to matter), they now find themselves somewhat out of the loop.
Part of the problem was an unspoken reliance on natural gas in many alternative energy proposals. The flagship promotions of conservation and renewable energy were shored up with nods to "clean" natural gas – and in practical terms the eggs were never anywhere but in that basket. Today the escalating cost of natural gas has left the alternative portfolio looking rather thin.
It's particularly humbling for Energy Probe, with its right-wing agenda of decentralization and privatization that should, rightfully, be basking in glorified fruition at this time. Instead, and quite ironically, nuclear power appears best-poised to succeed as Ontario prepares its plunge into a competitive electricity market.
This has the anti-nuclear front offices scrambling for words. Sierra Club sends letters to editors trashing CANDUs in comparison with American LWRs. Energy Probe flails even more awkwardly, trotting out the prototype Gentilly-1, as well as Chernobyl, and "too cheap to meter". The Toronto Star tries to spread falsehoods about leukemia and prostate cancer clusters near nuclear plants.
All good news. Realism was never a strong suit of the anti-nuclear establishment, and perhaps it's time they regrouped. Their best strategy now would be to reach out to a broader constituency – the population of this continent finally realizing what energy shortage means, and looking for realistic answers.
At last the playing field is being levelled, and that's all we ever asked for.
©2011 Jeremy Whitlock