Author Archives: John Stewart

Why am I so Proud to Work in the Canadian Nuclear Industry?

By John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Because my industry develops one of humanity’s most sophisticated, promising, and cleanest technologies, for human and environmental good.

Because labour unions in this industry believe as strongly in nuclear energy as I do, and advocate for it as strongly as I do.

Because leading environmentalists advocate for it as well.

Because my industry’s membership is united, not by a business model, but by this technology.  We are universities, laboratories, utilities, engineering and construction firms, standards and training organizations and a global mining company, working together to build a better future.

Because my country, Canada, is a world leader in nuclear technology.

It’s easy to be proud of this.

Small Reactors: Big Questions, Big Opportunities

By John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

An Ontario politician asked me this week what I thought the prospects were for deploying nuclear energy in Alberta.  He seemed surprised when I said I thought Ontario was an equally big opportunity.

He shouldn’t have been. Yes, there’s a great future for low-carbon power in Western Canada (and I argued that Saskatchewan and Alberta should be viewed more or less together for this purpose). But I drew the politician’s attention back to his own province. While Ontario’s economy has had some challenges in the past decade-at times looking like a “have-not” compared with Alberta-its growth story is probably far from over. Managed well, it could generate enormous income and wealth for all Canadians in the century ahead.

Nuclear energy has been powering Ontario since 1962 and provides 60 percent of the province’s electricity, and a core part of its science, engineering and manufacturing capacity. But still, nuclear technology is young and its potential applications have barely been tested.

Efficient, ultra-safe small reactors look set to deliver a lot of those applications. The obvious one is making low-carbon power to displace fossil fuels wherever we use them-particularly by expanding the use of electric vehicles. There’s also processing minerals and other natural resources, driving ships, making medical isotopes, researching new materials and desalinating seawater.

There’s a huge amount we don’t know about how these opportunities will unfold and how big the market will be. We can’t see the future. But Ontario can do things to raise its already healthy changes of being part of it. Some of these are electrifying transportation, driving with this low-carbon generation (including new nuclear), and nurturing small reactors that can get our northern, native and remote communities off dirty diesel.

I explored prospects for SMR deployment in a presentation to the Ontario Power conference in Toronto in April. You can see that presentation here.

What Leaders Say

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

HurricaneDespite twenty-one COP meetings, one of which wrapped up last month in Paris, the world’s response to climate change is still patchy and unclear.

In particular, there’s a disconnect between Canada and Europe, on the one hand, and many leading countries on the other.

Experts and officials know that to hit a 1.5 degree or 2 degree climate scenario, renewable energy won’t be enough. Nuclear has to be part of the answer. The world’s use of nuclear power must grow by about 150% over the next 35 years, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook.

But few Canadian politicians recognize this, at least not openly. They talk about “clean energy” but not about whether the concept includes nuclear. Perhaps they take their cue from the leaders of climate-focused non-governmental organizations that also steer clear of nuclear. Perhaps it’s just easier to raise money and win votes without using the N-word. Perhaps they just don’t know any better.

Political leaders in other leading countries don’t have this inhibition. The United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, India and other key countries readily acknowledge that nuclear must play a central part in keeping the planet cool.

“As Prime Minister, I pledged that the government I lead would be the greenest government ever. And I believe we’ve kept that promise. We’ve more than doubled our capacity in renewable electricity in the last four years alone. We now have enough solar to power almost a million UK homes. We have the world’s leading financial centre in carbon trading. And we have established the world’s first green investment bank. We’ve invested £1 billion in Carbon Capture and Storage. And we’ve said no to any new coal without Carbon Capture and Storage. We are investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation. Now, as a result of all that we are doing, we are on track to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.” — UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Speech to the UN Climate Summit, September 23, 2014

Politicians who avoid this nuclear fact have a problem. They promote an incomplete public understanding of the decarbonization path ahead of us. In effect, they are leading their people to over-invest in certain other solutions. We’re talking about wind and solar in particular, but also biofuels, geothermal, and many currently unproven technologies that might not work, not be ready soon enough, or not be able to scale up enough to help.

It’s not that these don’t belong on the world’s list of climate answers. It’s that nuclear is on that list too, and it’s near the top. That’s because it’s already proven, it’s already available, and it’s on a large enough scale to help.

“As detailed in the Climate Action Plan, President Obama is committed to using every appropriate tool to combat climate change.  Nuclear power, which in 2014 generated about 60 percent of carbon-free electricity in the United States, continues to play a major role in efforts to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector.” — The White House, November 6, 2015

By pretending nuclear’s not on the list, Canadian leaders are hurting, not helping, the climate cause. They’re committing to plans for greenhouse-gas reduction that are only partially effective. They’re sidetracking this country from the practical road forward to a world free of fossil fuels and their emissions. We need to act if we want to prevent a very ugly future for the only planet we have to live on. We need to overcome political inhibitions. It’s time to speak the truth about nuclear.

“The whole world is worried about global warming and climate change. People in air-conditioned rooms discuss this issue. But if India succeeds in generating clean energy, one-sixth of the humanity will take responsibility for addressing the climate change. For that nuclear energy is important. But the reactors will need uranium which will be given by Canada.” — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, April 16, 2015

A Sunny View of Risk

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

Blue-eyed John Stewart
Blue-eyed John Stewart

Like many blue-eyed, middle-aged men who’ve been hiking, cycling, canoeing and kayaking since childhood, I have basal cell carcinoma, in the form of little low-grade cancerous spots on my skin.

Exposure to non-sun radiation is one of the main risk factors. It’s apparently #2 after too much sunshine – and not counting being blue-eyed, middle-aged, and male, none of which I can be expected to avoid, at least not at this point.

So how come the medical advice I get doesn’t say anything about avoiding licensed nuclear facilities? My doctors know what I do for a living, but none of them tell me to stay clear of Chalk River, Blind River, Kincardine, Port Hope, Darlington or Pickering.

Instead, the advice I get from them is 90% about hats, shirts, glasses and sunscreen (fair enough). About 5% is about avoiding tanning beds and sun lamps (no problem). About 3% is about staying in the shade (ha!). And the remaining 2% is about taking vitamin D so I won’t mind sitting in the shade for the rest of my life.

Why nothing about the nuclear industry? Because emissions from nuclear facilities are so low, they don’t matter.

The non-sun radiation sources that health care organizations talk about include anything other than nuclear power plants, including:

  • Cancer treatment itself (radiation to treat a first cancer might cause a second cancer)
  • Naturally occurring radon gas in my basement
  • Weapons testing programs that occurred before I was born.

Why nothing about the nuclear industry? Again: emissions from nuclear facilities are so low, they don’t matter.

Talking Nuclear with Socrates

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

A July 6 posting (“The future: No doomsday cult required”) noted some of the baggage one can find among advocates for new energy systems. Such evangelism tends to be connected to long-developed beliefs about the unsustainability of our moral and spiritual culture and/or the profit-based corporate world and/or our environmental practices.

As advocates for nuclear energy, we’re often not just in a conversation about energy. Sometimes we’re really on the fringes of a bigger battlefield that’s shaped by hundreds of years of ideology. And the views of those we’re talking to reflect that. As they see it, humans are self-destructively selfish and materialistic. We’re now a plague on the planet (two-thirds of respondents agree with this statement!).   Profit-obsessed corporations have made us that way, and capitalism is rapidly failing.  This is why our energy systems have to change, and fast.

As advocates in the public policy space, our conversations sometimes have either to work around or get beyond these unstated, perhaps unconscious views. The July 6 posting wrapped up by saying that we can do this. How so?

Socrates
Socrates

The Greek philosopher Socrates gave his name to a method. It involves asking respectful questions about another person’s thinking, in a way that may induce them to think more deeply about those beliefs and possibly discover for themselves what underlies them. That can lead anyone to more sound and balanced beliefs.

Based on a few chats from this summer (with a bohemian environmentalist, a solar energy salesman, a climate campaigner, and others), here are questions that might be used constructively in the conversations we’re likely to have about energy systems.

Why do you believe that? Did you accumulate some evidence, or is this an intuitive belief?

What’s the objective you’re trying to achieve with what you’re proposing? For example, do you hope to (a) reduce GHG emissions? (b) reduce land use or some other environmental impact? (c) reduce costs? (d) become independent of the public electricity grid? (e) some other purpose?

You express a view about future energy use (or production). Is this view something that you think will happen, or should happen, or both? What forces favour it happening, and what obstacles are in the way?

What investments need to be made for what you propose to happen? Who do you think should make those investments? If this happened quickly, wouldn’t some of society’s existing investments be made uneconomic (“stranded”)? Who would bear that cost?

You expect certain new or improved energy technologies. How ready are those technologies today? How sure are you that they will materialize? What kinds of scaling-up, testing, standardization, and cost reductions will be required in order for them to be widely adopted? How fast is the technology we currently use being replaced? Considering all these factors, how long might it take until most people use the technology you foresee?

Why are you so sure the electricity grid should change to become less centralized, or should be broken up altogether? How does the system currently fail to deliver the result you want?

What benefits do you expect, for yourself and for others, from selling power into the grid, or from going “off grid” entirely? What will be the effect on those who are not able to do these things, who must stay in their current relationship to the power grid?

Asking these questions doesn’t demand that the other side sit still and listen to your point of view. Rather, it shows interest in exploring the other side’s viewpoint, as well as willingness to take it seriously. Asking such questions helps the other side to probe, to question seriously and perhaps to improve, what it says it thinks.

The Future: No Doomsday Cult Required

By John Stewart
Director of Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

DoomsdayMy adult son, who is a wise, reflective, intelligent and well-read man, recently shared with me his view of the world in a few decades. It was apocalyptic: dead oceans, cities run by criminal gangs… you get the idea. (He was trying to persuade me to retire early and enjoy life while I can).

Admittedly, there is reasonable evidence for his forecast. I happen to take a less pessimistic view. He and I don’t disagree much on facts, but rather on how we project them into the future.

I’m also more historically conscious: I’m more aware that it is not, and has never been, unusual to forecast that we are all doomed.

Doomsday predictions have been with us since ancient times. They are doubly useful. They employ fear to recruit believers into whatever religion we’re evangelizing. And they provide the satisfying glow of knowing what a terrible end awaits those who won’t join us and how they’ll realize, when that end comes, that we were right and they were wrong.

There is always evidence that can be pressed readily into service. Religious cultists generally point to society’s (always apparent) corruption and moral decline. Thomas Malthus noted the unrestrained fertility of the poor. Marx and the communist ideologues saw the clear drawbacks of industrial society, and predicted that capitalism would inevitably falter and collapse. 1960’s environmentalists overextended Rachel Carson’s solid, ground-breaking work on the effects of pesticides. The 1970’s resource-exhaustion panickers distorted the Limits to Growth report; they took commodity price spikes as proof that the world was running out of natural resources.

There’s a bit of moral superiority at work. Those who see the light, who invest in the new religion, are the wise and good. Those who don’t agree wholeheartedly with them are mentally and morally deficient. If they can’t be beaten in argument, at least they’ll see the error of their ways on judgment day.

These features have carried through from the ancient religious doomsday cults, to socialist ideologies, to present visions of Our Renewable Energy Future. The old system is doomed. The crash will come in our lifetimes (otherwise, why convert?). To save yourself and prosper in these dark times, you must commit to the new religion.

Belief in society’s moral decay gradually fused with belief in capitalism’s self-destruction, which apparently now has become belief in our biosphere’s demise. Indeed, the three have gotten quite muddled: consumerism is portrayed as a kind of moral and spiritual decay, which has been foisted on humanity by corporations. The system we’ve built is now destroying not just our souls, but itself and Mother Nature too. EarthTimeBomb

I realized this when listening to my son talk about the future: Our Renewable Energy Future is somehow mixed up with Original Sin, the population bomb, and the inevitable crash of the capitalist system. It’s repeatedly characterized as “inevitable,” the speed of its arrival is overestimated, and of course we can’t rely on failing corporate structures (or cities) to implement it. Somehow we’re all going to achieve it in small cooperative teams in the countryside.

There’s a lot of baggage here. But my son and I acknowledged it and got beyond it. And we continue to have the reasonable discussion we both want. It can be done.