OK, there’s a codicil to our lead item. The cost of reducing carbon emissions will be enormous unless we find a reliable, affordable kind of energy that produces less CO2. Or rather notice that we already did because, to remind rather than inform, we already have one. Nuclear power. Which a lot of people really hate, especially environmentalists who you’d expect to like it if they liked anything. But a politician just emerged from the rhetorical fog carrying a bright sustainable light. In a speech to the Canadian Nuclear Association annual conference, Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan surprised us pleasantly by declaring that “As the world tackles a changing climate, nuclear power is poised to provide the next wave of clean, affordable, safe and reliable power”.
There are limits to his clarity. The world is not currently tackling a changing climate. It has a changing climate, as it has ever since it coalesced from space dust into a blazing lifeless rock that then cooled into an almost lifeless snowball, then warmed, life flourished with atmospheric CO2 above 1500 ppm, the dinosaurs came and went, CO2 declined and temperature didn’t, then last time it was around present levels we went into the Pleistocene Ice Age with its merciful but sadly brief interglacials. And there’s nothing we can do about it and nothing we are doing.
For instance “the world” is not cutting the CO2 emissions currently blamed for cranking up the thermostat and so on. They’re increasing. And if you really believe they’re a huge problem, but don’t want everyone to freeze in the dark or get so desperate they say to heck with posterity let’s burn some coal, you really should not sink all your time, energy and emotional commitment into unreliable alternatives like wind and solar. You should be pushing the one that already works, delivers reliable baseloads, is based on solid practical engineering methods, can be deployed everywhere and as an added bonus lacks the enormous ecological footprint of wind and solar.
It’s amazing that we’re even having this debate. Or rather that we’re not. Everyone from Al Gore to Greta Thunberg should be waving pro-nuclear placards. Instead they’re doing the opposite or nothing.
Now to give blame where blame is due, Minister O’Regan was the nominal coauthor of that dreadful celebratory letter about the cancellation of the Teck Frontier oilsands mine. That he might suddenly say something brave and sensible is not a bet we would have taken a week ago. But he did.
“We have been working so hard to support this industry,” he told a packed room. “We are placing nuclear energy front and centre, something that has never been done before.” Which is largely true, at least since the first flush of enthusiasm in the late 1950s that brought us CANDU reactors. The conference also had representatives from the Saskatchewan and Ontario governments which, along with New Brunswick, signed a memorandum in December to cooperate on the promising technology of small modular reactors.
In response to that pledge the interim leader of Canada’s Green party predictably snarled “This is not a solution to the climate crisis. Going the nuclear route is not viable. Not only is it far too expensive but it delays reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) for far too long. This is just another way to flush taxpayer dollars down the drain and delay investing in renewables.” In fact it’s renewables that flush away time, money and hope, as engineers have known for years and indeed have often said. Meanwhile nuclear technology is advancing like every other kind, becoming more efficient, more effective and even safer. The new “modular” reactors now coming off the drawing board and into production are not your grandfather’s or Montgomery Burns’ slightly scary concrete behemoths. They are smaller, more mobile, scalable and even safer.
Let us insert parenthetically here that we are not devotees of existing energy sources including fossil fuels. Despite cheap shots about oil industry funding, our position is simply that we should keep using them until something better comes along. As has been pointed out, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. It also did not end because some conclave of chiefs banned it. It ended because of the private discovery and exploitation of better technology. And if nuclear is better than oil, coal or natural gas for any number of reasons, with or without the question of man-made climate change, then bring it on.
Speaking of bringing it on, we are a bit annoyed to read that “The Canadian government issued a road map to support the industry in 2018 and O’Regan committed Thursday to putting some teeth on that proposal later this year with specific steps the government will take.” It’s not just that a road map with teeth is not a metaphor you want in your glove compartment. It’s that it shouldn’t take two years for vagueness to harden into more vagueness even in government.
As for the promise of a streamlined regulatory system, we’ll believe it when we see it. But O’Regan is right that “People need to know that it’s safe”. Which is a challenge in part because the same greens who ought to be its most enthusiastic proponents have been as irresponsible in exaggerating the risks of nuclear power as of, oh, say, CO2. Or chlorine. But let us not carp.
As the article notes, the federal government has made a lot of noise about reducing emissions with a singularly blithe disdain for questions of how. But now O’Regan has said something really important out loud in front of people in a crowded room with reporters present: “I have not seen a credible plan for net zero without nuclear as part of the mix.”
How very true. And brave. Well done, sir.