Nuclear energy revival looses steam

“One of the most enduring myths of the modern age is that technology will liberate us from large, faceless organizations–be they large corporations or bureaucratic governments–as well as from other burderns and constraints, and somehow give us the lives we want,” wrote Richard L. Florida in his modern classic on culture and economics, The Rise of the Creative Class. “Techno-utopianism has been around for a long time. In the early 1900s, some claimed that the car would set us free from the constraints of geography and liberate us from dirty congested cities, and that the airplane would eliminate war by bringing the peoples of the earth closer together. In the 1950s, nuclear power was going to make electricity ‘too cheap to meter.'”

Just as the myth of the disappearance of energy bills has been decidedly proven false, so too was the myth of nuclear power’s safety. In 1979, public consciousness was reawakened to the possible horrors of the nuclear age when a nuclear facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, called “Three Mile Island” underwent a core meltdown. This happened just months before a report on Canada’s CANDU reactors, explaining its troubles selling these units abroad — with two dozen had been sold in Canada, and only four sold overseas by December, 1978.

On the 25th anniversary of the worst worst nuclear power plant accident in history, Chernobyl, and with the Japanese earthquake and resulting nuclear turmoil in fresh memory, nuclear power seems to have lost much of its previous support.

In December 2009, Canada’s government announced it would be seeking private investors for a partial sell-off of its CANDU division, and it would seem that this is not the best time for Canada to be putting its CANDU reactors to market. Amid the troubles in cooperation between Canada’s federal and Ontario’s provincial government and support of the organization, there is growing interest in more sustainable alternatives.

“[N]ew nuclear can’t compete with other new-generation options,” Energy Probe’s Norm Rubin said in a message to TVO’s The Agenda. “That uncompetitiveness is so obvious in the open marketplace that nobody’s even talking or thinking about inviting private capital to build a nuke to sell into the electricity marketplace. But it’s also reached such extremes that one government [Ontario] got ‘sticker shock’ over a sealed bid from AECL, a Crown Corporation with a history of low-ball bids, cost overruns, and taxpayer bailouts!”

Of course, nuclear power has a fair deal of support given the alternatives such as coal, which carries with it heavy health and environmental costs. For governments such as Ontario’s, which are striving to be rid of coal, nuclear power may be the only viable option at the moment, according to Jatin Nathwani, Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy. “Ontario having made the policy to exit coal realizes that nuclear has to be part of the Ontario mix,” he said.

Ontario’s nuclear dependency is apparent. But given the rise in other options, convincing other places of the myth of techno-utopianism is going to be a hard sell indeed.

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