Canadian nuclear industry officials are lining up to espouse the strength — and safety — of a sector rattled by the political fallout of last year's Fukushima disaster.
“While other jurisdictions may be scaling back their nuclear energy commitment because of Fukushima, we are not,” Tom Mitchell, the president of Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the province’s electricity generator, told an industry gathering in late February.
“But neither are we ignoring the lessons that event is teaching us,” he said.
The sentiment, echoed by many of Miller’s colleagues in recent weeks, reflects Canada’s commitment to stay the course with nuclear power in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
While the series of meltdowns that followed an earthquake and tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility last March prompted countries like Italy, Switzerland and Germany to rethink their nuclear strategies, this was never seriously contemplated in Canada.
Even as demand and public support for nuclear waned in the aftermath of the disaster, nuclear industry officials and regulators have focused on shoring up existing reactors and mounting a public relations offensive that stressed the sector’s potential for growth.
The decision may be one born of necessity: Canada’s 17 operational reactors generated 15 per cent of the country’s power supply in 2010, and that piece of the energy pie is expected to grow as provinces like Ontario seek to replace coal generation with a mix of nuclear and renewable sources.
As Canadian Nuclear Association president and CEO Denise Carpenter explains, efforts to move to clean energy sources have in large part meant relying on nuclear.
“We didn’t have big hydro, and Ontario has made the commitment to stay off coal,” she said.
A month after the disaster, regulators began what they say has been a thorough investigation of Canada’s nuclear power stations.
“We concluded the stations are robust. We concluded that the emergency measures in place are adequate to protect the public but we haven’t sat on our laurels,” said Phil Webster, a nuclear industry regulator and one of the principal leads of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC)’s Fukushima Task Force.
The task force released a summary of its actions earlier this month, including a list of new regulations that have been imposed on nuclear power plant operators — among them an order to beef up each layer of defence to keep radioactive products and combustible gases contained in the event of a serious accident.
According to Webster, Fukushima didn’t prompt any new measures that hadn’t already been contemplated, it just fast-tracked the improvements already in the works.
“Whatever happens to the station there is a back-up system, and then a further back-up and now a further back-up, [so that] you don’t get into the kind of multi-unit accident that Fukushima suffered,” he said.
The CNSC also looked at its own regulations and the stations’ emergency response procedures. It found room for improvement in the way plants engaged with their provincial emergency preparedness offices, as well as with two federal agencies, Public Safety and Health Canada.
Josée Picard, a spokeswoman for Public Safety, said her department is currently working with Health Canada to ensure their two separate emergency response plans are aligned.
Officials from Canada’s nuclear industry have also been involved in safety reviews on the international level — proof, said Carpenter, of the country’s commitment to remaining at the forefront of nuclear power generation.
In October, OPG’s Mitchell was named chair of the World Association of Nuclear Operators Fukushima Response Commission, which will share lessons learned from the crisis with operators of all nuclear facilities around the world.
“For the Canadian industry to take such a leadership role was significant,” said Carpenter.
Faced with renewed public scrutiny, Canada’s nuclear industry also launched a public relations campaign, both provincially and at the national level.
As Carpenter explains, “Right from the start we moved really quickly to mobilize people in our industry to talk with Canadians to assure them of the safety of the nuclear units.”
It’s difficult, however, to gauge how effective these efforts have been.
In June, only 36 per cent of Canadians who participated in an international poll by Ipsos Reid said that they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” nuclear power — a smaller proportion than in most of the 24 countries surveyed. Meanwhile, among the nearly two-thirds of Canadians who indicated that they oppose nuclear power to produce electricity, 19 per cent said they “decided recently to oppose it because of events in Japan.”
Opposition to nuclear power was evident in Quebec last week, where Greenpeace protesters infiltrated the office of Premier Jean Charest amid a province-wide debate about refurbishing the Gentilly nuclear facility.
Attention Shifts Away From Nuclear
Though Carpenter insisted in a press release in February that Canada’s nuclear industry is “as strong as ever,” others argue that this shift in public opinion — both nationally and globally — stands to take a significant toll on the industry, if it hasn’t already.
“The accident has dampened some — but not all — of the enthusiasm for a renewal in the nuclear sector, especially as an alternative to fossil-fuelled electricity,” Peter Nemetz, an economist at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, told The Huffington Post Canada.
According to Nemetz, reassurances about improved nuclear safety and technology are "somewhat irrelevant in light of the changed public mood, which I am sure will ultimately affect any future decisions in this area.”
Tom Adams, an independent nuclear energy analyst based in Toronto, also dismisses the industry bravado, maintaining that the drop in interest in nuclear has coincided with an increase in the availability of alternatives, such as natural gas.
“You’ve got this dynamic situation where you’ve got this shift of attention away from nuclear,” he said. “So the number of jurisdictions that are seriously looking at nuclear gets smaller and smaller all the time.”
Greenpeace nuclear analyst Shawn-Patrick Stensil concurs.
“Green energies are at a point where they’re ready to step in and supplant the nuclear industry’s role in major world power’s energy systems,” he told HuffPost. “This is changing the game a lot internationally, and I don’t think we here in Canada, and especially Ontario, quite recognize that.”
Canada, which — as the world’s largest uranium producer — accounts for 22 per cent of world output, has also been affected by the declining price of the radioactive metal.
Raymond Goldie, a senior mining analyst at Salman Partners, estimates that the reactor shutdowns in Japan and Germany in the aftermath of Fukushima resulted in a “permanent, three per cent destruction of demand” for uranium worldwide, which is equivalent to losing “a year of growth in the uranium business.”
But he said future growth in demand for uranium remains unaffected by Fukushima.
“No one else has cancelled any plans for consumption for uranium, so growth will be two-and-a-half to three per cent for the next 10 years,” he said, adding that, unlike other commodities, demand for uranium “stayed steady all throughout the financial crisis.”
But Adams said major mining companies like Saskatoon-based Cameco, whose stock has lost more than a third of its value in the past year as uranium prices dropped, have yet to acknowledge how significant the implications will be.
“The company has maintained this line, right from March 12 onward, that this is a blip and it’s going to blow over,” he said. “I don’t buy it. I think Fukushima is a really big deal. It really changed a lot of things.”
In a webcast to investors in late February, Tim Gitzel, president and CEO of the Saskatoon-based firm, insisted that apart from a temporary shutdown of all but two reactors in Japan, and plans to phase out nuclear in Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, “not much has changed since Fukushima, especially with regard to the long-term outlook, which has always been the real story for nuclear.”
But despite reporting stronger-than-expected quarterly results, and growing demand from emerging economies like China and India, the company recently lowered its forecast on sales for 2012, saying that revenue could dip by five per cent due to uncertainty about the future.
— With files from Althia Raj
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