"It still amazes me that people don't know that their power comes from nuclear reactors. It amazes me that many people drive past the Pickering plant on their way to work every day, and don't know it is a nuclear reactor."
-Elizabeth Dowdswell, President, Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO)
We are addicted to a cheap and endless supply of electricity on demand. But electricity is by far the costliest form of energy. In order to produce it in large quantity, we currently burn fossil fuels, dam rivers, and split uranium atoms in nuclear reactors. By nature, these infrastructure mega-projects are heavily reliant on the public purse. Unfortunately, the steeper cost by far is paid by the environment-whether it is in flooding entire watersheds, polluting the atmosphere, or poisoning the ground.
Of course, hardly anyone thinks about that when they turn on the lights or turn up the air conditioning. We prefer to live in denial - albeit comfortable and well-illuminated denial.
In Ontario, much of our electricity is generated using fossil fuels like coal, crude oil, and natural gas. Coal-burning power stations send mercury, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, chrome and nickel-all acknowledged carcinogens-into the atmosphere. One of the Ontario stations, Nanticoke, sent more than 7,640 tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere during the year 2000. This station alone is responsible for 6% of all of the atmospheric pollution in Canada and 13% of all of the pollution in Ontario.
The Ontario government says it is committed to phasing out these coal-burning power stations. But letting the lights go out is hardly an option. A recent agreement to transfer hydro-electric power from Manitoba to Ontario and reopen negotiations to cooperate on a new dam in northern Manitoba is designed to fill some of the gap.
But nuclear power, which currently provides 50% of Ontario's electrical energy needs, is the real monster in Ontario's energy closet. As NWMO President Dowdswell observes, we refuse to admit it. A 2002 survey by Natural Resources Canada concluded that "Canadians do not understand how their electricity is generated, with most (78%) holding to the belief that their homes are powered by relatively 'clean' hydro-electric power. Whether this is a function of ignorance or denial, it is clear that, unlike vehicle pollution, the environmental consequences of electric power generation have not yet been firmly established in the public's consciousness."
We don't want to know about nuclear power. It has a dangerous history.
Most of North America lost its taste for nuclear power generation after the Three Mile Island accident. On March 28, 1979, a sequence of events, including equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors, led to a partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core. Off-site releases of radioactivity were very small and there were no deaths or injuries to workers or members of the nearby community. But public fear and distrust resulting from this incident was so deep that there hasn't been a commercial nuclear power station built in the United States since then.
Lately, the nuclear industry has been hard at work cleaning up its image. The modern nuclear reactors are more reliable, with more built-in safety features than their aging cousins built in the '70s, say the experts. Nuclear has new supporters including prominent environmentalists. In an article in MIT's Technology Review, Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, accuses the environmental movement of having a quasi-religious aversion to nuclear power, which he suggests is now a mature industry unlikely to repeat the errors of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and our best bet for atmospherically clean, low-cost fuel.
Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore and Gaia theorist James Lovelock wrote, in an op-ed for The Independent: "Even if [the Greens] were right about [the dangers of nuclear power], and they are not, its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world. …