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Ontario's Nuclear Ostriches

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On Wednesday May 25 at 3:30 in the afternoon the Swiss government pulled the plug on their nuclear future. They will shelve plans for three new reactors, phase out their aging reactors, and focus their efforts on energy efficiency and clean renewable energy production.

The nuclear industry has spent the last handful of years declaring a global "nuclear renaissance" in the face of a growing climate change crisis with the hopes of spawning more nuclear sales and government subsidies. This self-declared "renaissance," while not exactly based in fact (the amount of nuclear generation globally was in decline as old reactors were slated to go off line), did get some traction in Canada, particularly in Ontario. With the Swiss announcement following on the heels of Germany's immediate shut down of its oldest reactors along with the accelerated phase-out of the rest and Japan's declaration to end nuclear, the mythical renaissance must surely be dead on arrival.

Well not quite and not everywhere. As they say in the old Monty Python skit, "this parrot is not dead." The nuclear industry is resilient. It has survived accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl with panache and confidence intact. Cost overruns, design faults and multi-year delays in construction are merely water off their back. The proponents of nuclear generation are like ancient puzzle masters, more interested in solving the complex problem of nuclear generation than providing consumers with what they need: clean, safe and affordable electricity. Former Ontario Hydro Chair Bill Farlinger granted Ontario's nuclear wizards cult status remarking that "the nuclear unit was operated over all those early years as some sort of a special nuclear cult".

So what is the word from the cult followers today at Queen's Park and Ontario Power Generation in the post-Fukushima meltdown? Sadly, it is steady as she goes, no course change required. Indeed, they won't even take a moment to consider a course change. Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid quickly ordered a "review" of safety at the existing nuclear Ontario plants and shot off a letter to the federal government punting the safety issue to them. Before the ink had dried on the letter and long before he heard back on his safety review, Dugiud reiterated the nuclear cult's chant. that there would be no change to the nuclear agenda (to keep 50 per cent of Ontario's electricity supply nuclear). There would be no delay in the imminent hearings for new nuclear reactors slated for Darlington just 60 short kilometres from downtown Toronto. And there would be no change in the scope of the hearings to include possible alternatives or say, safety. Hell, China acted more responsibly! Italy called for a public referendum on new nuclear.

For his part, Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak also doesn't believe that the landscape has changed in the wake of Fukushima. He has announced he will fast track new reactors and cancel the Green Energy Act, a global beacon of progressive energy and climate change legislation and possibly Ontario's salvation from mounting nuclear waste and crippling nuclear debt.

As if the evacuation at Fukushima were not cause for pause, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their Special Report on Renewable Energy at the beginning of this month. Their message was one of hope and practicality: we have the existing technology and know how to meet growing global energy demands through energy efficiency and clean renewable energy. On a slightly less optimistic note the key missing element is political will.

And that pretty much sums up where Ontario is at. Political will in short supply.

As Ontario wings its way toward an October election, the question is whether or not the nuclear ostriches can take their head out of the sand long enough to recognize the global landscape has changed considerably since the start of the year. Will we continue to blindly follow the nuclear cult leaders or do what the smart money is doing in Switzerland and pursue a clean energy future "without any hesitance and a strict no, to the nuclear possibility?"