John Stewart: How is Nuclear Energy Like Immigration and Free Trade?

Examining the factors that could shift the Canadian perspective on nuclear energy.

Some policy causes aren't particularly easy to sell, and nuclear energy is one of them. Most people aren’t enthusiastic about it, and even if they do like it, they don’t believe anyone else likes it, or ever will.

I started out as a nuclear advocate a decade ago knowing this. In fact, I'd had lots of experience talking to people about things they weren’t enthusiastic about—or at least, that they didn’t believe their fellow citizens would like. Those things had included free trade in the 1980s, and immigration in the 2000s. And I’d experienced real national shifts on both of those issues.

On international trade and investment, Canada went from being one of the more obstructed G7 economies in the early 1980s, to one of the more open by the late 1990s, and we've stayed that way since, to our enormous benefit. This involved a major, centrist political party (the Liberals) largely changing their stance on trade and investment policies, which was difficult and took time. I worked on implementing and defending the Canada-US (1989) and North American (1994) Free Trade Agreements (FTA and NAFTA), so I saw this process up close.

I also witnessed the warming of Canadian attitudes toward immigration from about the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Before that shift, open hostility to new arrivals, and misunderstandings or distortions about immigration’s effects, were far more usual than they are now.

What Attitude Shifts Look Like

So, from the viewpoint of a public policy practitioner: What drove those public shifts on trade and immigration in past decades?

First: They were on the right side of evidence and experience. Looking at their own history and the world’s experiences, Canadians understood that North American prosperity was built on immigration, foreign investment, and trade. This rational knowledge worked against the emotional fear of the foreign that protectionists play on.

In the policy community, solid independent research prior to the 1980s backed the case for free trade. And our national history simply did not give much support to fears about immigration—rather, it sometimes spoke far worse of how Canadians had treated newcomers and visible minorities. So opponents of trade and investment, or of immigration, were fighting against an impressive accumulation of factual evidence and experience.

Second: New problems demanded new world views. Policies built on protection and government control had visibly failed, both economically and politically, by the mid-1980s. Slow economic growth and high unemployment made voters less worried about excessive corporate power, and more interested in driving new sources of income and wealth.

Also, growing employment categories and changing technology required new, higher skill levels. This cast doubt on policy measures that counted undifferentiated "jobs” and tried to create them in specific locations. We got much more interested in learning: what, and who, makes an economy innovative and dynamic? Where, and who, do prosperity and lasting employment come from?

A big movement and a national re-think were involved. Many academics, business leaders, a Royal Commission, and the federal government all pulled together to convene a national policy conversation on trade and investment in the 1980s.

By contrast, immigrants themselves, through millions of individual good examples and hard work, made the step-by-step case for immigration over many decades. So did those immigrants' communities, their appreciative employers and employees, and immigrants’ Canadian-born spouses and children. As with trade, the conversation happened at various levels of society, but in the case of immigration the grassroots level was probably the most important.

Canadians were also enjoying much more diverse food and cheaper air travel. The latter was a very material help. Canadians saw more of other regions and peoples and cultures in the 1980s, even if for many it was only a week in Mexico. Those things became less unfamiliar. And most of us came to a more accepting view of outsiders.

Anatomy of a Tough Policy Sell

A decade ago, I came into nuclear with good motives. I wanted to make a real difference on climate change. But I was ready for my new job to be a rocky road. And, at first, it was.

The first reason: There are often old misperceptions clouding an issue—as I found with immigration—but public views of nuclear energy have, or had, been especially damaged by decades of hostile activism. Hard-core opponents like Greenpeace condemned nuclear from birth, and eternally, for its original sin of association with weapons development in the 1940s. In their eyes, nothing that nuclear technology ever did could outlive this taint, even after the Cold War ended and the peace movement morphed into an environmental movement.

Many activists played up anti-corporate and technophobic views, which were culturally widespread in Canada in the 1970s. This worked against nuclear, which involves advanced technology and relatively large organizations.

Basic truths about radiation were lied about or obscured for a very long time. Those basic truths are that life evolved amid much higher levels of radiation than we live with today; that radiation is everywhere (the ocean, the atmosphere, the earth, our food, our bodies); that our main exposure to it by far is from nature, mostly sunlight; and that it’s actually not all that hard to contain and manage compared with, for example, viruses, brushfires, greenhouse gas emissions, or degradation of the marine ecosystem.

But because of hostile activism (echoed by media and entertainment products from The China Syndrome to The Simpsons), nuclear had come to be widely seen as being uniquely threatening and dangerous—somehow different from, and worse than, anything else ever.

This misinformation on radiation ran directly against what might have been plain after well more than half a century: that good regulation had contained not only the radiation in fuel and power plants, but all the risks associated with nuclear technologies—whether with diagnostic imaging, cancer treatment, electricity generation, or weapons—vastly better than many other threats. Famine, overfishing, deforestation, disease, vehicle traffic, and atmospheric emissions, I would argue, have all been less well controlled and done more harm to people in my lifetime, or they soon will.

The second reason nuclear advocacy was tough when I started was the tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011. The plant actually survived the earthquake fairly well, as it had been designed to do. But when the subsequent tsunami overwhelmed the plant’s outdated and poorly designed safety systems, it wrecked the plant—which was very preventable—and flooded the world media with stories about radiation.

The actual death toll from radiation exposure at Fukushima was in fact either zero or one. Compare this with the 47 dead from the oil-by-rail accident at Lac Mégantic Quebec two years later, or the 167 dead from the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in 1988, or the list of other energy industry accidents. Even including the very avoidable Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which will not be repeated, the cumulative safety record of nuclear energy is excellent.

But even when we got opportunities to communicate these things, along with the evidence that nuclear has small land, environmental and health impacts compared to other energy sources, it made little difference in 2011-2012 to people's already distorted views of the riskiness of nuclear energy. In the torrent of scare reporting about Fukushima, those views inevitably deteriorated for a couple of years.

The third factor that made the life of a nuclear energy advocate tough a decade ago was that the federal government led by Stephen Harper (2006-2015) had little interest in climate change, so they weren’t very receptive to climate-based arguments for nuclear energy. Moreover, they tended to see their nuclear assets, including sites, knowledge, businesses, laboratories and reactors, as big-government frills they didn't want to own.

From 2003 through 2018, Ontario was run by a government that was interested in clean air and climate change. They had a commendable goal of ending the burning of coal for electricity generation. But, because they were disproportionately influenced by all-renewable-energy visions, they often talked as if nuclear didn't exist, even though they got half their electric power supply from it.

The province managed to get off coal relatively quickly and affordably, and they achieved this mostly by relying on mature, but perfectly safe and serviceable, nuclear plants, which were refurbished and/or restarted in that era: Pickering A4 and A1 and all four of the Bruce A units. But the government told this coal-to-nuclear story as little as possible. Instead, they implied that their grotesquely inefficient subsidies to wind and solar energy had somehow been the price that had to be paid to get off coal. Those subsidies had driven electricity prices up, and had to be justified somehow to angry ratepayers.

There were plenty of policy geeks and advocates like myself in that period who sought to hold a better policy conversation around nuclear, in the service of a national transition to cleaner energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But we faced what looked like hard uphill climbs on all three fronts: with governments at both the provincial and federal levels, and with the public.

Darkest Before the Dawn

It was disheartening at times. Particularly around 2012-13, as my initial enthusiasm for the task wore off, and the factors I’ve described above compounded each other, there were days when I wondered if we would ever make progress on nuclear energy, the way I’d seen done with other good policy causes.

Yet nuclear has ridden a positive wave since then, and especially since about 2017, as discussion about the carbon emissions challenge has gained momentum. Knowledge that nuclear is low-carbon and rapidly innovating is more widespread than ever. Students and new graduates want to know about nuclear energy and work in the industry. They call and write to me looking for information.

Today, four provinces (New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta) are openly and eagerly exploring options for new reactors, and they’re working together. The federal government now says publicly and repeatedly that there's no path to net zero GHG emissions that doesn't include nuclear power.

Though it’s far from complete, it has been quite a turnaround in less than a decade. Nuclear energy continues to have entrenched opponents, of course. In fact, I expect their rhetoric may actually get more extreme, as nuclear energy gains broader acceptance and the opponents feel increasingly marginalized. And there are various things the federal government still must do to mobilize nuclear as part of an integrated clean energy system for Canada.

But when those of us who share that clean energy vision turn around and look back at where we were nine or ten years ago, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve travelled. That disbelief fades for me when I remember that this is the third major policy area in which I've watched Canada’s policy and political context improve so remarkably.

Ingredients of a Turnaround

Now, advocating for nuclear energy in 2011 was tougher than I'd ever found advocating for trade or immigration to be (and those discussions were not easy). I’ve already outlined the big barriers we faced on nuclear: namely, a legacy of misinformation, the Fukushima event, and government blinkers. Even in those circumstances, nuclear advocates held a few great assets.

To start with, the only cases where industrialized jurisdictions had quickly decarbonized on a large scale had happened because fossil fuels were displaced with nuclear energy. This had happened in Sweden, France, and Ontario.

Internationally eminent environmentalists (such as the UK’s James Lovelock and the US’s James Hansen) were persuasive and visionary in making the case for nuclear energy as a sustainable energy source. They knew it was a vital part of the answer to climate change—and they based their case on evidence.

Canada already had a nuclear energy industry operating economically, safely and cleanly in two provinces (Ontario and New Brunswick). In each case the teaming of nuclear and hydroelectricity was the foundation of the electricity system. No government, however ideologically hostile to nuclear, could practically replace it (short of going back to coal), nor could they erase the story of nuclear’s practical working success.

Labour unions, business allies, and local communities all supported the nuclear energy industry and saw the future of the technology, so there were pockets of support in provincial and federal caucuses. Each plant had mayors, managers and workers who would speak as real people in real neighbourhoods preferring clean, safe nuclear energy.

Even broad public support was much better for nuclear than was generally realized. In my outreach I heard a lot of comments like "I'm openminded about nuclear, and it's just too bad other people hate it so much."

I've discovered that this is actually consistent with pollster's findings on other sensitive topics. We tend to believe the rest of society is more prejudiced than it really is. Large percentages of Americans, for example, say they would consider voting for a Muslim or gay Presidential candidate—they just don't believe other Americans would!

This hobbles good policymaking because democratic politicians don’t usually get ahead of public opinion. They follow it, or rather, they follow what they think it to be. If those politicians have outdated or falsely negative views of how their constituents actually view nuclear, the downside is that policy toward nuclear will suffer. (The upside, at least for lobbyists, is that there’s an opportunity to display and mobilize higher levels of support than the politician expected—and possibly drive an upward step in policy engagement).

Now, back to my own long and rocky professional life as an advocate for once-unpopular causes. How did what I'd learned in the trade and immigration conversations apply to my work for nuclear energy?

On the right side of evidence and experience: I reasoned that if I'd been a hominid 300,000 years ago trying to control fire, I'd have faced similar challenges among my semi-nomadic tribe. There would have been a couple of memorable accidents and scorched campsites. Techno-pessimists among my fellow hunters would have grunted that this whole fire thing was an inherently unsafe technology. “We can make do with sunlight,” they’d argue.

I’d have nothing against sunlight; it’s great when you’ve got it; it dries strips of meat well enough. But I’d still have persisted with building fires. A well-placed firepit would do wonders for safety and heat-efficiency. Kids would grow up mastering that technology. We’d appreciate the light, the warmth, the smoked fish and roasted game for generations to come.

Nuclear is the new fire. When I showed up in this industry a decade ago, it had already worked comparatively well and safely for over fifty years. If we continue to develop it well, it has the potential to benefit human life vastly and indefinitely.

New problems demand new world views: Most of us can now see that the climate challenge is staggeringly large and urgent. Our understanding of this problem is starting to drive a re-think of much of what we eight billion humans do and how we do it.

Modern environmental policy has demanded a shift from romantic appeals to nature (what might be called folk-festival environmentalism) to hiring graduates with chemistry and engineering credentials. Environmental problems are complex; they need hard analysis and ambitious solutions; those solutions require dispassionate design, testing and monitoring; they often need large-scale financing. We now see this, and I think younger people today are more likely to grasp the technical and economic aspects of energy and climate challenges than those in my generation were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Also, the limits of some of our options are more apparent with each passing year of experience. Hydro is not available everywhere. Wind and solar can do many things, and I welcome that. Yes, energy storage will get somewhat cheaper. But no plausible all-renewables arrangement is going to heat Edmonton or Iqaluit or Moscow through a winter, even a climate-changed winter, without some extra help.

Ideologues who are passionate about a renewables-only world will go on denying this. Young technocrats who seriously study the options for net decarbonization by 2050 have to be more pragmatic.

I expect an unfortunate amount of ongoing fighting. As opponents of free trade grew marginalized in the 1990s, they tightened into a hard core, and their warnings of national calamity grew wilder. Canada, we were told, would see massive unemployment, our corporations would be hollowed out, NAFTA would displace Canada’s constitutional powers, the CBC’s existence would be threatened, and so on.

As more and more climate-focused environmentalists come around to studying nuclear energy, the never-nuclear holdouts will similarly make ever-less-well-founded assertions about it, trying to scare the public off. This won’t be pretty—but paradoxically, we should actually take it as a sign that evidence and experience are increasingly winning the day.

Shining Up Nuclear Energy

A big movement and a national re-think: A decade ago the nuclear industry already had its diverse, evidence-based advocates. We also had quiet allies in medicine, public health, science, engineering, labour unions and politics. But we had to do more to bring nuclear into the sunshine.

Starting in late 2012, some of us convened a low-key, big-tent conversation called the Nuclear Leadership Forum to talk about what nuclear could do for the future of Canada and Canadians. We turned our thinking away from "Our researchers and businesses are great, so what can we do with them next?" and instead we asked: "What do Canadians need?” It became a more customer-focused, needs-oriented, public-spirited conversation. That wasn’t an easy switch; rather, it took time and effort to turn the thinking around.

Five years later, in 2017, we published a broadly based, well-thought-out set of answers to those questions. It tied into Canada’s climate change challenge. We called it Vision 2050. We shared it with Canadians, and we invited governments into the conversation.

Fortuitously, we gained great momentum from a confluent process: a growth of private sector investment (and regulator interest) in small modular reactor (SMR) designs. This resembles the computer industry’s move from mainframe designs in the 1960s toward desktops in the 1980s and laptops in the 2000s. It’s a change in scale and distribution of the machines—but also an expansion of how the devices might be applied.

This could have transformative effects on energy availability and security in remote places, and in how readily we can displace fossil fuels in many situations. There is now a lot of excitement about this potential.

The world has also seen a wave of new work on advanced reactor technologies— more or less fundamentally new ways, of which there are many, of designing and fueling reactors—that added to the excitement. All this innovation helped speed the renewed interest in nuclear as an energy option and an answer to the climate challenge. That excitement has given the policy conversation around nuclear a huge positive boost.

This led to a national, multi-stakeholder policy exercise in 2018 called the Pan-Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap. The federal government chaired it, and I project-managed it. We got buy-in from two Territories, four Provinces, and several companies. We engaged Indigenous people in three regions, plus some customer industries looking for cleaner energy options.

The SMR Roadmap showed that Canada has what it takes to deliver the benefits, if we choose to go there. The Roadmap made fifty-three recommendations, and it edged Canada into the lead internationally on SMR-related policymaking.

The launch of the Small Modular Reactor Action Plan – which also represents a big-tent, multi-stakeholder consensus around shared principles – took Canada another big step forward at the end of 2020. More steps are just ahead, including a feasibility study on SMRs from the provincial Premiers (coming soon) and likely announcements on specific demonstration projects.

Judging Success

Anyone who wants my final judgement of our policy success will have to ask me in twenty-five years’ time, when we’ll look back on current nuclear energy policymaking the way I now look back on the era of the Canada-US FTA and NAFTA.

What measure of success should we apply? Much policy goes wrong when means come to be idolized as ends in themselves. On an economic policy like trade, we have to ask not whether we got a particular trade agreement passed or implemented, but whether we made our economy stronger. On a socio-economic-cultural front like immigration, we have to ask if it makes Canada better socially, economically and culturally.

On nuclear energy policy in our time, the measures I’ll apply in thirty years will also be big. I won’t ask whether we managed to beat out coal, or natural gas, in one province or another. Rather, I’ll ask: Was Canada able to build a low-emitting energy system in time to help mitigate climate change? Did we meet Canadians’ essential energy needs? Did we manage the scale of capital that had to be stranded or wasted? Did the transformed energy system operate more safely than the energy system we had previously? And finally: did our policy efforts on nuclear energy help get us there?

I’m confident that the answer to that last question will be yes. Let’s make sure all the other verdicts are positive too.


About the author

John Stewart is Director of Policy and Research at the Canadian Nuclear Association, a national industry association based in Ottawa. He is also a member of the teaching faculty of the Max Bell School, and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.  In 2017-19 John was manager of the Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Project, a collaboration among federal, provincial and territorial governments and industry to engage stakeholders on the future of SMRs to supply clean energy in Canada. John chaired the Policy Committee of Canada’s National Electricity Roundtable from 2015-18, and has also been Canada’s representative to the Washington-based Global Nexus Initiative. He worked with the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa from 1990 to 2010 as an economist and manager. He is the author of Strangers With Memories: The United States and Canada from Free Trade to Baghdad (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017). John has been active in immigrant integration since 2002 and is former Chair of two of Ottawa’s immigrant services organizations.

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