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You can’t steer looking backwards: Nuclear in the North (05/06)

Predicting the future is easy if you are looking at the right signals, but it is hard to know which signals to look at. A cab driver I met in Denver last week might have been sending us one of those signals.

Predicting the future is easy if you are looking at the right signals, but it is hard to know which signals to look at. A cab driver I met in Denver last week might have been sending us one of those signals. My story starts with a little calculation I did for a talk I gave to the Mineral Economics and Management Society in Colorado. The conference was about energy supply. I set out to calculate how many coal-fired generating plants would be coming online over the next 40 years.

I got a number that scared the hell out of me. The calculation starts with a fairly conservative assumption – say the people of both India and China reach the same level of energy use as North Americans within 40 years. This is conservative for several reasons. Electricity use per-capita in North America is still rising. If we are going to use more electricity, then we should be wishing similar benefits for our friends in the rest of the world. Using lots of energy isn’t bad, of course – it is bad to destroy forests to cook your food and it is bad to dump your carbon into everybody’s atmosphere, but electricity is actually quite nice.

The calculation is also conservative because China and India are only part of the world that needs electricity. And it is conservative because I didn’t consider the fact that as oil gets more expensive for powering our cars, we will replace it with electricity.

The answer to my question was that China and India would have to build more than 10,000 new coal-burning generating plants. Unless you have a head made of leather, you know that adding half that many plants is suicidal. One of the leading environmentalists in the world, James Lovelock, the guy who created the theory that the Earth is a self-regulating system, is already arguing that the existing coal plants and automobiles have knocked the system so far out of kilter that billions of us are going to die.

Some people have been sucked in by the promise of new “clean” coal technologies, but “clean” is a public relations term that means “less ash and sulphur dioxide” and not “carbon-free.”

Carbon dioxide is what is going to kill your grandchildren.

I did another calculation for the conference: The same amount of power could be produced by 7,130 average-sized nuclear power plants. No carbon-dioxide.

Next to the incompetence of Ontario Hydro, the main objection to nuclear power seems to come from the environmental movement, so I checked what the environmental movement was saying. Let me quote some of the leaders. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, says “the only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.” James Lovelock wrote “civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available, energy source – now.” Bishop Hugh Montefiore, founder and director of Friends of the Earth, wrote “I have now come to the conclusion that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy.” Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace: “Everything depends on getting new and better nuclear technology designed and built.”

Sudbury’s most famous environmentalist, Dr. David Pearson, has written that he doesn’t oppose nuclear power for Ontario. And the president of Cameco, the company that produces 20 per cent of the world’s uranium, is an ex-anti-nuke activist.

We need to understand the future, not just the past, if we are going to make the right decisions.

So who represents the future? The 500 members of Environmentalists for Nuclear Power or the leader of the Ontario Green Party?

This is where my cab driver comes in. He told me he’s starting a new political party called the “practical environmentalist party.” It might have been hot air – there are lots of smart, strange people trying to solve the world’s problems who don’t end up doing much, but I asked him what his program would be. And he said “Nuclear power. If we don’t switch to nuclear power soon we’re cooked.”

That’s’ when I started to believe that the environmental movement will be supporting nuclear power soon.

What does it mean for Northern Ontario? The best bet is that plants will be located near Timmins and Sudbury where mining and smelting activities create some of the largest point demands in the province. Cheaper local power would help economic development in those two cities but only if they start early, because there is no advantage having cheap power when everyone has it.

Dave Robinson is a professor of economics at Laurentian University. He can be reached